Musician composing songs based on Wendell Berry stories

Matt Wheeler is a singer-songwriter in Pennsylvania who is putting together an album of songs inspired by Wendell Berry's Port William stories. He is interviewed at The Rabbit Room:

I was introduced to Berry’s work through the songwriting of Jacob Zachary back when I was in college in Virginia. Years later, around the time my son was born, I was laid off from my job, and I decided to pick up Berry’s short story collection, The Wild Birds. I was hooked. I proceeded to check out almost every fiction work by Berry that my local library system had.

In his Port William fiction, Berry invites his readers into a rich community, a fictionalized version of the rural community where he grew up and still lives & farms in Henry County, Kentucky. Each story is a portrait of people who belong to each other and to their place. Berry has a way of winsomely portraying the complex, the mundane, and the sacred in the characters he writes. Berry dignifies good work, genuine love for God by loving one’s neighbor, and a right relationship with land and place. There’s just something that Berry can convey about what it means to be human that I’ve found few writers can match.

Among my favorite aspects of Berry’s Port William fiction is the fact that he has been writing about the same community since 1960’s Nathan Coulter and as recently as 2022—Berry turned 89 in August and released two new books last year!—and that there is such continuity. The stories are set in a wide variety of years, from the 19th century to the 2020s, and yet the stories all form a coherent whole. Imagine being able to do that over six decades.

Read all of "Invited into a Rich Community: An Interview with Matt Wheeler" at The Rabbit Room.


Wendell Berry's Burley Coulter and "Burley Coulter at the Bank"

A friend recently reminded me of a song that is somehow related to Wendell Berry’s fictional character Burley Coulter.

Back in early 2018, folk songwriter John McCutcheon released his 39th album, Ghost Light, which contains "Burley Coulter at the Bank". A review at the time describes the song as a "story of progress serving the few while draining the many of their meager fortunes. It's a story made all the more poignant because the young go-getter is a local who realizes too late that his duty to his job betrays his own neighbors." (Ed Whitelock, Pop Matters)

At his website (where the song is identified as "Burley Coulter in the Bank"), Mr. McCutcheon thanks Mr. Berry "for loaning me the name of one of his most memorable characters." And since there is no such bank incident in the Port William fiction, it's clear that the songwriter is paying homage to the novelist who has thought so intensely about the destruction of small farms and rural communities. It's also clear that the song's Burley is a sad homage to an older generation who have been ruined by brutal 20th century financial practices. 


Composer Gavin Bryars uses Wendell Berry prose in choral piece

English composer Gavin Bryars grounds his latest a cappella work, A Native Hill, on text by Mr. Berry from his 1968 essay. The work will be performed on December 14th and 16th by Philadelphia's well-known chamber choir, The Crossing.

A note at Mr. Bryars' site says,

Following from the huge success of The Fifth Century, written for The Crossing and Prism Saxophone Quartet, which won a Grammy for Best Choral performance in January 2018, Gavin has written a substantial new a capella, work that builds on the considerable experience that he has of working with the choir, and the many close personal friendships within it. For this he has set text from the American writer Wendell Berry's early essay A Native Hill (1968). Berry, now in his eighties, has written a great deal - poetry, essays, novels - from the perspective of his life as a farmer in rural Kentucky, where he has lived and worked for over 50 years. He is one of the world's finest writers, and perhaps because of his apparent isolation has been called a "modern-day Thoreau" and certainly his work is as politically charged as that of his 19th century predecessor. Gavin decided to set prose texts rather than the poetry, although, like Thomas Traherne who was the writer used for The Fifth Century, this "prose" has great poetic beauty.

Philadelphia's public radio station, WRTI, will present live highlights of the work on WRTI's Facebook page on Monday, December 10th at 4:30 PM [Eastern time, I presume], and also on WRTI 90.1 and streaming at on Thursday, December 13th at 12:10 PM. See more information HERE.

Wendell Berry and others inspire songs

The Vision was inspired by a powerful poem written by Wendell Berry that speaks deeply to my feelings about the earth, in all of its destruction and possibility. Upon meeting Wendell two times at his farm, I was amazed at how comfortable I was sitting with him and his amazing wife Tanya. I enjoyed his simplicity and how he cuts to the quick with no hesitancy or apology.

I looked this poem over and again the words that would become a song came to me and I arranged it without much effort. I usually channel poetry arrangements, but since Wendell is alive and well, I wanted to honor him and what I perceived to be his intention as clearly as I could. I did work on it more than other poems, nonetheless, it pretty much arranged itself.

