On Songs of Earth and Sky, Bill Douglas follows the musical path that he pioneered on his superb Deep Peace. Working once again with the Ars Nova Singers, Douglas creates choral settings for the most beloved poems from the English Classical poetic tradition. “If you liked the original, you’re going to love the sequel.” While it’s rare that this sentiment is expressed about a favorite book or movie, it’s a safe bet that fans of last year’s Deep Peace will be enthralled by Douglas’ new album Songs of Earth and Sky. Returning for this release are the Ars Nova Singers, some of the world’s greatest poets, intricate, lovely, and spirited melodies, and superb ensemble playing. What’s added is an air of earthiness and celebration to complement the depth of thought and feeling inherent in the immortal words of the poets.
“I am the daughter of earth and water,
And the nursling of the sky;
I pass through the pores of the oceans and shores;
I change, but cannot die.”
These lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Cloud” are a perfect illustration of the Earth and Sky dichotomy. Also represented in the choral pieces are Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Wind of the Western Sea,” William Blake’s “The Echoing Green,” Robert Burns’ immortal “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose,” Shakespeare’s “Willow,” and Douglas’ version of “I Shall Not Live in Vain,” which combines verse from both Emily Dickinson and Blake to excellent effect.
The choral arrangements are performed flawlessly by the Colorado-based Ars Nova Singers, conducted by Thomas Morgan, and hearken back to the works of Renaissance-era composers for whom choral arranging was a way of life. Which is not at all surprising, given that Douglas describes his choral composition technique as being most influenced by Josquin de Prez (1440-1521),Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and William Byrd (1543-1623).
Douglas himself deftly handles piano, synthesizer and bassoon chores, while sundry woodwinds take their turns with melody. But the album also features solo piano on the Bach-like “Autumn Song,” and for anyone who enjoys a good Celtic romp, there’s “Feast” and “Balyshannon,” manual dexterity for flute and violin (nee fiddle). In short, like Deep Peace before it, Songs of Earth and Sky combines the words of the great Western poets with the melodic gifts of a celebrated contemporary tunesmith to a brilliant end.