The ecstasy of hearing Louis Armstrong play in a New York jazz club. The simple yet otherworldly beauty of palm branches swooping in the breeze. The moment of awe inspired by nature's vastness.
These experiences emerge in American poet Robert Lax's poems and are enrobed in light and shadow and shimmering beauty on The Crossing‘s recent recording of Philadelphia-based composer Kile Smith's full concert-length a cappella choral work The Arc in the Sky (Navona Records).
It is fitting that the texts in The Arc in the Sky are a sort of hodge-podge; Lax's life was a bit of a hodge-podge.
He went about collecting artists and mystics –including the poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton – as his close friends, hanging out at Harlem jazz clubs instead of swatting the books during his student years at Columbia University.
He worked as poetry editor at nationally circulated magazines, then toured as a circus juggler, converting from Judaism to Catholicism, drifting from New York to Canada to Paris and eventually to the Greek islands.
Smith compiled the texts for The Arc in the Sky from among Lax's poems, organizing them in a set that reveals Lax's – and Smith's own – affinity for jazz, Lax's praise of the power of everyday things and experiences and finally something of the transcendent metaphysics of Lax's mystical spirituality.
The Arc in the Sky opens the door to the work of a distinctive voice in twentieth-century American poetry, shedding light on the poet's life and illuminating aspects of his inner landscape in shimmering music that never quite goes where you think it will.
A thematic view of some of Lax's poems honors this poet's crooked path, the path that let Lax taste so many different flavors of humanity, that nourished his world view, that ultimately led to the resounding singularity of his poetic voice.
I had a chance to speak recently with Kile Smith and Donald Nally, the Grammy Award-winning conductor and founder of The Crossing, about their recording of The Arc in the Sky.
Listen to that interview above, to hear excerpts from The Arc in the Sky and to hear one of today's foremost choral conductors talk about how The Arc in the Sky figures in The Crossing's pathbreaking mission to change the face of choral repertoire.