This one is really thoughtful, thanks so much, Brett!
Monday morning, we left Pittsburgh early in order to get to Hyden, Kentucky, where Mary had set up a school presentation for BRIM at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music. Mary had been there with ETHEL before, and has worked with Dean Osborne, who’s the director of this very cool school nestled in a hollow in the Appalachians.
I was fascinated to learn that there’s a rigidity and extreme traditionalism in the bluegrass world that rivals the classical music world. Doing anything different from the established norms is frowned upon, and yet all the greats of bluegrass were of course tremendous innovators who broke all the rules, from Bill Monroe to the Osborne Brothers themselves. So the school is devoted to finding that line of respect and devotion to the excellence of the tradition, while at the same time opening up to new ideas and approaches that will keep the art form alive.
It was a really meaningful experience to perform my music for these fellow travelers, I felt like we arrived from different places to a shared path, and I’m honored to have their company. They had lots of questions about how I put my music together technically, which was a bit of a surprise to me. When I do these kinds of presentations at conservatories, I don’t generally get asked detailed compositional questions. I found the whole experience refreshing and fascinating. I think there may be something really interesting to explore at the nexus of traditional bluegrass and new musicâ€¦. Hmmmmâ€¦.
Dean Osborne generously arranged to put us up at Mary Breckinridge’s house, Wendover, which was the site of the Frontier Nursing Service she founded in the late 20s, and which is still operating today. (I had only learned about this program a few weeks earlier, when I met Mary’s cousin Kristin, a cheese-maker, at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market up in Vermont, who had participated in the program in the late 80s.) Mary Breckinridge was this amazing person. A privileged woman, she lost both her own children at an early age, so she decided to come to deeply impoverished Leslie County and start a nursing service for mothers and children. In the years that she ran this service, both maternal and infant health improved from perhaps the worst in the nation to better than the country as a whole, and all this work was done by a combination of professional nurses on horseback traveling up and around the hollows, and by young women volunteers, who came out to join the adventure. It’s a case of those much-maligned “ladies bountiful”Â doing something really meaningful and transformative with their time and talent and energy. Dean estimates that something like a hundred thousand people today owe their existence to Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service.
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Saturday, we headed out in the rain and cold towards Pittsburgh, stopping at Shanksville at the newly unveiled Flight 93 memorial, which is quite well-done: tasteful and thoughtful in that National Park-ish way. It might be strange to say this, but I found the absence of any information or images of the four hijackers to be a lost opportunity, somehow. I guess I really believe that seeing the bad guys, engaging with their craziness, is a way to guard against craziness in oneself or one’s culture. I mean, isn’t that at least part of why we read and watch movies about Hitler or mass murderers or whatever? I’m not sure how that could or should be done at this memorial, but in my opinion, erasing them completely from the picture is a sanitizing that minimizes the actual authentic heroism of the forty folks who brought down the plane in this lonely field.
We arrived at my friends’ Rick and Kate’s place in time for dinner, and I could help marveling at how different our pace was from that 20 to 40 miles per day I did going down the Mississippi in 2009. No wonder I got so interested in 19th century (and earlier) history, I was traveling at a pre-20th century pace! That’s super-obvious the moment I think of it, but I only realized it fully doing that quick drive on Saturday: nothing to it to drive from New York City to Pittsburgh, it’s only a few hundred miles!
It was great to catch up with Rick and Kate. Rick is a wonderful poet, you can check out his work here and here, and Kate is a passionate birder, and I was really gratified that she liked the movie of In and Out of the Game, that really means a lot to me.
The night before heading out on our little mini-tour back to the Mississippi, I took Mary out for a sunset paddle on the Hudson River. I figured since we won’t be kayaking or biking on tour, we could at least start out with a paddle just to get off on the right foot or something.
Here are a few pictures from the paddle, which was just great. If you’re in NYC and are into paddling at all, this is an excellent little excursion, highly recommended!
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Mary Rowell and I as BRIM are doing a show at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS on 11 October as part of a little mini-tour we’ve set up. More info here. We’ll be traveling along the Ohio River to join the Mississippi, really looking forward to getting out on the road again!
