At Last (text: Wendell Berry)
version for voice, cello, and piano; 4’ (2014)
(originally from The Space Between)
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My song cycle The Space Between is enormous in scope, full of oversized emotions, huge philosophical inquiries, and big dramatic gestures. After all this tumult, the ethereal “At Last” feels not only like a lovely way to end the cycle, but like a necessity, as if the audience needs this song in order to move on. Like all my favorite poetry, Wendell Berry’s text is something I can immediately understand, but that I know I can never understand fully. It very gently helps the listener to “pass through into the land of the wholly loved,” but does so in a way that is beautifully ambiguous, full of mystery and potential meanings.
This potential of “At Last” to express so many different things has proven to be one of its biggest strengths. In 2012, the NYC-based arts non-profit Sing for Hope incorporated it as the final song for the AIDS Quilt Songbook @20, a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the classical music world’s first organized response to the AIDS crisis. In the context of HIV/AIDS, “At Last” has become a beautifully gentle way of helping people to move on, both those who have lost loved ones, and in some way, those who have died as well. Berry’s words resonate so strongly in conjunction with the AIDS epidemic, and I’ve come to see “At Last” as almost being destined to be heard in this light, where it seems to have such power and meaning.
In the original song, the voice plays against the piano’s counter-melody as if there were two voices singing together. The added cello line brings this to the forefront in this arrangement, re-contextualizing the song as a duet between one voice with the power of language, and another, wordless, other-worldly voice. This makes it a particularly powerful duet in the context of the AIDS epidemic, where there are so many lost voices. I am so humbled by the incredible work Sing for Hope does in mobilizing artists to benefit communities in need, and so pleased that “At Last” has become a part of that work. And I am truly excited to see what other new lives it will take on, and how its context will continue to evolve.