Grammy Nominees, Composer Kile Smith and The Crossing's Donald Nally Chat About The Arc in the Sky

Nov 22, 2019

Congratulations to composer Kile Smith and The Crossing! The Philadelphia-based choir's 2019 recording of Kile's The Arc in the Sky is up for a 2020 GRAMMY award for Best Choral Performance. Kile and Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing, visited WRTI soon after the album's release in July of 2019 to share insights about this artistic collaboration.

The hour-long a capella choral work, a setting of poetry of Robert Lax, premiered at one of The Crossing's 2018 Month of Moderns concerts; the recording was released in July of 2019. With three movements titled, Jazz, Praise, and Arc, Smith explores aspects of life ranging from the joy of jazz to feelings of awe and a sense spirituality in the simplest of things.

Kile Smith and Donald Nally talked with WRTI's Susan Lewis about The Arc in the Sky; how it grew from an idea, to a performance piece, to a Grammy-nominated recording by The Crossing. Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:

Welcome, Donald Nally and Kile Smith.

Thanks, Susan.

And congratulations to both of you on the CD, The Arc in the Sky

Kile Smith: It's amazing to work with Donald and with The Crossing. I just couldn't be more thankful for that. They sound great.

Well, this is your sixth piece, Kile, with The Crossing, so let's talk about the birth of this piece. Donald, how did it come about?

It's a tremendous choir. I want each of them to have something that gives the greatest expression to their artistry. - Kile Smith

Donald Nally: Well, we have this 10-year history of pieces with Kile, starting way back with Vespers, which Piffaro, The Renaissance Band commissioned for them and us, that also being a full concert piece. And a number of other very different commissions over the years.

And then I knew that I wanted to go back to having a full concert-length piece from Kile. I wanted it to be unaccompanied, which is really a challenge to composer and singer. We had an anonymous donor who came along. And so we dove in and started talking about scope, the vague themes, what it might look like.

And then he went off and found this poetry, which I'll let him speak about, which seem to check a lot of boxes for us. And it was really, really good choice.

Well, we've talked before, Donald, about how most of your commissions and most of your work involves some social purpose.

DN: They do. And this, this piece doesn't really, you know, I mean there is a very, very bittersweet and melancholy poem about Jerusalem that has a real resonance, I think; I find it very moving, both the poem and the piece of music.

But this is more an exploration, you know, we want to talk about our world, right? We want to talk about how we live. So this is a great example of, of sort of a non-political piece that also does talk about the way in which we live, because there are a lot of moments of really pondering what we're doing. who we are, how we exist.

This is coming from a poet who chose to remove himself from the society that he knew and write about introspective topics. So we wind up, through the course of it, having a journey and the journey is about the way in which we live.

Okay. So, Kile, how did you think about this in the beginning?

KS: Well, Donald did mention to me that he wanted an hour-long piece, which was scary enough. I've done a couple of them now. And then he said he wanted it unaccompanied and then I really got scared!

I've done unaccompanied voices before and I love writing a capella pieces. But for a whole hour, there's no place to hide. Even if you have just a couple of instruments, you can do things and give the singers a rest. I had to find other ways to do that.

And also with just keeping a drama going for that long, with the one texture of voices and nothing else is a challenge. But, I really enjoyed it.

And I also think if you're not scared a little bit, you shouldn't be doing this. Before you go into a project, there's gotta be something that, that's a little bit frightening, because you're finding out something about yourself. You're finding out something about the craft of composition; you think you know how to write for voices and then you never stop learning.


KS: But Robert Lax himself I didn't know until my wife, Jackie, found out about him reading Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, and Robert Lax is mentioned all throughout that. And so Jackie started looking him up and she said, Kile, you should check this guy out.

I started looking at his poetry and it just fell on me like a ton of bricks. And the problem then was trying to whittle it down—if you can whittle bricks, to mix metaphors—to a small pile of bricks, to what I was going to set. The first thing I chose is actually the last piece, which is the Arc—and that's the arc in the sky, the arc in the sea and the sky.

And I knew I had to set that and I knew it had to be the last piece in the work.

I had no idea how I was going to set it to music, though. It's this minimalist thing and it's just a couple of words. The arc in the sea and the sky...the arc in the sky.

Well, how did you decide on the form with the three parts? Jazz. Praise. Arc. And then within each of those parts, there are three sections.

Yeah. That, that was just for me trying to make sense of everything as I was winnowing the pieces down. "Okay, I have to set this one, I have to set this one, this one? I'm not sure, I'll come back." And then through that whole process, which takes a really long time for me, the pieces start coming together.