Mr. Faiman also gave a lovely account of Eve Beglarianâ€™s â€œNight Psalmâ€ (2009), an appealing meditation in which velvety descending arpeggios morph into a quietly rumbling harmonic haze. Ms. Beglarianâ€™s â€œIâ€™m Worried Now, but I Wonâ€™t Be Worried Longâ€ (2010), though composed only a year after â€œNight Psalm,â€ inhabits a different universe: electronic sound, a droning cello line and tactile, rhythmically solid harp writing form the backdrop for a soulful, almost folk-song-like soliloquy for the violin, played here with a rich, deep sonority by Miranda Cuckson.
then, next Wednesday 1 June, again at the Stone, I myself will be performing with fabulous guests Lydia Van Dreel, Mary Rowell, and Megan Schubert. works include the first performance of EinHorn for horn and electronics, and lots of other good stuff. Hope to see you there!
Here‘s a happy-making preview of the two pieces I’ve written for the Sarasota Orchestra players as part of the Greenfield Prize.
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…)
(The siren bowl pictured above is at the University of Mississippi, how cool is that?!?)
I’ve posted another River Project piece, this time on YouTube. It’s call In and Out of the Game, and it was inspired by my meeting with Paul in Cape Girardeau, which you can read about here.
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
here are a collection of quotations from The Soul of the Indian, by Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa) [Dakota Sioux], published 1911.
Charles Alexander Eastman was the grandson of Seth Eastman, the painter who worked with Schoolcraft. He graduated from Dartmouth, worked as a physician, and was a founder of the Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls.
I think this book should be far better-known than it is.
The first missionaries, good men imbued with the narrowness of their age, branded us as pagans and devil-worshipers, and demanded of us that we abjure our false gods before bowing the knee at their sacred altar. (from Foreword)
The worship of the â€œGreat Mysteryâ€ was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking.
(from Chapter I: The Great Mystery)
All who have lived much out of doors know that there is a magnetic and nervous force that accumulates in solitude and that is quickly dissipated by life in a crowd.
(from Chapter I: The Great Mystery)
It is my personal belief, after thirty-five years’ experience of it, that there is no such thing as â€œChristian civilization.â€ I believe that Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable, and that the spirit of Christianity and of our ancient religion is essentially the same.
(from Chapter I: The Great Mystery)
The moment that man conceived of a perfect body, supple, symmetrical, graceful, and enduringâ€”in that moment he had laid the foundation of a moral life! No man can hope to maintain such a temple of the spirit beyond the period of adolescence, unless he is able to curb his indulgence in the pleasures of the senses. Upon this truth the Indian built a rigid system of physical training, a social and moral code that was the law of his life.
(from Chapter III: Ceremonial and Symbolic Worship)
The truly brave man, we contend, yields neither to fear nor anger, desire nor agony; he is at all times master of himself; his courage rises to the heights of chivalry, patriotism, and real heroism.
(from Chapter IV: Barbarism and the Moral Code)
The attitude of the Indian toward death, the test and background of life, is entirely consistent with his character and philosophy. Death has no terrors for him; he meets it with simplicity and perfect calm, seeking only an honorable end as his last gift to his family and descendants. Therefore he courts death in battle; on the other hand, he would regard it as disgraceful to be killed in a private quarrel. If one be dying at home, it is customary to carry his bed out of doors as the end approaches, that his spirit may pass under the open sky.
(from Chapter VI: On the Borderlands of Spirits)
I cannot pretend to explain them, but I know that our people possessed remarkable powers of concentration and abstraction, and I sometimes fancy that such nearness to nature as I have described keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers.
(from Chapter VI: On the Borderlands of Spirits)
(my notes on Where The Two Roads Meet, by Christopher Vecsey)
The demise of Indians as obstacles to American expansion made them objects of commiseration to romantics and other sympathizers. (p. 96)
[The current term for the Catholic Church's attempts to missionize is inculturation, the idea being inculturation good, syncretism bad...]
