EAST NORRITON - The Crossing has lived on the fringe for its entire 11-year existence, but the contemporary music choir is only now making its debut at FringeArts. How could that be?
Sound from the Bench, the program the Crossing performs at 5 p.m. Sunday as part of the Philadelphia 2016 Fringe Festival, promises to fit in with the edgier artistic expressions around it, with works by Ted Hearne of Brooklyn that are confrontational on every level.
"This is the right match. We did not want to go to the Fringe in a church," said Donald Nally, the Crossing's director and founder, referring to its usual headquarters at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. "This music works outside of that. You don't need a church acoustic, because the piece is amplified. The Fringe is often looking at social issues. That's what we do all the time."
The centerpiece of the Sunday program is Hearne's 2014 Sound from the Bench, scored for choir and three-piece rock band, the latter used more for commentary than accompaniment, sometimes sounding like a sort of emergency alarm. The topic: How corporations were granted rights of personhood, as expressed in various court transcripts compiled and molded by Philadelphia poet Jena Osman.
The music frequently reverses the usual roles of voices and instrumentalists: The chorus sometimes frames the rock instruments rather than the other way around. In contrast to the homogenous washes of sound heard in so many choral works, this one is rhythmic, and Hearne's idea of vocal range is all over the place.
"So he's asking a lot," Nally said, "though not turning choral music on its head but pushing it in a direction that it should go. We instinctively know about certain kinds of music - rock, gospel, and jazz - because we all grew up as Americans. But we're not trained in it . . . and there are technical challenges that only an advanced singer can appropriate. My particular role is concentrated on shifting on a dime. You're going full-throttle crazy, and all of the sudden you're in this ballad."
Often, the piece feels like a thorny collage - in juxtapositions of elements that mean something different in every encounter. One litmus test is the guitar writing at the start of the third movement. To some, it's an emergency alarm. Others might hear it as the squealing power of machinery. Composer Hearne mainly just wanted something abrasive.
"The piece is about what it is to be human," Hearne said on Tuesday. And not.
Differences between humanity and corporate machinery have been melded in the eyes of the law, with a series of decisions that granted corporations certain rights of personhood.
The idea for the piece came about at the MacDowell Colony. Osman was in her first day of a residency, Hearne in his last. They met over dinner and talked about her particular writing style, which uses words appropriated from elsewhere - at one point Osman quotes from a ventriloquist's manual - eventually evolving into her 2014 verse collection titled Corporate Relations.
Found texts have long appealed to Hearne, whose other works quote military logs from the Iraq war and transcripts of the famous 2012 rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio. And if Hearne's manner of setting Osman's texts isn't 100 percent audible, "the politics of the piece are clear without having the words in front of you," Osman said. And if she displays little of a poet's usual sense of ownership over her words, she points out that almost all the words are borrowed rather than her own.
On Tuesday, the Crossing, Hearne, and Osman were at a different kind of fringe - MorningStar Studios at the edge of the Philadelphia metropolitan area - tucked away in a residential neighborhood outside Norristown. In a piece where heavy exhalation is part of the overall vocal mix, you weren't surprised when Hearne asked for heavier breathing from the sopranos. That in itself was the kind of incongruous juxtaposition embodied by the piece, not to mention the recent travels of the Crossing, fresh from a successful engagement at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival.
"I don't know whether to say I feel completely crazy or, 'Oh, my God, I can't believe we're so fortunate,' " Nally said.
The Crossing has been emerging from its protective early incubation in Chestnut Hill for a few years now - in one of its first Lincoln Center appearances, the group sang in an outdoor wading pool - so much that Nally often wonders whether the old image of a tuxedoed chorus singing Mozart is going to be extinct. "I say this kind of stuff at a national conference, and you can hear the guns being clicked inside people's pockets," he said.
In Nally's wide-ranging exploration of new choral music, is any mode of expression off limits? There is one rule: The investment of time and trouble must offer a definite artistic payoff for the singers.
"At what point is the spirit going to break?" Nally asked. "And then you have a bunch of singers saying, 'Why am I sitting here?' At the end of the day, we have to be able to say, 'This means something.' "