In 2013, the men's vocal ensemble Cantus commissioned me to write a piece about the American immigrant experience for a program that celebrated themes of home and identity. I asked my frequent collaborator, the novelist and poet Nathaniel Bellows, to write text for the piece.
Inspired by elements of the 1971 film Jan Troell film The Emigrants, the 1978 Terrence Malick film Days of Heaven, and Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!, Psalm of the Soil is a meditation on humankind’s spiritual connection to the land and the essential role this connection plays in shaping our sense of identity, specifically as these ideas pertain to the experience of newly arrived American immigrants working in the agrarian tradition of years past.
In the film The Emigrants, a Swedish farmer moves his family to Minnesota, determined to provide them a better life. He and his family encounter much disorienting hardship along the way, but once they finally reach their allotted plot of land, he is able to quickly reclaim his identity via his innate relationship to the land; he quickly identifies what is familiar about this new terrain and its farming traditions, and is thus able to get his feet on the ground and begin to find a sense of place and security for his family.
Even today, many immigrants coming from abroad find within the New World a sense of affiliation, lineage, identification, and belonging that emerges only in an interaction with the natural world. In unfamiliar surroundings, the tactile environment is often the medium by which the individual reconnects with his or her history and sense of purpose while retaining customs and traditions from his or her homeland. This is most true, of course, for those who actually work on the land.
In creating Psalm of the Soil, Nathaniel and I were interested in exploring themes of identity and physical place, particularly as they relate to the immigrant experience: the notions of dislocation and promise, strife and liberty, all driven by the hope that an act of bravery — of sacrifice — might lead to safety and solace.