Category Archives: Project

the sirens of plaquemine

I’ve been away for a while being sick with what felt like an endless case of bronchitis, and I am better now, for which I am totally totally grateful, but the good part is I pretty much stayed home and played around in music-land the whole month of January, which was a very fun thing to do.

So here’s a little taste: a piece I’ve made out of a recording of the sirens in Plaquemine, LA. I had heard the monthly warning siren test when I was there with Mac in December 2009, but I only caught the last bit on my recorder, so I got Bill Kelley, a fine engineer and musician based in Baton Rouge, to record it for me in December 2010, and it’s inspiring lots of siren pieces.

Some of them will be part of the Archives of Exile project with Richard Steadman-Jones that’ll be going happening in Sheffield in July, but of course they are part of the River Project as well, so I hope you enjoy this taste of The Sirens of Plaquemine.?

(I think you might want to listen to it softly: these particular sirens aren’t warning you, exactly…)

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(The siren bowl pictured above is at the University of Mississippi, how cool is that?!?)

other people think

One of the greatest blessings that the United States could receive in the near future would be to have her industries halted, her business discontinued, her people speechless, a great pause in her world of affairs created…. We should be hushed and silent, and we should have the opportunity to learn what other people think.

“Other People Think”, the prizewinning speech by John Cage, age 16, at the 1928 Southern California Oratorical Contest (at the Hollywood Bowl(!))

quoted by Alex Ross in “Searching for Silence” in The New Yorker, 4 October 2010, page 54

mountains and mounds

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After the Easter trip to Mississippi, I ended up first in Sarasota, FL, at the Hermitage, then home to NYC for a minute, then back to Montalvo to retrieve my car and kayak and bike, and then I drove to northeastern Wyoming, where I am spending May at an artist’s colony at Ucross. I was here once a long time ago, and since then, they have built the most perfect composer’s studio ever. I really really love it here. Wow.

On Saturday I took a hike up to some teepee circles that are on a hill overlooking the tiny intersection that forms the town of Ucross (population 25.) It turns out that the name teepee circle is misleading: archaeologists do not find evidence of encampments or any domestic life at these sites, and seem to think the circles have something to do with religion or vision quests. And they are very old, at least 1000 – 2000 years old, maybe more.

What I found deeply striking, and the reason I am writing about it on this RiverBlog, was that the location of this teepee circle, on a plateau/promontory beneath the crest of an even higher hill, overlooking the river valley from a good height — removed, but not so high above as to be inaccessible or feel terribly remote — is that it seems like the natural analogue of the man-made mounds I encountered from Cahokia near St. Louis all the way down to Natchez. It almost feels like the Native Americans along the Mississippi river decided they needed to build artificial versions of this mountainous landscape along the river where no landscapes like this would ever naturally be found.

And because the migration of Native Americans I’ve been mostly thinking about is the 19th century exile from the East to the West, it’s really strange to imagine that perhaps Native Americans who had lived here in Wyoming and Montana moved east to the Mississippi river valley and decided to replicate an important Western geological/spiritual structure by hand. (I’m totally making this up of course, I have no actual knowledge of the migration patterns of Native Americans a thousand or more years ago.)

These teepee circles and mounds are ghost towns in some special sense — not abandoned villages, but evidence of a lost or abandoned spiritual life — more like Stonehenge than Derwent. I’m thinking that in the Middle East and Greece and Italy, (to name my own preoccupations,) certain places have always had mystical or spiritual significance, and those places often get re-purposed, re-visioned, as different religions and religious rituals develop. Are there churches in the UK that were purposely built on prehistoric religious/ritual sites? I’m not thinking of an example of that kind of re-purposing in the US: the National Cathedral is not on a Native American religious site as far as I know, and I think there’s not enough respect for the Native American spiritual tradition to even think in terms of wanting to borrow or re-imagine the spiritual power Native Americans found in a particular place.

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more pictures here

the mystery of how much

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” wrote Eudora in The Optimist’s Daughter. Perhaps the implication is that the same mystery applies to places as well as people.

My visits to Rodney with Chris and Mary in the last six months are as far distant from Eudora’s visits to Rodney in the 30s and 40s as hers are from the Civil War.

I’ve just gone through and added some excerpts from the Welty story At the Landing to a small set of selected images.

To explore more photos of Rodney and the surrounding river country, please go here.

remembering betrays nature?

Somehow I thought of this poem in connection with the Archives of Exile project and Richard’s comment on my post yesterday. I don’t really know the poetry of Pessoa, and a quick bit of research turns up the fact that he wrote under a series of names — heteronyms, he called them — each of which had his own way of seeing the word and writing poetry. This is how Pessoa describes Caeiro, the writer of the poem below:

He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind. He does not let any thoughts arise when he looks at a flower… the only thing a stone tells him is that it has nothing at all to tell him… this way of looking at a stone may be described as the totally unpoetic way of looking at it. The stupendous fact about Caeiro is that out of this sentiment, or rather, absence of sentiment, he makes poetry. (quoted in Wikipedia)

*

Rather the flight of the bird passing and leaving no trace
Than creatures passing, leaving tracks on the ground.
The bird goes by and forgets, which is as it should be.
The creature, no longer there, and so, perfectly useless,
Shows it was there — also perfectly useless.

