By Kathy Schuman, Artistic Director
On Saturday, July 3rd Caramoor will present the GRAMMY-winning new-music choir The Crossing, led by Donald Nally, in a unique, socially distant, live performance titled The Forest. In a time when choirs cannot sing and perform together in conventional ways, The Forest will feature 24 singers performing along a path through a mostly wooded area of Caramoor’s grounds, while audience members walk through the soundscape created by specially-designed individual speakers which allow the singers to stand 30 feet from each other and the path.
Along with our July 11 Ten Thousand Birds, it’s one of this summer’s special “experiential” performances that Caramoor is uniquely positioned to present during this strange, coming-out-of- the-pandemic time, and it’s sure to be a very powerful experience for performers and audience alike.
I asked Donald Nally, the conductor of The Crossing, about the piece and the choir.
- How did The Forest come about?
The Forest is The Crossing’s response to the pandemic of 2020/2021; it grew out of our need to express the experience of singers in their sudden, total isolation. We could not sing safely indoors, so we rethought what we do, why, and how, and moved outdoors to sing, listen, and connect. Kevin Vondrak (assistant conductor at The Crossing) and I decided that the piece we needed to do to bring our singers together didn’t exist. So, we created it, composing a quiet piece that occasionally emerges out of the woods and its ambient sounds and then recedes effortlessly back into its origin.
The Forest focuses on the symbiotic relationship between individual trees and the forest – a metaphor for the relationship between each singer and the ensemble.
The Forest is dedicated to Thomas Kasdorf, who supported the process and technology to bring it to life. Tom passed on just four weeks after the premiere.
- Tell us about the libretto of the piece and how the texts were all put together?
To form the libretto, we first asked the singers of The Crossing to answer a few questions about the experience of the pandemic, what they will remember, what they miss about ensemble music making, etc. Their answers were, typical of our singers, so honest, often wrenching, and also hopeful. Then, Kevin and I added a kind of refrain from a work about trees written for us as a memorial piece years ago by Lansing McLoskey on a text of Paul Borum. We added a thread that runs through the whole piece from Scott Russell Sanders’ wonderful essay “Mind in the Forest.” Finally, I felt there was an underlying personal story that wasn’t quite clear. So, one night I went out to the studio on the farm (where we were staying for part of the pandemic) and I wrote a letter to my mother who passed away about five years ago; it talked about my own experience and losses in the pandemic, as well as my gratitude for my friends, my husband, and my singing community. And then I shuffled all that up into packets that touch on specific aspects of our life and would, through the linear aspect of the performance, tell our story.
- The piece has been described as an intimate experience. How is that possible, with singers 30 feet away from each other and the audience?
We designed an amplification system we call Echoes Amplification Kits that allows singers to stand far from each other and from the audience. Listeners ‘walk through’ the performance as the speakers of Echoes, positioned close to the path, create a truly intimate experience – we whisper, we hum, we sing quietly, our ‘songs’ interact with those of the forest, of birds and leaves and animals, reestablishing the broken relationships between singers and audience members while telling our story – the story of a planet in crisis, its people and its forests in peril. Yet, in that curiously human way, the story is one of hope and of a way forward.
- What makes The Crossing such a unique choir? Do you have other projects that are direct responses to the current socio-political climate?
I suppose the obvious way in which The Crossing is unique is that we only sing new music and that which is mostly written for us. Thus, much of the commissioned work addresses social justice: refugees and immigration, wealth distribution, farming and food sovereignty, the pandemic, gun violence, racism, failed government, etc. Sounds like a bummer, but we approach these things as journalists; we want to tell the story of our time and to capture that story through the lens of composers’ musical language, expressivity, and emotional lives. We don’t offer solutions; we’re not priests or congressman or doctors. But we care.
I’d also say that the choir is unique in that we’re a strange and marvelous community; at least that’s how it feels from the inside. The singers really like each other, rely on each other, work together in extraordinary ways, respect each other enough to work tirelessly preparing for our rehearsals. The singers are instrumental in decision-making, hold positions on our board, and fundamental to our direction, mission, and values. There is ownership on every level of our organization – board, staff, singers, and, notably, audience. That’s unique and inspiring.