Donald Nally: Music reminds me that I exist

The Crossing is the point of intersection of the two axes, balancing the beam forces. Horizontal movement shows where music comes from and where it travels. Herein lies all the technical cognitive things that are learned that can be controlled. The vertical movement opens up things that only happen at the moment that we will not control. When all the technical aspects of making music are united in their point of view, they can be higher, things beyond human control. At the intersection of the two, magic takes place – the beginning of both completeness and spontaneity emerges in the music. This principle of music became the basis of the ideological professional new music choir “The Crossing”. His artistic director, American choral music conductor, Professor Donald Nally, drives the entire organization in all circumstances. After the pandemics, they used their creativity and openly expressed their experience in music, discovering more and more innovative forms of music performance – film, animation, outdoor performance. “We aim to talk about the world through the prism of choral music,” the choir’s mission describes. 2005 The two-time Grammy-winning choir and the choir, which has won many other international music awards, is often the new leader in music commissioning in the United States and is constantly praised in the press. In 2021 alone, they released two new music albums – the second, entitled Gavin Bryars: A Native Hill, was released just a few days ago. In an interview, Donald Nally talks about how music makes its existence normal, how it has discovered its place in contemporary choral music as it has traveled through life, and what it has taught in recent years.

According to you, The Crossing is primarily a community. How is the community aspect shaped during the pandemic period, when new constraints arise?

When everything stopped last March, we looked for ways we could all communicate together – we organized morning Zoom meetings, cocktail parties, etc. Later, we tried to find ways we could sing together. In July, I went through a crisis, I felt stuck and realized that we could no longer be like that. Then we started looking for creative solutions and already created different types of work. The choir began to sing outside, taking off their masks at a safe distance. So we kept the community together in unconventional ways.

You seem to have been in a hurry to find out what this experience means to you and the choir. After all, most of the new compositions are about the personal experiences of musicians, loneliness, exclusion. How was such an initiative born?

Many choirs have begun creating remote Zoom performances in which we see many chorister faces on a single screen. I understand that they are thus trying to unite people and talk together about the problems facing the cultural sector. However, watching these shows made me sad. You can see people’s exclusion directly and it’s reminiscent of your own exclusion. As a result, I decided to look for another way. We focused on the singers’ inner experiences – sadness, mourning, isolation, exhaustion, hope. Also disgusting because we had power in America that completely disappointed us during the pandemic. All those emotions boiled inside – we tried to capture them and express them creatively.
Isolation is difficult for everyone, but the chorister thus loses his job, profession, activity that gives meaning to his life. He loses the skills he has invested in for years. He can’t listen to other singers, can’t blend in with the overall sound of the choir. When the pandemic started, we ordered works on this topic – we are still ordering now. At the end of April, the latest work – a joint work of poet Layli Long Soldier and composer Paul Fowler – will be released in the form of an animated film.

One of the values ​​of The Crossing choir seems to be to reflect real-time events.

We want to talk about the world through the prism of choral music. The world has many problems – of course, we do not have the answers to all the questions people ask, we are neither politicians, nor medics, nor priests. We just raise questions in the minds of the listeners. Our weapons are word, commonality, listening. I’m glad we can broadcast important things with music.

It is also a gift for composers. By ordering works, you create an even larger community of contemporary music.

Sometimes I think there has never been a better time to be a composer. I don’t know what the situation is in other countries, but there is a growing interest in contemporary music in America. I am glad that The Crossing was formed at a time when the perception of the composer’s profession has expanded dramatically and has gone beyond the framework of tradition.

Recently, The Crossing has added another dimension to its work – you have started creating films and animation. How has the visual aspect changed your work?

We worked in a team. Together with assistant conductor Kevin Vondrak, we composed a piece performed and recorded in the woods. Another colleague who helped me, Paul Vazquez, has been with me for twenty-seven years, since I taught him at university. Together we are well communicated and organized, we have common goals and values. When we met during the pandemic, we thought about how a choir can sing and immortalize its music without having listeners. After all, one of the most important elements is missing! Does singing without an audience make sense at all? Gradually, the idea of ​​the film was born, we went out into nature and filmed it all in wide shots.
Of course, singing with amplifiers in the woods and filming the movie was absolutely not what we had planned for this season. It was necessary to start from scratch – to order new works, to respond to the movements and events relevant to these days.

