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Ghost towns of the American West

author of text

In 2004 I saw an advert for a competition called the Barlow Prize, offered every year in a different genre by Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I had just written Aquileia for the Saint Louis Chamber Choir and thought I would submit it for the prize. I was surprised and very pleased to win, as the prize was a commission to write a choral piece for performance by three choirs—the University of Utah Singers, VocalEssence in Minneapolis and the BBC Singers. It also gave me the opportunity to go to Utah and work with singers, composers and choral conductors there.

From the start, I wanted to try and find an American text that would also have a more universal theme of impermanence. The image of ghost towns came to mind and the huge open spaces of Utah. I remembered the words by Vesta Pierce Crawford that I’d used for Beneath these Alien Stars and wondered what else she had written. I managed to buy an out-of-print volume of her verse on the web for $1 and when it arrived it was a signed first edition of Short Grass Woman. I discovered that she had taught at the University of Utah and her parents had been Mormon pioneers. This strange serendipity was irresistible, and I chose several extracts from her poems to be the text. She writes very vividly of a huge bright landscape in which Man is small and vulnerable, and describes the hopes and sometimes desperate lives of the people who sought their fortune there. It was very moving that her grandchildren came to the Utah performance in April 2007.

The first movement describes how the landscape quickly re-asserts itself when man has left—‘his covenant with earth, fervent and brief.’ Against stark word setting, some voices whisper the names of Utah ghost towns, some of them unsettling, some hopeful, ‘Death Canyon, Peerless, Joy, Silver City.’ The second movement describes a miner returning to his cabin in the mountains after a day digging in vain. Against a hummed background, a tenor solo sings a folksy tune. At the end I included ‘Home Sweet Home,’ originally an American song. The third movement ‘Where are the Voices of the Multitude?’ talks of people being a short interlude in the eternities of time. The poet says that her ancestral voices will come from the seed of grass scattered in stormrather than from a fallen house or her father’s grave. The huge bright landscape dominates and triumphs.

from notes by Judith Bingham © 2008


Bingham: Remoter worlds & other choral works
SIGCD144Download only


Movement 1: I speak out of the desert
Track 15 on SIGCD144 [3'33] Download only
Movement 2: The gray mask high in the moutains  Moon-mantled, mist-hung, gray mask cabin
Track 16 on SIGCD144 [4'20] Download only
Movement 3: The voices of the multitude  The hill hermits and the followers of sheep
Track 17 on SIGCD144 [3'31] Download only

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