Premiered in late 2019, and digitally released in April, 2021, A Native Hill provides solace and reflection about our human place in the natural world. British composer Gavin Bryars wrote the music to text by American environmentalist Wendell Berry, specifically for the voices in the Philadelphia-based professional chamber choir, The Crossing, and presented it as a gift to the ensemble.
A Native Hill is a very personal work, written during a time of emotional highs and lows for the composer. His daughter was pregnant with his grandchild, and her partner—the father of the child—died during the pregnancy, circumstances that "profoundly affected the piece," says Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing.
Bryars gave the finished work to The Crossing, a gift that Nally describes as monumental. "It's a 70-minute piece of unaccompanied music, and the process [of learning it] was both joyful and challenging."
Watch this animated video set to music from A Native Hill:
Donald Nally met with me on Zoom to talk about the work.
The 12 movements for unaccompanied voices—that blend, intertwine, and converse—pull us into a world of reflection, a journey through various aspects of nature. The words conjure images of "roads and paths between houses," a stream with "piled up rocks in its path," that pours over them "into a tiny pool," and "a dog who "runs ahead, prancing and looking back, knowing the way we are about to go," whom we meet in "The Path."
Nally, who grew up in rural Upper Bucks County, speaks feelingly about how nature can produce a feeling of simultaneous joy and sadness in him. "A kind of melancholy—not a morose kind of melancholy, but the understanding of the oneness of everything."
The inevitable rhythms of nature, amplified here by the music, the voices, and the words, trigger this joy and sadness, isolation and togetherness, and awareness of being oneself and yet a small part of something much, much larger.
The final movement, "At Peace," brings these conflicting emotions to a boil, beginning with a 24-voice chord, that eventually resolves to C major with a sense of acceptance at the natural order of things. "It's shocking and beautiful," says Nally. "The palette goes into this almost mystical background of harmony, and you can literally feel the sky opening!"
"Music is amazing," says Nally. "How can that happen, just through sound?"