Remembering betrays Nature,
Because yesterday’s Nature is not nature.
What’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.
Fly, bird, fly away; teach me to disappear.

Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) Portugal
in Poems of Fernando Pessoa

*

I guess the point we are circling around is the way in which yesterday’s nature can’t be nature, or shall we say “natural”, but is culture. The wisteria in Rodney is historical, not natural, even though it is quite obviously a flowering vine blooming out of the ground in the spring. Does recognizing the wisteria as a human trace prevent me from fully seeing it, as I think I’m understanding Caeiro’s poem to say? Do Welty’s passionate things really endure in ways we can feel even when we are ignorant of the details? Or does everything simultaneously disappear and endure in some almost mystical way that is what we are feeling when we visit a ghost town or walk through ruins? And how much of this is sentimentality or nostalgia, and what of it is the essential, authentic, and totally real bond that ties humans together across life and death and time and distance?

Wisteria in Exile

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On this spring visit to Rodney, the blooming wisteria was a constant presence, the vines tangling in profusion everywhere.

It turns out that wisteria is actually an invasive species in the United States. Originally from China, it is a trace of the domesticating urges of the French settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I picture a slim, elegant, brave woman (she is French, after all!) making the long trip across the ocean to New Orleans and up the river to Rodney, holding her wisteria cuttings tidily on her lap, stroking them now and again. I picture her planting them by the side of her newly-erected house in a lumpy clearing — not backhoe-raw as the clearings new houses stand in nowadays — but still, a scarred open place carved out of the deep woods of Mississippi.

She can not quite imagine that her delicate and beautiful wisteria will survive in this remote place.

She can not imagine that her lovely wisteria will thrive to grow into wild vines that pull down walls and strangle large trees.

She can not imagine that one day the wisteria will be the last remaining trace of human settlement in the town of Rodney.

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Welty Country

Eudora Welty documented Rodney in her 1930s photographs for the WPA, in several of her early stories, and in her 1944 photo-essay, Some Notes on River Country. Here are a few excerpts from her writing that apply directly to Rodney, and also to the Archives of Exile project I’m working on with Richard Steadman-Jones.

from Some Notes on River Country:

A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain.

I have never seen, in this small section of old Mississippi River country and its little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times there a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.

***

Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure. Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things — regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.

from the story At the Landing:

Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.

putting it together

I think most of you know that I’ve pictured this river journey as happening in three phases: the first phase is the human-powered journey I’ve been taking down the river, having adventures on the river and near it, meeting people, camping in parks, reading in libraries, visiting churches, and writing and posting as I go. Starting in January, the second phase will begin. I’m going to settle in at a series of artist colonies and write music in response to this whole amazing journey. I’ll be at Montalvo in California from January through March, at the Hermitage in Florida in April, and at Ucross in Wyoming in May, and then spend the summer up on my land in Vermont. In the fall, I imagine beginning phase three: revisiting the places and people I met on the first journey, performing the music I have made for and hopefully with them, doing residencies that enlist townspeople as fellow performers.

I need your support to realize the total vision for the project, so I’ve set up this tiered list of possible contribution levels. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it’s an exciting experiment for me, and I really hope you will want to participate, at whatever level is meaningful for you. If every person who has visited this Riverblog were to sign up to pre-order the mp3s, I could live for the whole writing period without worrying about bills. If enough of you donate at higher levels, I will be able to do residencies and give free concerts in towns that can’t afford to hire me to play.

$10 download high quality mp3s of the CD

$20 one download for you, and one free download for another person

$25 pre-release physical copy of the CD

$50 pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, and a free copy for another person

$100 pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, two free copies for others, and a totally cool EVBVD Rivertrip T-shirt

$250 signed pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, three free copies for others, and two totally cool EVBVD Rivertrip T-shirts

$500 all of the above, plus special thanks on the CD

$1000 all of the above, plus executive producer credit on the CD

$3000 all of the above, plus you’ll be listed as commissioning one of the pieces on the the CD

$5000 all of the above, plus I’ll do a free concert at your home, OR at the school, church, gallery, museum, or community center of your choice

$10,000 all of the above, plus you can guest in as a performer on the recording of one of the pieces OR we can collaborate on choosing/making a text for one of the pieces

Click this button to contribute at whatever level you like.





If you are interested in participating at the $500 level or above, please contact me first, and we’ll work out the details and arrange for your support to be tax-deductible.

Thank you for participating in the river project: I couldn’t do it without you!