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Soul-Searching Music From A Serene Desert Monastery

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico inspired Robert Kyr to compose the music on his new album of choral works.
Karen Kuehn for NPR
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northern New Mexico inspired Robert Kyr to compose the music on his new album of choral works.

Inspiration can come from unlikely places. For composer Robert Kyr, the silence of a desert monastery is key to the radiant music on his new disc of recent choral works performed by the vocal ensemble Conspirare and its director Craig Hella Johnson.

Kyr travels frequently to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, in northern New Mexico, from his home in Eugene, Ore., where he teaches composition at the University of Oregon. Living among the monastery's Benedictine monks, Kyr hikes along the winding Chama River by day and composes music in a bare-walled room at night.

The story behind the music on this album was told in a series of radio, video and online features reported by NPR's John Burnett, who first met the composer by chance, deep in the New Mexico desert, on a snowy New Year's Eve. Burnett visited Kyr at the monastery, tracing the journey of Songs of the Soul, a 47-minute cantata, from inception to its 2011 premiere in Austin, Texas. Now another chapter in the story unfolds as a recording of Songs of the Soul and its companion cantata The Cloud of Unknowing have been released.

The album opens with The Singer's Ode, an a cappella paean to the humbling power of music with a text written by Kyr himself. The cantatas traverse a more spiritual landscape, probing the complicated spaces between human and divine love, with texts from 16th century Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross. Kyr said in an email that he composed the two cantatas in the kind of solitude similar to the monastic context both saints lived in. "It was deeply inspiring for me," he said.

Kyr's music is slow-moving and contemplative yet full of life and subtle touches. He varies the textures with an effective mix of chorus, lightly scored orchestration (played by the Victoria Bach Festival Orchestra) and solo turns and duets between choristers soprano Estelí Gomez and baritone David Farwig. Nowhere is their tone more yearning and tender than in "Beseeching" (from Cloud of Unknowing) as the voices rise and fall, entwined in a gorgeous melody.

Songs of the Soul follows the soul's journey from its most "despairing and earthbound," Kyr says, to its most joyful and transcendent. This music sounds both timeless and contemporary, and harks back to the florid style of J.S. Bach and earlier.

The seven-segment cantata builds slowly, colored at first by low men's voices in "Descending: From the Abyss." It continues through "Hoping: Toward Dawn," "Transforming: Beloved into Lover" and finally "Transcending: And Love Remains." Near the very end, Conspirare splits into four choirs to bring a gleaming ecstasy to the text from 1 Corinthians 13, finishing with the phrase, "but the greatest of these is love." The final bars take the choir even higher, singing the vowel sound "ah," ultimately transcending language itself.

The northern New Mexico desert might be a serene and silent place, but for Kyr it resounds in an album of sublime music, superbly sung.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.