TIME IN with The Crossing's Donald Nally: Daily Reflections, Beach Walks, New Ways to Sing Together

Jun 6, 2021

Pre-pandemic, Donald Nally was busy teaching and conducting exceptional singers in two cities 800 miles apart, taking regular flights between Chicago, where he directs the choral organizations at Northwestern University, and Philadelphia, where he leads the Grammy-winning ensemble, The Crossing.  In this TIME IN interview, he talks about the power of singing together, his insights from nature, and life decisions about going forward as the world begins to open up. 

Donald lights up when he works with singers and composers, or even just talks about choral singing. His passion and talent have taken him in the past to chorus master positions at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, the Chicago Bach Project, and Italy's Spoleto Festival, among others. Closer to his Philadelphia home, he's also directed singers at Opera Philadelphia, Choral Arts Society, and St. Mark's Church.  

And it was in Philadelphia, in late 2005, where he assembled a group of singers to give a concert as The Crossing, an ensemble devoted to new music, which has since commissioned over 120 new works, made over 23 recordings, and been nominated for six Grammy Awards, winning twice.

The Crossing resumes its in-person concerts with its Month of Moderns series in June 2021. Concerts take place outdoors on three successive weekends: at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, The Woodlands in West Philadelphia, and Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, respectively. 

He is reverential about the art form. "Music is amazing, and the people who write it are amazing," he says to me, in a recent conversation about The Crossing's April 2021 release, A Native Hill. He's describing the way discordant notes resolve to C major, how "the palette goes into this almost mystical background of harmony, and you can literally feel the sky opening. How does that happen through just sound?"

Donald Nally conducting The Crossing at National Sawdust in 2017
Credit Jill Steinberg

This year, Donald's normal routine -- teaching at Northwestern during the week, then several times a month (and all summer, as well as the month of December) hopping on a plane to Philadelphia for rehearsals of The Crossing -- ground to a halt. He and his husband, Steven Hyder, a professional choral singer who is also a member of The Crossing, initially hunkered down in their Evanston home, while finding ways to continue to reach out through music.

It has been over a year of innovation and reflection.  As the flowers of spring 2021 were beginning to unfold, Donald Nally Zoomed with me from his office at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

Where were you in March of 2020 and how did things evolve for you when everything started to shut down?

March 13th was the last day of the quarter here at Northwestern. We were supposed to fly East that day, because The Crossing had a Michael Gordon premiere at Carnegie Hall and at the Annenberg Center, and we also were going to do a concert at Westminster Choir College. First, Westminster cancelled, and then Annenberg cancelled, and so we thought, All right, we're not going to leave; we're going to press pause; let's see what happens -- and then 24 hours later, Carnegie Hall cancelled.

So when things shut down, how did you react?

I think so many of us experienced this thing in our brain -- this isn't happening, this isn't happening -- even though on the outside, we were saying, we're gonna be fine. But little things like going for a jog or run seemed monumental.

First of all there was the home part of it. How many people do we know that their relationships didn't make it through this? And then, how many people do we know that their relationships really grew stronger as a result of it? I'm fortunate enough to feel that Steven and I fit into the latter category; I hope he would say the same thing!

Donald Nally with husband Steven Hyder at Big Sky, Montana
Credit Courtesy of Donald Nally

But then Northwestern and The Crossing required an enormous amount of work. My students were singers! Everyone was saying on the news, "No singing anywhere!"

How did things go at Northwestern?

So for the Spring quarter, I had 10 composers come and I interviewed them on Zoom: including Julie Wolfe, Caroline Shaw, David Lang, Ted Hearne, Edie Hill, and Ēriks Ešenvalds. We had these nice conversations and in the week prior to that, the students did a lot of listening and a little bit of reading to get ready.

And with The Crossing?

The first thing we did was try to figure out how to pay the singers for the things that were cancelled; we did continue through the summer. We had some very generous supporters. And then we had to figure out how to communicate with our audiences, find ways to make art, and give singers work and meaning.

So we started right away -- on March 16th -- a thing called Rising with The Crossing. It was an email every morning sharing a past live performance. I was going to do it for two weeks -- and it turned out to be, first, a series of 12 weeks, Monday through Friday, at sunrise! Then, we took a break for a month, and came back and did it once a week.

Here is the music for Rising with The Crossing's entry for April 24, 2020, Jonathan Dove's "In Beauty May I Walk": 

It turned out to be really quite successful and gained a lot of attention, which we didn't really intend. The Library of Congress archived the whole series as a significant historical record and then we made an album,  Rising with the Crossingthis December, with 12 of the 72 pieces.

From the album, here's Ēriks Ešenvalds' "Earth Teach Me Quiet," the series' musical entry from April 3, 2020:

And each piece is accompanied by your reflections?

Yes. Every one of them talked about why we love singing that piece, or some reflection about what made me choose that piece, because we really love singing together. I mean, my heart was broken. A lot of singers in The Crossing made their career from singing professionally, between the opera chorus and The Crossing, and church choir, with some teaching. Everything went away overnight.

Did chronicling your thoughts, as the weeks went by, help you process it?

Yes. It was very emotional at times, listening to many recordings and then choosing five for that week. Listening to years and years singing.  I didn't realize the levels that they reach, or the energy or the commitment. I mean, I realized that in the moment, but forgot about it.  I found that very moving. 