As the coming seasons were planned for the year ahead, the entire organizational structure of the choir had to change this year. How did it go?

Last July, we realized we were losing next season, at least the way we had planned. So we reshaped our entire four-year plan, moved things into the future, rescheduled, added new projects. Finally, we changed the theme of the season. It was not easy to do all this, many complex decisions had to be made. Our entire program has changed by 2025. This year has become an opportunity for us to re-evaluate how we order works, how we structure the seasons.
But now I feel assured because we have a plan. In America, power has changed and people are being vaccinated very smoothly. As a result, we hope to return to the normal concert format in September. On that occasion, we are planning a comeback concert in Philadelphia, during which we will perform a wonderful piece of music by Michael Gilbertson, entitled “Return”. This will be followed by previously unveiled events. Another interesting piece is Justine Chen’s composition on data collection and storage. We also have a project that will crown a large quarantine – we asked for twelve composers to write five minutes of pandemic reflection.

You mention all the new inventive projects. How do you encourage creativity in your community?

Creativity has really come out in recent years. We also worked harder, especially the organizational staff. There were many troubles we had not encountered before. When creating orders, we think about what the context is, what the hall is, what kind of people will listen to us. When creating a recording, we try to allow the listener to get to know the piece of music extremely intimately and create a deep experience of singing together and listening.

You released a lot of music albums during the pandemic. How did you do that?

The fourth record came out a couple of days ago – on the ninth day of April. Although there seem to be a lot of them, we recorded them all before the pandemic broke out. I’m glad we planned them in advance. And in recent years, we have not made studio recordings, we have only recorded music for films and animation outdoors. We used a lot of techniques and also recorded at home. However, we hope to return to normal recording studio by the end of August. We have even more material to release in the future. This is our mission – we commission works by contemporary composers and feel a responsibility to record them.

Interestingly, The Crossing started as an experiment. How did the choir become what it is now?

In fact, we didn’t expect all of that. Even in the first concerts we performed a repertoire of new music, the audience warmly accepted it and gradually it became part of our identity. We started ordering more and more works and recording them. Everything grew organically, we didn’t try to force anything. We go where we are led. It took a long time to get to where we are now. We simply let it happen.
I co-founded The Crossing with Jeff Densmore, a friend who died suddenly and tragically in 2014 before our eyes. He left the ensemble a certain value legacy that we take very seriously and take responsibility for. Like the best marriages are among people who are good friends – we were also a group of friends. So far, we have chosen very carefully and responsibly what to accept into our community.
It is probably not easy to allow everything to grow as it is destined, when there is a lot of pressure to be successful, to repeat a previously successful format. What is your relationship to success?
I am grateful for the success, it is an amazing gift for our choir. We met a lot of amazing people who are interested and listening to our music. However, I do not feel that this is putting pressure on us. Art is a daily job for us and in everyday life we ​​do what we want. Risk is part of it all. While we work hard and try to breathe life into every piece when we do something that has never sounded before, we don’t know how the music will be received. Obviously, some of the tracks will fail. That’s part of the music.

Have you received commissioned works that turned out to be unsuccessful for you? Were there any performances that left you disappointed?

Since we only record works that we like, I’m not disappointed with the recordings. However, I have given up some compositions. Thank you, we pay, but we don’t. When we order hundreds of works, we do not avoid it, although these are extremely rare cases. Mostly I call composers overwhelmed by the beauty of music.
Perhaps composers who do not specialize in choral music bring a fresh perspective.
I am constantly amazed at how one person’s perception of the choir can differ from another. When I hear a piece I have never heard after the composer has sent it, I will be happiest. I think we are all grateful to people who are able to create something out of nothing.

The Crossing has a nice idea for the band’s name and symbol. In your book, Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt, you discuss the intersection of different elements during music making. Did the idea for The Crossing come from your conversation with the professor?