Jazz is the name of the first section. And that's actually a really big part of Robert Lax. Michael McGregor wrote this wonderful biography and you see that jazz really plays a big part in Robert Lax, his life. He loves it. He and Thomas Merton went to jazz clubs in Harlem while they were going to Columbia, when they should have been studying. And so the very first piece is kind of his riff on hearing and seeing Louis Armstrong play in a club.

So, you discovered Robert Lax and his poetry, and you immersed yourself in it and started setting different poems to music, not necessarily in the order in which they appear here. When you compose like this, are you narrating the poetry or using the poetry to inspire your own story?

KS: Everything is about the word. Everything is the text with me. I never have a preconceived notion of what kind of music I'm going to write. There are different styles, I suppose. I don't think of myself in writing in different styles. I'm always trying to serve the words.

I don't use the words as, let's say, a clothesline on which to hang my musical ideas because I have no musical ideas. I'm just trying to illuminate the words.

That sounds very pretentious, I suppose. So maybe your word 'narrating' is the best description of that. I'm trying to speak the words and it comes out in whatever way that it comes out.

Well, I thought of that when, I was listening to the first part, the jazz and the very first track.  'Why did they all shout?  And it seemed that you were doing kind of word painting in terms of the music. It sounded like what it was.

KS: Yeah. Susan, I'll tell you, everything that I do is word painting. Everything on everything that I write is word painting. That doesn't mean I'm 'Mickey Mousing it.' That's a technical term: the cartoons, you know, when the character jumps up, the music goes up, you know, that kind of thing.

It doesn't mean that you're always doing that, but I'm always text painting, always trying to find the way to get the music. It might hit early. It might be a depth charge that comes up later. But I'm always doing that.

Similarly then, the section on Praise begins with the fourth movement, which seems kind of chant-like, as if in a sanctuary of sorts.

Yeah. And that was a big part of that. That's the men only. And the big part of that was my solution to giving the choir a rest. So the fourth movement is the men only, so the women can relax and then the next movement is the women only side. I hope that helps, Donald!

DN: It does. It could have maybe been slightly later in the piece, in terms of getting ready for that last movement. [laughter]

I would add here that with a number of composers, where I tend to be drawn to their music, I feel like they take words and they sort of blow life into them a little bit. You know what I mean?

So it's not always any of the things that you guys have talked about so far. It's all of them and none.

And it's kind of like taking literally the line that has its own life on the page, right?

Poetry is meant to be read out loud—read in a certain way by each individual person. But [the composer] then takes and kind of blows a certain personal life into it, so that this abstract language of music, which is then married to this concrete language of English, somehow, creates a new thing. It's a new creation.

Well, I was thinking that when I was listening to this in the car and I was thinking about how music adds another dimension to the words. I found myself getting very emotional and close to tears in the Jerusalem movement, and I was thinking about it and I was trying to analyze why this was moving me so much.

I didn't know if it was the fact that chords were kind of reflecting the anxiety that we sometimes feel and then resolving. And it felt so good when they resolved.

It's just interesting how music goes deeper in our experienceof the poetry and just creates a much richer experience.

KS: I'm always trying to hit the emotions because I think that music, you know, it's not a language of meaning in the way that we can say, there's a gray telephone in front of me. You know, that sentence. We know what that means. We can picture that.

Music doesn't do that, But there is a language, it's a language of emotion. And so I'm always trying to tap into that.

And the only way I can do that is, I have faith that the emotion that I'm feeling is going to be very similar or the same as what you would feel. And so that connects us. So I'm always trying to wring that out of me when I said it.

And that poem Jerusalem, you just mentioned that now, and Donald referred to it earlier. It had the exact same effect on me when I first read it.  And you're struggling to find out, 'what does this mean, what do these words actually mean?'

And it's not like I found the meaning and the meanings in the music. That's not it. I'm struggling and the music is struggling to find that meaning, also.

And I think the singers feel that; Donald feels that; and you feel that when you hear it and I'm feeling exactly the same thing.

So you've written for The Crossing before, and that must inform your approach. And Donald, your group has sung Kile's music before. So are you kind of growing together in terms of understanding the language?

DN: I mean, obviously coming back to the same composer is not something that we do all that often. It's not a reflection on the other composers. It's more of a reflection on Kile and our relationship to him.

So, one thing that I have noticed over over the years is that we've learned how to navigate some of the thornier parts of his music. Not to say that there's any given style that he writes that's definitely Kile, although each composer has certain characteristics, where you go, " Yep. That's the kind of thing they do," and I think we've learned to navigate some of them.