But I'll admit to you that the process also led me down an unexpected path of really becoming deflated, which is why we finally stopped after 12 weeks. I just said, I need a break.

You've also gotten into making films.

In the meantime, we were making these animated films. We compiled a piece David Lang had written about the 1918 pandemic, which is the first piece on [the album] Rising with the Crossing: "Protect Yourself from Infection." It didn't actually exist as a piece of music; it was intended for a parade. We made a full seven-minute piece of music out of it, with an animated film.

And then we made another animated film to Michael Gordon's "Movement." But I thought, we're not singing; this isn't sustainable, and I got really down. And then I went to the ocean.

The Ocean and Creation of a New Sound System

I went to the ocean and I listened to the ocean talk to me -- because that's what people have done as long as people have written about walking by the ocean -- to gain some clarity about my own emotional situation. I came up with this idea that we should create a sound system where we can sing outside, isolated and safely distant. And it should be a sound system where every singer keeps it with themselves in their car. They carry it by themselves; they set it up; it's battery operated; there's no power needed. And you don't need to come within 25 feet of each other.

So our sound designer Paul Vazquez and assistant conductor Kevin Vondrak designed this whole thing and then executive director Jonathan Bradley and operations manager Shannon McMahon ordered all this stuff.  We had this amazing benefactor, a very good friend of ours, who actually did pass from COVID in October.

We did new commissions on this equipment. 

The Crossing did a pre-election project with four films. 

We wanted to respond to the social uprising that was going on. Using the equipment, we did "Democracy" by Robert Maggio: 

And we did Ayanna Woods' "Shift" that way: 

Then we recorded The Forest, which is a 20-minute film of the experience. We also did a few pieces one at a time that didn't involve that equipment, including  David Lang's "Stateless," and Nick Cline's "She took his hands."

Was all of this filming something new for you all?

Yes and no. It wasn't ever my intention to do a one-at-a-time recording filming anything. But we had gone to do a residency at Big Sky Montana the year before in the summer 2019, and we made this film called To the West, which is about a seven-minute excerpt from a piece written for Big Sky by Michael Gordon and so we've learned a lot.

Alot of the things you were doing in 2019 seem ... what's the word ... prescient?

Yes, if not even a little bit clairvoyant! And with "Protect Yourself from Infection" [from September 2019] it winds up that the text for that is from a 1918 government pamphlet about protecting yourself from infection, specifically the Spanish influenza.

You've been incredibly busy, and you also released three albums in 2020 (Anonymous Man, Carthage, which earned a Grammy nomination) and Rising with The Crossing) and two so far in 2021 (The Tower and the Garden, and A Native Hill)  So getting back to you and how you relax. DO you relax? You did make a comment about going to the ocean.

So we went down [to the shore] for a week. I decided there that I wasn't going to let the virus decide things for The Crossing. So yeah, the ocean has always been really important to me. I don't want to say rejuvenating, because I just feel like I can go so much deeper into myself there, and take the time to do that.

I always read a whole lot of books, because what we do is storytelling. With my choirs at Northwestern, with my graduate students, with The Crossing, essentially what we do is tell stories.

And so reading is a huge  part of my life, where working and leisure get a little conflated, if not confused. I got really engaged in books that would relate to the new content of our seasons. There's a book called New Poems of Native Nations that got me into this rabbit-hole about all these different native tribes; I've been reading alot of Claudia Rankine. I would say that I went heavily into reading as a form of research.

I was talking earlier with Jonathan, our executive director, and he said, What are you going to tell Susan Lewis about what you do for leisure time? What do you do? I said, I spend time with Steven; later in the evening, we have a drink or two, and I read, that kind of stuff. 

But I like what I do, right? I like to study music, it makes me happy! 

Well, this last year has changed many of us, either in the way we behave, or the way we think about our lives. Did you have any epiphanies about going forward?

Yes.  One of the things that I have learned is that I don't have time to have my time wasted.  I don't mean I don't have time from day to day. I mean I don't have time from now until the end of this life. Because this life could end in three or four days, as we saw happen over and over again in a shocking way. 

I don't want to sit in meetings that aren't actually accomplishing something right here and now.  I'm not going to be a part of it, life is just too short. So there's that.

Also I've been profoundly reminded of how fortunate I am that I like everybody. I just live in a dream world; even people who I find kind of annoying, I like them. They're good people. They have good intentions. I'm very grateful for their being in my life, either as a friend or relative or whatever.

And that started at home, realizing, wow I really actually like my partner and I'm good friends with him. And I really like the people that I work with, and sometimes that's going to be challenging.  

This is kind of like the thing that I tell my students all the time: Don't spend any time with people that you wouldn't want to go out and have dinner with -- a four or five hour dinner. Don't have them in your choir; don't have them in your life.

I realized that I actually live that way. I know that sounds kind of weird because it sounds like oh I'm so grateful, but I am!

*****

The Crossing returns to in-person concerts with its Month of Moderns series:

Month of Moderns 1: The Forest, June 3-6, 2021 at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope

Month of Moderns 2: "we got time" presented with Ars Nova Workshop, June 11-13, 2021 at The Woodlands, Philadelphia

Month of Moderns 3: At which point, June 18 and 19, 2021, at Awbury Arboretum, Germantown