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Utah composer puts revered poet's words to music

Published August 8, 2013 4:14 pm

Profile • Andrew Maxfield's album pays tribute to Kentucky writer Wendell Berry.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Andrew Maxfield introduces himself as the brother of Stuart Maxfield, the frontman for Fictionist, a Utah rock band. He also is the brother of Caitlin Connolly, a well-known visual artist, and the husband of Liz Davis Maxfield, a Fulbright scholar and cellist.

But Maxfield, of Orem, might be the most remarkable member of his family.

He recently released one of the state's most ambitious musical projects: a choral album that sets the lyrical, pastoral poetry of Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry to music.

"Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music" took seven years to make, which means Maxfield, 32, has devoted much of his young life to commemorating Berry's legacy as an American treasure. A man of letters and environmental activism, Berry has influenced numerous Utah writers from Terry Tempest Williams to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner. The latter was also Berry's mentor.

"[Berry] had a disproportionately large impact on my professional development," said the soft-spoken Maxfield, whose spectacles partially obscure the gleaming curiosity in his eyes. "Though I'm not the first person to write music about him, this is the first project of its kind in its scope."

Each song on the album is preceded by Berry reciting the corresponding poem, recorded by Maxfield at the writer's kitchen table in Kentucky.

The project generated so much excitement from the Kentucky-based Berry Center, an organization devoted to carrying on Berry's legacy, that it schedule a performance of Maxfield's music last April at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville. Berry attended the concert, which was performed by noted Kentucky choral group Voces Novae.

"Afterward, [Berry] was very complimentary," Maxfield said. "For me, that was a great validation of my idea."

Beginnings • Maxfield's love for Berry's poetry was sparked in 1997, when his uncle gave him a signed copy of The Memory of Old Jack. Later, in 2000, his uncle gave him a volume of Berry's poetry, and the words stirred him in the same way that composing music for his East High School choir did.

The idea for the project came to Maxfield in 2006, when he was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (He earned his bachelor's degree at Brigham Young University.)

At night and in the mornings, when he wasn't immersed in raising a family with his wife and attending classes, Maxfield read and re-read hundreds of Berry's poems, trying to decide which ones inspired him and could be used as music. As the project expanded, he enlisted Kentucky singer-songwriter Eric Bibb to also write a rootsy album of songs inspired by Berry's life and words. Bibb's album is packaged with Maxfield's as a different, but no less reverent, perspective on Berry.

Bibb called Berry "a kindred soul" who finds "joy and comfort" from the natural world.

"His impatience with the downsides of modernity is something I really resonated with," said Bibb. "Having in general a tendency to lean towards another era when things were slower and things were made, well, by hand. All of that really resonated with me — the wonder of discovering stillness once in a while in the midst of a modern hectic life. Berry was someone that I not only admired for his stance, but I also felt a kinship with him."

Maxfield often bounced ideas off a friend from BYU, Bryson Mortensen, who is now an assistant music professor at the University of Wisconsin-Rock County.

"Last year, we were both in the Madison area, and he asked me to look through them," Mortensen said. "I remember it being an really interesting way of presenting the lyrics. … It really evokes the spirit of Wendell Berry."

Recording • In January 2013, Maxfield was finished with the sheet music and recruited the Salt Lake Vocal Artists, and conductor Brady Allred, to put the music to tape.

"Andrew is a very gifted young composer and it was a great pleasure to work with such a creative and humble man," Allred said. "I was especially impressed that he revised many of the pieces for the choir until they felt 'right.' He knows how to write well for voices and he was devoted to setting the poetry in a meaningful and expressive way."

Allred said that sometimes the music was "deceptively difficult, but all of the compositions demonstrated Andrew's sensitivity to the text through his use of unique colors, beautiful textures and lyrical melodies that enhanced the meaning of the poetry."

Allred admitted he had heard of Berry, but had never read his poetry or essays.

"By the time we recorded all 15 pieces, the choir members were quite fond of several of them," Allred said. "Andrew graciously gave copies of Wendell Berry's books of poetry and essays to the choir members as gifts so they could become familiar with Berry's writings. To most of us, Wendell Barry was an unknown writer. Andrew helped to change that."

When the Berry Center invited Maxfield to have his compositions performed, he quickly signed up Voces Novae, a group of 45 selectively auditioned singers from the metropolitan area. Berry's wife is a fan of the choral group, said Frank Heller, founder and artistic director of Voces Novae.

"I said, 'Andrew, this is great stuff,' " Heller said. "I am just thrilled with his work. He builds harmonies that build tension and then relax."

As Kentuckians, Heller and his choir were familiar with Berry's work, and Heller especially appreciated Berry's environmental activism. Many consider Berry the grandfather of the "slow food" and sustainable agriculture movements.

The gig also allowed Voces Novae a chance to perform in front of Berry. "It was a phenomenal opportunity," Heller said, noting that the choir is "still buzzing about the Wendell concert."

Voces Novae was so impressed with Maxfield's music that it has scheduled a June 2014 performance of more of his choral work.

All that without even knowing his brother, sister or wife.

"This project is the first one when I am putting my name front and center," Maxfield said. "This is my big splash."

dburger@sltrib.com

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"Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music"

Music by Andrew Maxfield and Eric Bibb

Poetry and narration by Wendell Berry

Featuring Salt Lake Vocal Artists with Brady R. Allred, conductor

Available at http://wendellberrymusic.org/