For the Future

Since the release of Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music (iTunes Store), a number of people have asked me about the process of writing choral music—or, more specifically, my process. Here’s the story of one piece: “For the Future.”

For the Future
By Wendell Berry
Planting trees early in spring,
we make a place for birds to sing
in time to come. How do we know?
They are singing here now.
There is no other guarantee
that singing will ever be.
From New Collected Poems. 2013. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press. (Buy it at Powell’s.)


The first step in my compositional process for this kind of music is to memorize the text and to say it over and over—until I really know what the syllables feel like in my mouth. It’s not just a matter of knowing the words; it’s also a matter of saying them aloud in sing-song-y ways that reveal where the attractive, singable vowels are and where the natural musicality might be. It’s also a matter of trying to discover a formal musical structure that will support the meaning of the text. (I suppose you could deliberately choose a structure that thwarts the text too for various purposes, but that wasn’t my goal here.)

Thinking of “planting trees” made me think of work songs and field hollers. So I listened to various Smithsonian collections of archival recordings and checked out collections of work songs from the library. It seems like a good work song has a vigorous pulse—maybe the regular clank of a hammer or the stomp of booted feet. So, I decided that I would force this pulse on myself by walking as I composed the melodies. At the time, I was living in Madison, Wisconsin. I would walk from my apartment to the university campus and back, stomping and humming. I probably looked like a crazy person—which is to say that I fit right in in Madison. (I also remember writing the fugato theme for part of another piece, “And when we speak together, love,” by singing aloud in the courtyard of the Chazen Museum of Art at around midnight.)

As I was stomping and humming, I was also trying to bend the lines of text into a lyrical form that suited the melodies I was writing (and likewise trying to bend the melodies to the text). This meant introducing some repetitions that weren’t in Mr. Berry’s original poem. In order to create the sound of a rhyme, I repeated “early in spring” at intervals. You’ll hear other repetitions too. Repetition is an important tool for composers, but it’s also dangerous because it can change the way the listener hears the text. So I was trying to strike a balance between freely creating music and simply reciting poetry—and always trying to “do no harm” in the process.

Also as I was walking, I was moved by the poem’s question: “How do we know?” It’s a powerful question and brings to my mind questions about faith. I loved the aspirated, heavy “H” sound of “how” and decided I wanted to repeat it many times—which is what inspired the responsorial and canonical sections where the men and women repeatedly ask that question, sometimes in overlapping ways.

So I arrived at a two-part song form in which each section repeats: AABB. The melody was derived from a major pentatonic scale, which is easy to sing and which is characteristic of much of the music that we think of as being “Appalachian” or “old timey.” (This decision, hopefully, is less about painting a pastiche and more about choosing materials native to a hillside in Kentucky.) Having produced this skeleton or basic architecture, my next task was to create a specific arrangement of it, which is deciding what the details of the body or the building will be like. I’ve created other arrangements of this piece for other performances, but only the version on the album has been recorded.

Throughout our marriage, I’ve been inspired many times by my wife’s cello playing. She has an intuitive, deep sense of musicality that I admire. She and her sister, a fiddler, grew up playing bluegrass, Celtic, and various types of folk music together. Inspired by their playing, I decided that the choir would be accompanied by fiddle and folk cello (chiddle?). And subsequently, I created a piano accompaniment based on the strings.

But since this is new music, not real folk music, it would also have some twists and turns—which you can hear in key changes, some of the vocal textures, and in many of the harmonies, which purposefully come from outside the traditional idioms. (For instance, the tenors laughed—with or at me, I’m not sure—when, during our recording session, I described certain passages as “an Imogen Heap moment” or an “Elton John harmony.”)

Finally, the poem took on its most powerful meaning for me when I thought about the last couplet: “There is no other guarantee / that singing will ever be.” What a stunner. What a good reminder. How sobering. So, I realized that the music needed to pivot from the simple exuberance of planting trees to reckoning with our roles as caretakers for Creation. It may be true that only God can make a tree, but it’s definitely true that it’s a blessing for us to plant them and live from them. And so the piece ends—or subsides, maybe—with an instrumental riffing on the original melody but, this time, over the choir’s pulsating echoes of those last lines.