A heady project on paper translates to a transcendently breathtaking sonic experience on the Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ debut, Black Mountain Songs. Now in its 25th year, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus brings together 500 seven-to-21-year-olds through after-school choral programs in New York City. The Chorus regularly commissions composers to create new works for performance, and Black Mountain Songs is one result of that project. A collaboration between The National’s Bryce Dessner, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, and contemporary composers like Pulitzer Prize-winning Caroline Shaw, Nico Muhly, and Aleksandra Vrebalov, the nearly 75 minutes of music on Black Mountain Songs celebrate the utopian vision of North Carolina’s non-traditional Black Mountain College, which operated from 1933 to 1957 in the rural Appalachian mountains.
Rhythm and lyricism prove equal forces in Shaw’s transfixing “Its Motion Keeps,” where circling bowed strings and plucky pizzicato accompany the syncopated chant, “my days, my weeks, my months, my years.” The unraveling rounds dissolve into moments of ecstatic, glowing glissando and sustained atonal harmonies. In Vrebalov’s “Bubbles,” a line from a poem written by Robert Creeley and John Cage—“Then what is emptiness for”—is voiced by a lone soprano, between moments of animalistic cacophony and urgent chanting. The noise soon gives way to resonant bells and a glistening chorus.
The album closes with Parry’s brazen anthem “Their Passing in Time,” which, in the beginning, trembles with solemn minor-key sopranos singing, “With the passing of time …” At first, the line is delivered in solo; then two, then several voices, framed in “ah-ah-ahhhhs,” droning hums and dirge-like strings, join in just past the halfway mark.
This is an expertly-crafted 21st century collage from a vibrant youth choir, an album that celebrates modernist innovation birthed in rural hills deep in flyover country. Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ Black Mountain Songs will destroy you, in the best possible way.