But I also see in the writing, if you don't mind my saying, greater risk-taking on your part because of your greater trust of your own ability to write for us. You say you were frightened and I get that.

But I also think that despite the fright, there's a certain kind of confidence in the writing, in the knowledge of what The Crossing does and, and maybe even what The Crossing doesn't do.

KS: I mean, I have their voices in my head, I know the singers. I know how they sing and that's always in the forefront of my thinking when I'm writing for them, to have that. But the other thing is, I really want them—I'm giving away trade secrets now—but I really want [the singers and Donald] to fall in love with the music. The audience comes later. I first want to write a piece that The Crossing will love. 

And what that means is, I'm not going for a certain style, because if I think that way, I would never write anything. I want each of those singers, because they're tremendous singers and it's a tremendous choir, I want each of them to have something that gives the greatest expression to their artistry that I can do at all times. 

Which is why I write a lot of counterpoint, which just means the weaving of the voices, which to me, just means everyone's singing tunes all the time. Calling it a tune, that kind of dumbs it down, but what am I going to call it? Tunes, melodies, lines? Everyone at all times is singing a tune.

Well, it seems that that we have the evolution of art here, because you have the Robert Lax poetry, which moved you, Kile, and then you write this music, that is another creation, and then when it's performed, it's  interpreted beyond, perhaps, what you thought.

KS: Oh, yeah. That happens all the time.

And then when listeners hear it, each listener takes it in a different way, perhaps.

KS: Yeah. And you know, Donald's a part of it, because just something like tempo, how fast or how slow it goes, I think about that a lot. But I'll come in and Donald says," I was thinking of... how's this feel?"

And it might be a little slower, it might be a little faster and it'll be perfect. It'll be different and it'll be perfect.

Or you know, from performance to performance, it might change and it wouldn't be something I thought of. It's where they took it.

Well that's interesting you mentioned that from performance to performance it may change. I gather that the work continues to evolve and be interpreted. So, what was it like to record this?


DN: Well I don't know. Is recording ever fun? [more laughter] I like it because it requires you to get so detailed, so incredibly detailed. But the point to getting that detail is so that the expressive part of the music is in the room all the time when the listener is listening.

And if you don't have it nearly perfect on a recording, the listener will be thinking about the performance and I didn't want them to think about the performance at all.

So it's sort of a paradox.

You have to get it almost perfect in order for people to not notice what the performance is, but rather to experience the piece.

That's so interesting that you say that you want someone totally immersed and not thinking about the fact that they are listening to a performance.

DN: Yeah. I don't want people going like "Oh, that's, they're really good." That's of no interest in me at all. I'm interested in what the piece is and, I think all of us are like that.

We really want the listener to hear the piece and what we think it says, right?

So you use the word interpret and I try not to interpret, although that's probably mincing words a little bit because, of course, any piece of music I pick up, I have a point of view about and that point of view comes through.

But my point of view is as close as I can get to what I think the composer is trying to say in this fairly inaccurate way of notating a language, right? Music is...we have notation for it, but it doesn't accomplish a whole lot of stuff that has to happen.

KS: There's a whole lot of work in recording. You know, we say, oh, we're gonna do a CD and we all go, Yay! And then we all [groan]. It's so much work.

But it's interesting to me, because then you do have to make certain decisions that are going to be there for awhile and it doesn't dictate what the next performance is going to be like. But it's out there.

DN: Well, and one of the things about doing a recording is making sure that you have choices when you get to the post-recording time, when you're in post-production, like making sure that you haven't locked yourself into, that's it! That's the one!

Because it might actually not align beautifully with what came just before it. So, you get a number of choices that you know you could use? It's weird.

Well, now this question goes back to the beginning a little bit, Kile, when you talked about your compositional process; how you are looking at the words, looking at the text. Is it correct that you don't plan everything out? Does the writing of the music evolve? Do you hear it in your head, or do you plan things in advance?

KS: The planning in advance is not very detailed, but I'll know, usually, that, okay, this is the order I want it to go in and I won't really start until I have that, because how I begin a piece will not dictate, but will have a lot to say about how the rest of the piece goes.

And I might want to bring the beginning back at the end. It may only be something like I want to start small and I want to get big. Or I want to start really big. Like this one. I wanted to hit the ground running, which is why I chose, "Why did they all shout?"

I wanted to start [with a] bang, flags waving, and I knew I wanted to end big after a long mountain to climb. How I was going to do that, I really didn't know until I got there.

Well, congratulations on this. Congratulations to both of you.