Brooklyn Youth Chorus: Black Mountain Songs
New Amsterdam Records

Despite being comprised of pieces by eight different composers, Black Mountain Songs impresses as an exceptionally cohesive work; in fact, the song cycle feels so unified, one could imagine it the work of a single composer if one didn't know better. Such an impression is easily accounted for: there's the omnipresence of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus itself, of course, whose vocalizing establishes a through-line from the first song to the thirteenth; in addition, a chamber-sized group of musicians accompanies the chorus throughout; and finally, most of the texts sung by the chorus derive from the writings of Black Mountain College faculty or students, the illustrious names of which include John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers, Robert Creeley, Buckminster Fuller, and Ruth Asawa. Though there are considerable differences between the songs, the material created for the project by Bryce Dessner, Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, Jherek Bischoff, John King, Nico Muhly, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and Tim Hecker (in collaboration with Dessner) feels of a piece; certainly the fact that Dessner and Parry (The National, Arcade Fire) had a hand in composing seven of the thirteen pieces adds considerably to the sense of unity achieved.

The driving force behind the project was Dessner, who as a child attended a summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina, not far from where Black Mountain College was located, and thus conceived of Black Mountain Songs as a collaborative work that would pay homage to the school, which operated from 1933 until 1957, and its utopian spirit. The names associated with it reads like a veritable honour roll of radical 20th-century artistic figures: alongside the aforementioned Cage, Fuller, Cunningham, and Albers, one can also add Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline (whose work adorns the album cover) to the list. In bringing together a large number of performers and composers in an ambitious, multi-dimensional work, Black Mountain Songs transplants the collaborative sensibility fostered by the college into a contemporary context.

The form of the work lends itself naturally to a live presentation, and though the seventy-seven-minute version preserved on disc was recorded in the studio, the work did, in fact, premiere as an evening-length stage work at BAM's 2014 Next Wave festival. The live presentation achieved an even greater multi-dimensionality in wedding the music and singing with readings, videos, and dancers. The recorded version, by comparison, feels intimate, even if a large number of individuals is involved. The instrumental group is itself modest in size, with the guitar and bass contributions of Reed and Parry accompanied by violin, viola, cello, piano, and percussion (Shaw one of the violists). As a result, a pleasing balance is struck between the vocal and instrumental elements, with the former supported by the latter without being dominated by it.

Melody is strong in the work, as are contrasts of mood and style, with the material alternating between hushed, almost hymnal parts (Dessner's opening “Black Mountain Song”) and others whose rhythms draw from classical minimalism for inspiration (Parry's “there is a sound”). Haunting passages emphasizing the choir's rich vocal textures (King's “ars imitatur naturam,” with its stirring melismatics) sit comfortably alongside pieces rich in hummable melodies (Bischoff's “Childhood's Retreat,” Parry's “Spaceship Earth”) and experimental vocal techniques (Vrebalov's “Bubbles”).

With such a diversity of material to work with, the Chorus, forty-nine voices strong on this recording, has ample opportunities to show off its luscious vocal sound, whether it be during an aggressive, full-throated passage or a delicate one. While the group often sings in unison, there are episodes when sub-sections branch off to voice lines of intricate counterpoint and others where a single vocalist separates itself from the mass for a solo passage. Among the album's more memorable moments: a stirring a cappella section that arises during Shaw's “Its Motion Keeps”; hand claps that nod in Tehillim's direction during Muhly's stately “Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio”; the bold, gospel-tinged sequences that distinguish Shaw's “Anni's Constant”; and Parry's “Their Passing in Time,” which caps the work exhilaratingly with a rousing climax. Though all involved can be proud of Black Mountain Songs for being an ambitious project superbly realized, perhaps Dessner and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (along with its conductor Dianne Berkun Menaker, who founded the group in 1992) have reason to be most proud, given how instrumental they were in its creation. As Dessner himself astutely notes, “While we set out to create a work inspired by the College, ultimately what we have made is something entirely new and our own.”

April 2017