On Aug. 3, The Crossing Choir was practicing “the easy stuff,” songs they would be performing alongside Montana community choirs. But their big push was to begin the groundwork on “Montaña,” the first ever, to their knowledge, 24-hour choral film performance. If all goes well, it will debut in Montana in 2021.

A day-long tribute to the Wild West

Catch a glimpse of “Montaña” Aug. 9 at WMPAC
“It’s this juxtaposition of art and nature, and it all has these themes of ecology and identity in America.”—The Crossing Executive Director Jonathan Bradley describing the choir’s new work in progress

Professional chamber choir The Crossing is wasting no time during their short stay in Big sky. They’ll perform a number of shows, collaborate with Montana community choirs, and even create the frameworks of what will become a performance unlike any other—a 24-hour act which combines historical film accompanied by the chorus. 

     The members of the choir have been busy—their first day in Montana they performed a surprise show in Bozeman at the Story Mill Park, singing in an open-air warehouse space Conductor Donald Nally enjoyed so much he hopes the site could become an arts complex. He said 100 people showed up, following the choir around the venue as they performed different pieces in different places. 

     “It was a huge amount of fun, and an incredible way to start our experience here,” Nally said during a short break from rehearsal in preparation for the following day’s community choir performance. As the conductor spoke, there were coos and trills from performers warming up in the background.

     Nally said the big performance the Philadelphia-based, Grammy Award winning choir is working on will take place at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Aug. 9 at 5:30 p.m. It’s the first installment of a much larger piece in the works to be developed over the next several years, called “Montaña.” 

     “It’s a film, choral piece,” Nally explained. “So the music is written to compliment the film, and the film is made to compliment the music.” 

     Composer Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison are collaborating with The Crossing crew. The singers received the score just days before arriving in Big Sky on July 31, and they’ve been chomping away at learning the piece. 

     “This is a different kind of piece than what they’re used to,” said Nally. “It’s meant to eventually be a 24-hour piece. So it’s meant to not go anywhere quickly.”

     The idea for the out-of-the-box performance grew from a conversation Nally had with WMPAC Director John Zirkle, Gordon and Morrison. They were out snowshoeing on a brisk January day. They knew they wanted to collaborate, and that they wanted to do something really different. Nally wanted to do something that “takes these very human sounds, and is both the complement, the friction and the parallel of being with old film.”

     That’s where Morrison’s expertise comes into play. He takes old film and repurposes the images, creating art out of things that are forgotten. He’s got a huge archive of old Montana reels from around the state, and even a grizzly cam that follows grizzlies day after day, capturing aspects of their lives not often seen by humans, like the bears sleeping from their perspective. All of this will be part of “Montaña.”

     One hour of the ultimately day-long performance will take place at the WMPAC on Aug. 9, when the performers will “get their feet wet,” as Nally put it. 

     “The piece is about space, and land, as in stuff we don’t have in cities,” he said. “Openness and the settling of the West. So there’s history, and looking at how we live today. It’s all going to be part of this piece.”

     The goal is to have the 24-hour version completed by 2021, premiering in Montana. The team is still figuring out things, but expects the singers may perform all together some of the show, but will likely do so in shifts, since they do need to sleep. 

     “It’s a very unique circumstance where we envision people will be able to come hang out, sit in chairs or on the floor, lie down on the floor, come and go, get food, bring it back. It’ll be a fluid environment,” said Nally.

     The ultimate venue for “Montaña” will be decided once The Crossing team gets a feel for how it will go. They’re planning a three-hour performance next. 

     “There are a lot of things that we have a lot of ideas about, so we’re resisting making firm decisions until we get into a few hours of it and go ‘Ok, I see what we’ve got, I see where we’re going’” Nally explained.

     This is the fourth summer The Crossing has come to Big Sky for a creative session at the WMPAC. Zirkle said he has often encouraged artists to create place-based content, and “Montaña” certainly fits the bill. 

    “Mostly, I’m just asking people, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I think by bringing people back to Montana, a lot of them respond to their surroundings, they want to get involved,” Zirkle said, sharing how The Crossing focuses on themes of social justice and environmental protection. “It’s not a standard choir. They’re very concerned with observing and participating on contemporary conversations.” 

     Zirkle said he’s confident The Crossing and its collaborators can pull off the 24-hour story of the beauty of Montana, though he’s heard plenty of people question just how that would work. 

     “If it’s a story about Montana, shouldn’t it be 24 hours? I mean, Montana is huge, and interesting, and when we think about space, if we’re telling a story about space, and who gets to own that space, and respond to it, 24 hours actually makes a lot of sense,” he said. “Then, I’m like, it’s not long enough!”

     The Crossing Executive Director Jonathan Bradley laughed and offered his thoughts on the lengthy performance. 

     “It’s this juxtaposition of art and nature, and it all has these themes of ecology and identity in America,” Bradley said. “About the settling of the West, the Homestead Movement, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. What that is for us, and what that is for Montana. Montana becomes this microcosm for people who live in America. Then there’s the theme of going out and taming the West, always trying to make nature into something. And this is very much like the pursuit of artistic perfection, taking the human voice, things that are natural to us, and refining them into something more.”

     Tickets for the one-hour performance of “Montaña” are $19, available online at www.warrenmillerpac.org.

     To learn more about The Crossing visit www.crossingchoir.org.

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