"I'm not interested in affirming anyone's morality. I'm interested in asking questions"

20.08.2019 hrs 13:05
Donald Nally, conductor and artistic director of Grammy Award winning chamber choir The Crossing, talks about how art can affect society, and about his own relationship with Harry Martinson's Aniara.

What kind of a choir is The Crossing? How would you describe your artistic views and visions? 

Donald Nally: We are a professional choir that sings only new music; about 90% of what we sing these days is written for us and is therefore the result of a commission.  So, we collaborate with a lot of the world's leading choral composers on topics that inspire us and engage our minds. We like to work on the big questions – topics that don't have easy answers, or maybe no answers...social justice, environment, wealth distribution, democracy, etc. At the end of the day, we're a bunch of friends who love singing together and making something out of nothing!  We are story tellers and we take roll seriously in everything we do. 

What has been your recipe for building a world famous, Grammy Award-winning chamber choir?

DN: Well, that's interesting because I don't have a recipe and our successes and awards have been an interesting byproduct of a lot of hard work and some particularly gifted singers.  I suppose the recipe has been keeping focused on what we do, which is help to create new works that mean something, and to perform and record them at the highest level possible. It would very easy to get distracted – there are a lot of offers that come our way – from presenters, composers, venues, etc – but we choose very carefully and stick to the music and themes that fit our ethos. 

How have the awards and nominations affected your and the choir's work – both on a psychological and practical level?

DN: I don't think at all.  Although, I will say that I recently found myself saying to The Crossing in a rehearsal that one benefit of recognition is that you don't have to treat every new adventure like it's an audition. Instead, we can focus on who we are in a piece or what it means to us, and trust that we'll bring our level of artistry with us.  

The Crossing is known for addressing social, environmental and political issues. Is it possible to change the world through music?

DN: No. It's not. If it were possible, we'd all go to Jerusalem today and hold hands around the hills and sing a song that would bring peace to the Middle East. But that is, of course, bullshit and composers who write song that they think will change things are only affirming the morality of their listeners, which is at the very least a waste of time and at the very most potentially dangerous. I'm not interested in affirming anyone's morality. I'm interested in asking questions – through music, which provides a certain kind of abstract commentary through context – that invite people to think about the world in which we live. Maybe it inspires them to action, maybe not; I'm not responsible for that because it's not my job. The audience has a job, and I have a job, and they come together in an interesting way, but one shouldn't attempt to do the other's job!  

Why did you want to make a performance like Aniara – fragments of time and space – a collaboration with composer Robert Maggio and the Finnish independent theatre company Klockriketeatern?

DN: Dan (Henriksson) and I have been speaking for over a decade about doing a piece together and we finally landed on this as the perfect 'coming together' of the things that we find interesting.  I wanted Rob (Maggio) on this project because he works in a number of different genres – theatre, dance, concert, etc – with great fluidity and he is great at editing himself or revising, which I knew this would take.  And, it's turned out to be the case; he's written terrific, energetic, music that lends itself to being a 'part' of the whole, and not dominating it. But, at the end of the day, it's the compelling and beautiful story that inspires this collaboration. It's the love and the loss and the very, very humanness of this 'fantasy' of Martinson that really inspired us to say, 'yes, let's go on this journey.'

What is it like to work with the production of Aniara – fragments of time and space specifically? Does the process differ from The Crossing's other choral performances?

DN: We have done a number of choral-theatre pieces, but none so elaborate in that the choir is the main character and basically everything is told through their words, their music, their action. I knew this would challenge us and I wanted to find out in what ways, and to what extent do theatre and choral music meet and marry and where do they diverge to the point that the delivery in a dramatic situation is no longer plausible, or believable. There are many attempts these days to stage existing works – like St. Matthew Passion or Messiah – and I find that many of them fail because the people doing the delivery are not adept at the task they are being asked to do. So, I am loving this process because we're exploring where are these limits and how do we bring this altogether to have everyone at their best and no one less than that.

How do you personally relate to Harry Martinson's Aniara?

DN: I spend my life with a box of broken toys, of which I'm one. Musicians, and especially singers, most often have a little hole in their heart they're trying to fill through their music – and some do so really well. Aniara is like a box of broken toys to me. So many hopes, leading to nothing. We all have a home and we all long for it in some way or another; even when we journey far away from it. But, is that journey ever really leading anywhere but to home? I don't know, but Aniara helps me to settle that chaos now and then, and maybe to understand myself a little better. I do know this: we'd be better off as a community if we didn't actively agree to destroy our home.

Ida Henrikson