I tend to select poems, melodies, and arrangements that are complex and a bit gut-wrenching and hard to sing. This one takes a lot of air! It also takes a bit of courage to sing because of the state of the world. I love the harmonies John and I do on this one.

Listen to the music and read more by Donna and John Paul Wright at The Thread in the Quilt.

Just Found: March 2014 Review of Wendell Berry Opera

It’s not often that Modern Farmer is the magazine of choice for a preview article about an opera, yet there’s no question but that Payne Hollow, composed by Kentucky-born Shawn Jaeger, was an excellent fit. The opera is based on a verse play by Kentucky poet Wendell Berry about Harlan and Anna Hubbard who, for thirty-five years, lived lightly on the land in their small home along the Ohio River. In keeping with the subject matter of the opera, Berry responded by handwritten letter to Jaeger’s request for permission to use the story and handed Jaeger a completed libretto while they sat together on Berry’s front porch.

Payne Hollow tells a quiet story, limning two quiet lives. The Hubbards lived at once alone and together, alone in their solitary worlds, and together to play Brahms, she on piano, he on violin. There is no powerful dramatic arc. Rather, the story flows along like a river, with occasional turbulence, but also with a steadiness akin to that of companionable lives well lived.

Read more at Prufrock's Dilemma

More on Wendell Berry in Nashville, May 2-3

Wendell Berry, the renowned novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer will be making a rare public appearance in Nashville on the weekend of May 2-3. On Friday evening he will be the featured guest at a ticketed benefit for Siloam Family Health Center. 

This evening event at Montgomery Bell Academy will feature special music by Andrew Peterson and an extended interview of Berry by Professor Norman Wirzba (Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School) considering the question “What Makes a Healthy Community?” 

via Siloam

More on the Wendell Berry opera at Bard College

In order to gain permission to perform an opera at the Bard College Conservatory of Music based on Berry’s short verse play, “Sonata at Payne Hollow,” Jaeger wrote a letter to Berry, who was initially reluctant to participate.

“I thought there was no way he’d be involved in the project,” says Jaeger, “but he wrote back and his letters were handwritten, which we don’t see much anymore. It was really fun to correspond with him in that way.” Encouraged but still pessimistic, Jaeger made “what felt like a pilgrimage” to the Berry homestead in Henry County, Kentucky. While sitting on Berry’s porch — adorned with bird feeders and overlooking the Kentucky River — the writer revealed to Jaeger that he had already adapted his work into a libretto, as requested.

via Modern Farmer

See also "Shawn Jaeger's Payne Hollow" (Prufrock's Dilemma)

Wendell Berry poems to be sung at St. Ambrose University

Three poems by Wendell Berry will be sung by members of the University Chorale to music composed by William Campbell, PhD, associate professor and Music Department chair, in a concert intended to celebrate the 2014 St. Ambrose University project theme of Sustainability.

SAU's Chamber Singers and the Bee Sharp men's vocal ensemble also will perform in the concert that will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 2, in the Galvin Fine Arts Center.

"Wendell Berry is well known for his writings and poems that express the relationship between humans and nature," Campbell said. "My compositions are settings of three of his Sabbath poems from A Timbered Choir: The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade, I Go Among the Trees and Sit Still and All the Earth Shall Sing.

via St. Ambrose University

An Opera based on Wendell Berry's "Payne Hollow"

Bard College Conservatory of Music will be presenting Payne Hollow, an opera by Shawn Jaeger with a libretto from Wendell Berry's Sonata at Payne Hollow. Two performances are scheduled: Friday, March 14 and Sunday, March 16. The opera will be a world premiere in conjunction with a performance of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Go HERE for more information.

I stumbled onto this information via this delightful Twitter conversation:


More on Wendell Berry, Harry Pickens, and Voces Novae

This is the second time Pickens and Voces Novae have worked together on a Wendell Berry performance. Pickens calls these collaborations “a love affair of music and words.”

“Wendell’s sensibility to the miracle of being a human being and the connection with the divine, and connection with family and earth and land and all that is something that inspires me deeply,” he says.

Now entering its 21st season, Louisville’s Voces Novae is a semi-professional community choir dedicated to performing music by living American composers. Heller says working with living American composers like Pickens on original work helps the group evolve along with the contemporary musical landscape.