When I later reminded Flummerfelt himself of all this, he did not remember anything from that conversation! He asked if we had really talked about it (laughs – OJ).
When the ensemble was formed, I lived in Wales, at the West Nashville Opera House, and regularly went on concert tours. Everywhere – in Liverpool, London, Belfast – I went to so-called internet cafes, where I could communicate with a professor online for two dollars an hour. We discussed with him how to name this new ensemble. The first concert was waiting for us and we couldn’t show up on stage anonymously. We really didn’t think about the name sounding for another sixteen years. We corresponded about the various semantic layers of singing, about the friendship of the choir members, about the fact that on the occasion of the first concert we will all have to return to our native Philadelphia from different corners of the world. A couple of years ago, I led another choir, The Bridge. Although it was a great, high-quality singing ensemble, I didn’t know how to manage financially, so after a couple of years we broke up. So the metaphors of bridges, crossings, travels have been very important to me in the past. When Joseph Flummerfelt argued that art is perfect intersection of cognitive, intellectual or intuitive, emotional base. After this intersection we decided to name the ensemble.

Are there more people in your life like this professor who have formed you as a musician?

No doubt a lot of people have invested in me and led me on the right path. I was lucky to have amazing teachers who were sincere and opened my eyes. The first of my aspirations were conductor Elmer Thomas and later, of course, Joseph Flummerfelt, who became a close friend of life. I defended my doctorate with Don Moses, who was very inspiring to me, teaching me how to communicate with the ensemble and how to organize it.
I worked for many summers at a festival in Spoleto, Italy. There I assisted Greek conductor Tommy Schippers, working with choirs. He was a fantastic musician who mastered many things. True, how funny it is that he specialized in Wagner and Strauss music, with which I have nothing to do. I have learned so much from each of him. I am now teaching students at Northwestern University in Chicago and trying to transfer all of these assets to my students.

Is there an idea that is most important to you to convey to students?

Students keep hearing from me that they have to do what they want and not do anything they don’t want to do. Then they look at me and say it’s easy for me to talk. In fact, I live my life freely enough. I conducted English church music, symphonic choirs, opera, and taught in college. All these wanderings helped me to refine where I belonged – in contemporary vocal music, working with a team and ordering new tracks. Now I feel in my place.

You previously worked in the field of classical music. Are you using the same conducting techniques now as you did then?

I always carry my past with me. Such is my 40 years of professional experience. The basis of everything is singing, which is primitive, natural action and listening – one of the most important things in life. It defines everything we do in the choir.
My rather traditional education has determined many things. I admit, I’ve made mistakes, I haven’t been very nice to singers in the past. I thought I had to be strong, strict. But really, I just couldn’t communicate with people. Now I regret that.

Indeed, at least in the past, a strict figure has been glorified in classical culture. Have you survived this too?

It seems to me that I was so simply trying to solve personal problems. I knew what result I wanted, but I couldn’t implement it. I couldn’t conduct and express myself so well. I did not understand that the choristers want to speak and cooperate. I didn’t respond to that.

Singing in a choir is close to meditation – you have to be here and now, listen carefully to what is going on around you, breathe with other people. Does this experience have a spiritual meaning for you?

Spiritual in the broadest sense, on the basis of which we build a connection with others and the world. When we listen to each other, something spiritual actually happens. A sense of oneness and communion is created. It reminds us that we exist. There are many things in the world of Jog that are incomprehensible to us.

What meaning does music have in your personal life?

In fact, I don’t even know. I can no longer separate music from myself. Often people warn me not to identify with creativity, but I fail. It’s hard to answer what the meaning of music is in my life because it’s the meaning of my life.

You mentioned that during the trials you discovered yourself as a conductor. There are many theories that identity does not exist. How do you perceive this?

My life and identity is shaped by very elementary things. I want to do what I want and I don’t want others to tell me what I need to do. It takes my life forward. I live in a small cottage with my partner, I like to spend time with friends I miss during a pandemic. I don’t know what all this means. It’s sad that we live so long and still can’t find the answers to the questions.

How do new music commissions work?

I usually come up with an idea, talk about it with others, try to relate to which composer it would be most suitable. Then I will ask if the composer would be interested in it. I determine the duration of the subject of the work. We cooperate – together we find the text, decide the parameters. Then the composer goes to compose the piece and I don’t bother them.

You have mentioned that conducting is a lifelong learning process. What are you studying right now?

I’ve actually grown a lot in recent years. Now I value people much more than before. I understood how my own choices affected me. I learned when to run and when not. I also recently started writing some music again, something I haven’t done in fifteen years. I don’t consider myself a composer, but creativity is another opportunity for me to get to know myself.

Thank you for conversation!

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