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Shara Nova and The Crossing mine emotional depths on 'Titration'

Shervin Lainez

For its 30th recording, The Crossing — the renowned Philadelphia chorus conducted by Donald Nally — has once again pushed boundaries, plunging into waters that many vocal groups would find forbidding. Fresh off its third Grammy Award for Born (works by Edie Hill and Michael Gilbertson) and an April 2023 world premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra (John Luther Adams’ Vespers of the Blessed Earth), the ensemble continues to cement its adventurous reputation with Titration, on the Navona label.

An a cappella choral cycle by Shara Nova, perhaps best known for her work as My Brightest Diamond, it arrives on the heels of The Blue Hour, which prominently featured Nova, and which NPR Music named one of the top classical albums of 2022. (Nova and The Crossing previewed some of this new material in their Tiny Desk Concert last fall.)

Titration finds Nova in a reflective, almost psychoanalytic frame of mind. She encourages listeners to ponder the nature of intimacy, connection, and in some sections, life’s profound sorrows. In the liner notes, she describes her Southern U.S. heritage, and the dichotomy of both loving her family and yet feeling alienated from them as years pass. In chronicling emotions that are often exposed, painful, and raw, she combines both passionate and dispassionate observation: “The song cycle is not a therapeutic model, but points to healing modalities, teachers, and ancient practices about which I hope you, the listener, will become curious to research.”

Nova exults in traditional choral techniques but with unusual vocal effects, clapping, and spoken fragments, subverting expectations. The word “titration” refers to a process of chemical analysis to determine the quantity of a substance, and throughout the cycle’s 17 sections, a similar wave of exploration is on display.

She launches her disparate concerns immediately in “Freeze State,” which opens the array. Luminous chords rise up, but then bits of speech appear, as if one has stumbled into some kind of spiritual afterparty, with a baritone adding a lonely postscript in the final bars, exhorting listeners to “wiggle it out.” Then comes the peacefulness of “Safety in Peril or Calm” and the brief “What’s the Vibe, Vagus,” anchored by rhythmic pulses that evoke “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson (also one of Nova’s many collaborators).

The Crossing, whose latest album, 'Titration,' features new music by Shara Nova.
John C. Hawthorne
The Crossing, whose latest album, 'Titration,' features new music by Shara Nova.

One of the cycle’s high points, “Emotion Wheel” has bits of the joyous explosiveness of the Swingle Singers, the B-52’s, and perhaps jazz greats the Singers Unlimited. Nally’s expert choir seems completely fearless.

The effects are magnified by recording engineer Paul Vazquez (who has been capturing the choir’s artistry for years). Shortly after the cycle’s premiere in Big Sky, Montana last August, he recorded the group in Malvern, Pennsylvania, at St. Peter’s Church in Great Valley. The crystalline result is in line with the ensemble’s pristine esthetic, and underlines the composer’s sometimes unnerving juxtapositions.

An unexpected torpedo arrives with “Patterns of Protection,” inspired by the 21 victims of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. A cry of grief, the unnerving segment at times pulses in a rhythm not unlike gunfire. A follow-up, “The Grief of Which I Rarely Speak,” at over eight minutes and the cycle’s longest section, is a sober look at suicide. The choir’s precision amplifies Nova’s poignant, gently murmuring phrases:

To those with easy sayings
To those with short answers,
leave me and let me weep a while

But other sections make an equally indelible impact, such as “Imagine a Favorite Place,” with massive outbursts framed by delicate tracery. Or consider “I Seek to Change These Habits,” with exuberant chord splashes and disruptive speech cadences, or “Yes - No,” with its burning indecision — ultimately not as straightforward as its minimal text might imply. “I’m So Mad I Could Spit Nails” (yes, with spitting) seems a distant heir to the Southern shape-note “sacred harp” tradition.

In the penultimate “Pulses,” the composer seems to find some consolation in basic humanity: “When we find each other, our pulses meet.” If that sounds a little too touchy-feely for some, the broad strokes of the vocalists are beyond persuasive, almost like an “amen” at the end of a classic Baroque outing.

And then comes the final, startling, cocktail-party laughter of “Titration 3.” What does this mean? It’s a bold move, to end with this strange outburst—at first hearing, as if the composer is disavowing everything that has come before. My initial takeaway: a jolting palate cleanser that takes intensely personal emotional heat and returns it to earth. But who knows? It makes an arresting end to an equally provocative hour. And in the end, artists always find new ways to teach us.

Even the cover art, by DM Stith, telegraphs “business not as usual,” with a dark silhouette of a brain floating above a labyrinth of blood vessels. In the composer’s journey toward self-understanding, head and heart sometimes compete for dominance, even if ultimately both must find a way to converge in a common berth of peace.

Titration will be released on Navona Records on April 28; preorder here.

Bruce Hodges writes about classical music for The Strad, and has contributed articles to Lincoln Center, Playbill, New Music Box, London’s Southbank Centre, Strings, and Overtones, the magazine of the Curtis Institute of Music. His is a former columnist for The Juilliard Journal, and former North American editor for Seen and Heard International. He currently lives in Philadelphia.