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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Robert Kyr is a prolific American composer who's written 12 symphonies and more than 60 choral works. He's chair of the composition department at the University of Oregon. To create his music, Kyr travels far from the Pacific Northwest to remote northern New Mexico, to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It's a place of stark beauty and isolation, where monks in black habits pass their days in manual labor, study, and contemplation.

NPR's John Burnett caught up with Robert Kyr in the high desert earlier this summer to watch how he works.

JOHN BURNETT: Robert Kyr comes to the monastery several times a year on a semi-sacred mission: to compose rapturous music that's inspired by this world of light, stone, stillness and prayer.

(Soundbite of monks chanting)

Mr. ROBERT KYR (Composer): I've been coming to the monastery for 17 years and it's been an amazing journey for me. From the first time that I arrived, I felt that somehow I had come to a place that was my spiritual home. It's the one place where, for me, there's absolutely no barrier to my creative flow here.

(Soundbite of monks chanting)

BURNETT: Cut off from TV, Internet and cell phones, time follows a different rhythm here. The monks are called to prayer seven times a day.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

BROTHER CHRISTIAN (Benedictine Monk, Monastery of Christ in the Desert): My name is Brother Christian. I'm a Benedictine monk of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico. We live 13 miles down a dirt and gravel road off the main highway. So, it's a remote place, but there's a saying that the deeper you go into the desert the more you're sought out.

BURNETT: In the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, guests visit regularly on solitary retreats. They stay in simple rooms with no electricity and they eat with the brothers in silence. Over the years, Robert Kyr has become a frequent visitor.

BROTHER CHRISTIAN: Well, we're proud of him. I mean, he's a great composer and probably not all the brothers even know that. He comes here and quietly does his work. Anyone listening to his music will see it's inspired in some level or degree by this kind of environment that obviously he's attracted to and continues to return to.

BURNETT: Kyr blends in with the guests. He's 58, of medium build and height, with a pensive face and an earnest demeanor. He often wears a blue dress shirt and hiking boots. Right now, Kyr is at the monastery working on a commission to write four pieces for Conspirare, an acclaimed chamber chorus based in Austin, Texas.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BURNETT: The music comes to the composer on long outings in the mesa-lands where bands of orange, yellow and red sandstone expose 200 million years of geologic history, and here along the winding Chama River, where hardwoods grow in the river bends.

Mr. KYR: Here's an example of a really old oak tree, probably almost 50 feet. It's incredible.

BURNETT: It's like these trees out here are old friends of yours.

Mr. KYR: Oh, these trees are my companions. And often I come out on this peninsula and sit here for hours and think about the piece that I'm composing and create music inwardly.

BURNETT: Composers are often drawn to nature. Mahler went to the high Alps, Brahms to a lake. It's been said that beauty lubricates the spirit. Kyr pauses beside the rushing Chama.

Mr. KYR: While I'm hiking, I never stop to write anything down. Sometimes I'll sit along the river. But only later, usually in the deep night, and I mean usually from 10 p.m. until two or three in the morning, that's when I write it down. And basically, I'm recalling that from my inner experience of it.

BURNETT: Late summer is the monsoon season in New Mexico. Afternoon thunderstorms boil out of the west. Thunder echoes off the towering river canyon and resonates inside the small adobe chapel where the brothers gather for Compline, the final office of the day.

(Soundbite of monks chanting)

BURNETT: Kyr sits in the pews with the guests while the brothers chant alongside icons of St. Benedict and John the Baptist.

(Soundbite of monks chanting)

(Soundbite of thunder)

BURNETT: In a separate building late at night, Kyr brings the music he's composed in his head during his hikes to this small room, with whitewashed walls and exposed beams.

(Soundbite of piano)

BURNETT: He works the damper pedal of the creaky old upright piano with a muddy boot and writes his music on staff paper with a sketching pencil. His lower jaw squares when he concentrates.

(Soundbite of piano)

BURNETT: For this commission, Kyr is creating his modern responses to the music of four of the greatest composers of the Renaissance. On this night, he's working with a requiem written by the 16th century Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. KYR: So, what Josquin was doing was imagining each of these lines independently, putting them together so it's polyphony, many voices, line against line against line, all melodic. And then when they're put together they create these magnificent harmonies.

BURNETT: In his 21st century response to Des Prez, Kyr has selected for his text Psalm 130: Out of the depths I cry to thee, oh Lord. He says he chose this psalm because of his concern over issues such as war and environmental destruction.

Mr. KYR: And what I did was to start with the lowest voice, use Josquin's melody and expand upward, so there's literally a crying out of the depths at the beginning of the piece. Here's what my melody sounds like that's based on the Josquin melody.

(Soundbite of piano)

BURNETT: A piano cannot begin approximate the voices of 20 professional singers. That experience will come in January when this piece is premiered in Austin.

(Soundbite of piano)

BURNETT: Do you know when you've written something good?

Mr. KYR: When I'm composing I don't really think about how other people will receive the work. I hope that my music has meaning for people and takes them to a place that otherwise they could not go.

BURNETT: A place of light and space and luminous beauty that Robert Kyr visits as often as possible.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

HANSEN: We'll be following Robert Kyr's composition from its inception to its premiere at the Renaissance and Response Choral Festival in Austin next January. You can follow along too, and watch a video diary of John Burnett's visit to the monastery at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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