Posts Tagged “writing”

Even though we just finished up one series of concerts, there are more upcoming projects here in New York that continue the flow…

On 17 February, the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble with Vicky Chow on piano and Ana Milosavljevic on violin will be performing a show we’re calling Songs from the River and Elsewhere on the Avant Music Festival, which is going to be a wonderful series of concerts, highly recommended.

We’ve already begun rehearsing the repertoire for the 17 February concert, and it’s really fascinating to be embedding RiverProject songs in and among songs from A Book of Days. While the journey down the river definitely changed me and my work, there are some themes that thread their way through all the pieces, and hearing them performed by these excellent musicians is really great.

Also upcoming (on 2 March) is a performance of The Sirens, or Pleasure, my Cagean (Cageish?) collaboration with Yvan Greenberg, by the duo Two Sides Sounding. come check out the bicycle roulette wheel doing its thing, you never know which crackerjack prizes it’ll choose!

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Along with these performances, I’m starting work on Pump Music, a big new piece for violin, trombone quartet, and location recordings of hand pumps found in campsites along the Mississippi River, a Meet the Composer commission that will premiere later in the spring on the Tribeca New Music Festival. Stay tuned for news about date and venue, which should be firmed up very soon!

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This one is really thoughtful, thanks so much, Brett!

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I found this poem by Zachary Schomburg in my inbox today, and fell in love. I’m going to perform it in some version at the BRIM debut show on 19 October at Roulette.

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“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.

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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)

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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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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L’acqua che tochi de fiumi, è l’ultima di quella che andò, e la prima di quelle che viene; così il tempo presente. La vita bene spesa lunga è.

Leonardo da Vinci, Note 1174

here’s my translation [eager for improvements from my Italian-speaking friends]

The water you touch in a river
is the last that has passed
and the first that is coming;
so with the present moment.

The well-spent life is long.

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Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:

Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)

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The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)

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The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)

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For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)

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Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)

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If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.

Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)

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“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)

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If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)

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from Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography)

“an account of my peregrination” is what Elizabeth House Trist called her travel diary, written for her friend Thomas Jefferson as she journeyed from Philadelphia to Natchez in 1783-84

[Latin peregr?n?r?, peregr?n?t-, from peregr?nus, foreigner; see peregrine.]

[I tried to keep all the spelling the way it is in the original]

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29 December 1783

[The old people] have but one Son who is married and has a house full of children. They have given all up to this son and have a room in the House; he maintains them. It gave me pleasure to see so much harmony subsist among them. The son’s wife told me they had lived together fourteen years, and she never saw the old people out of temper. They are very religious presbeterians; prayers before every meal and after; but their conversation chearfull and happy. I believe if there are good people in the world, they are to be found at this place. My heart overflow’d with benevolence, for it could not be envy to see an old couple that had lived Sixty years together endeavoring to please each other and to make every one as happy as themselves. A true picture of rural felicity: God continue to grant you his blessing, my worthy old man and Woman. p. 204

[Pittsburgh] Grants Hill is a delightfull situation. I think I would give the preference for to live on [the hill] as you are more in the World. The river is more confined, but the Objects are not so deminitive below you. p. 213

I dont like this river. The passage is attended with much more danger than I had any Idea of.  p. 226

[15 June 1784] Every one thinks their troubles the greatest, but I have seen so many poor creatures since I left home who’s situation has been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider my self as a favord child of fortune. p. 226

[18 June 1784, at the Chicasaw Bluffs] I some times conceit — I am got to the fag end of the world; or rather that it is the last of Gods creation and the Seventh day came before it was quite finnish’d. At other times, I fancy there has been some great revolution in nature, and this great body of water has forced a passage were it was not intended and tore up all before it. The banks are now about 50 feet high, very ragged, and every here and there great pieces of the earth tumbling in to the water. Often great trees go with it, which fill the river with logs. Some places along shore there will be great rafts of fallen timber. The water is as muddy as a pond that has been frequently visited by hogs. Alltogether its appearance is awfull and Melancholy and some times terrific.

[19 June 1784] This is a Passionate sort of a climate, quickly raised but soon blows over.

[30 June 1784 Great Gulph, 75 miles from the Yasou] A Mullato Woman nam’d Nelly was exceeding kind to us, gave us water mellons, green corn, apples — in short, everything that she had was at our service. Her conversation favord rather more the Masculine than was agreeable. Yet I cou’d not help likeing the creature, she was so hospitable. She gave us the history of her life. She may be entitled to merit from some of her actions. But chastity is not among the number of her virtues.

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Pervading the earliest expressions of the autobiographical impulse in America, we find, according to Patricia Caldwell, “the important alliance between migration and conversion,” a consequence of the passage across the ocean that made the first white settlers in New England a unique people. The narratives testify to the continuing validity of this association between spatial movement and psychological transformation to later generations of American life-writers.

William L. Andrews’ Introduction, p. 9

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The ferry at New Roads was closed, so I had to drive down to the bridge at Baton Rouge and then back up to St. Francisville, where I found an RV Park right next to the Audubon History Site and talked Bill the owner into letting me set up my hammock in the back. Bill introduced me to Luke, a delightful man, a biker (of both kinds) who turned out to be the ideal host and companion for exploring St. Francisville. He shares my affection for history and churches of both the natural and man-made kinds, and because he has biked all the roads around here, he really knows where all the good stuff is. He also took me out for really excellent meals: you can taste the Cajun influence already, that’s for sure!

This RV park is a whole different experience than staying in a state park. Most of the people here are contract workers building bridges and roads nearby, so no-one is on vacation. Luke is the exception: he is retired, lives in Baton Rouge, and his trailer here functions as his house in the country. Both nights as I set up in my hammock, I overheard two guys sitting out around a fire talking, and even though I didn’t listen for all the details, the sense of a particularly male anxiety was palpable even in the snippets I did hear: talk of work and money and the effort to win the approval of fathers. These guy-guys definitely do not have it easy, and it helps me to understand where that weird America-first anti-immigration political rage comes from even though it’s misguided and confused about the actual economic roots of these guys’ insecurity. It must be terribly lonely to be a man in this sort of milieu: a wife and children are responsibilities, not companions. Awful for men, awful for women, I really wonder how this model has lasted so long.

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Thursday afternoon I went over for a tour of the Oakley Plantation, the house where John James Audubon worked as a tutor for four months, during which he painted the first 32 plates of Birds of America. Not quite Rilke in Duino Castle writing the Sonnets and Elegies in a white heat after ten years of writer’s block, but pretty damn close! Audubon was in his mid-thirties, with a wife and children, and pretty much bankrupt and a failure when he headed out here and took this tutoring job and began his incredible project. Seeing his little bedroom here, walking in the woods he ranged to find birds to model for his paintings, was a really moving experience.

I had not really thought in advance that of course this place he was living was a plantation powered by 250 slaves. The oddly unfriendly woman who gave me the tour pointed out the master bedroom tub, a metal basket shaped sort of like an upright half-papaya with the seeds removed. The only way a person could sit in this tub would be spread-eagled and helpless to move or get out, except with the help of another person: the slave attendant, of course. I keep trying to make sense of the implications of having that level of intimacy and dependence on a person you don’t even regard as fully human, a person you own the way you own a car or an iPod. I begin to feel like an ignorant innocent: this is not a fun sexy little game of BDSM, this stuff is for real, and I begin to understand what obscenity really is.

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