“If inculturation is the evangelists’ systematic and conscientious effort to translate the universal message of the gospel into the religious categories of the target society, then syncretism is the inverse process by which those who have been evangelised try to retain vestiges of their own religion, not so much in opposition to the Christians as in reclothing the accepted tokens of Christianity in the appropriate aboriginal religious forms.”Â Manuel M. Marzal The Indian Face of God in Latin America, quoted in Vecsey, Two Roads (p. 143)
I am MUCH more interested in syncretism than inculturation. it seems to me that inculturation is simply the next step in colonialism: deciding for the other what of their own traditions can be worked into the replacement religion. The syncretism of AfricanAmerican, Haitian, Cuban Christianity is its power and richness, and that power teaches me and deepens my faith, not as a member of any of those cultures, but as a way of opening up the multiple mysteries of the Gospel.
An anthopologist uses the phrase “imperialist nostalgia” to describe the new evangelism of the contemporary Church. [Kozak, David. "Ecumenical Indianism: Kateri and the Invented Tradition"] Anthropologist Michael Angrosino says “there is an underlying assumption that inculturation is something that the Vatican, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, is in a position to grant; it is calling people to the truth and only uses cultural forms to induce people to heed that calling.”
(my notes on Native and Christian: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, a collection of essays edited by James Treat)
The Christian church is made up of creatures on a planet that revolves around a small sun, in a small galaxy that is only a small part of the cosmos. As our knowledge of our creation grows and as our search for meaning expands, can we really continue to believe that the truth that forms the basis for our faith is exclusive or that God has chosen to reveal truth only to Christians? At the same time, does the realization of other truths have to mean that the rich history, tradition, and faith in the truth of Jesus Christ is any less vital? I do not think so.
We must begin to discover the vast, mutual ethical basis of religious experience and begin carving out theology with peoples of different faiths. We must begin to share our faith, not as a tool of conversion, but as a means of mutual spiritual growth in which learning becomes as important as teaching. We must begin to share in spiritual understandings, spiritual expressions, and even spiritual beliefs, not to convert, but to grow in understanding. We are compelled to do this not only out of self-interest (to strengthen our faith) but that in this sharing, we along with others may grow in our understanding of God’s purpose for creation.
from Indian Spirituality, Another Vision, by James L. West (Baptist Cheyenne)
in Treat, Native and Christian (p. 36)
the idea of three Testaments: the Hebrew Scriptures, Native American Tradition, and the New Testament, that there are perhaps multiple “Old Testaments” that can assume a similar role for Christianity as the Hebrew Scriptures… articulated by Steve Charleston (Episcopal Choctaw) in “The Old Testament of Native America”
the idea that the Native Americans are the Canaanites to the Israelite/Europeans, the indigenous people who must convert or be destroyed, who are the original inhabitants of the promised land, proposed by Robert Allen Warrior (Osage, Methodist) Response from William Baldridge (Cherokee, Baptist) tells the story of the Canaanite women who comes to Jesus to beg for healing for her child, who dares to say “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Baldridge says: “What happens next is a miracle: The Son of Yahweh is set free. The son of the god of Canaanite oppression repents. Jesus not only changes his mind, he changes his heart. He sees her as a human being and answers her as such. “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly… and so, I believe, were the wounds of bitterness in the Canaanite woman.”
There is real concern among the reservation traditions of the impact and meaning of spreading the tribal teaching to anyone who has a spiritual or emotional need. The belief has always been that the Great Spirit and/or the high spirits are also watching others and they will provide the proper religious insights and knowledge to others. Therefore it behooves Indians to obey the teachings of their own traditions and hold them close. If they were meant for other people, the other people would have them. Such thinking has prevented most tribes from engaging in religious imperialism, and the humility underlying this attitude is admirable.Â (Vine Deloria, Jr. Yankton Sioux historian)
from Chief Seattle’s 1855 speech:
1. Your religion was written on tablets of stone by the iron finger of an angry God lest you forget.
2. The red man could never comprehend nor remember it.
3. Our religion is the tradition of our ancestors,
4. the dreams of our old men, given to them in the solemn hours of the night by the great spirit and the visions of our leaders, and it is written in the hearts of our people.
5. Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb; they wander far away beyond the stars and are soon forgotten and never return.
6. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being.
7. They always love its winding rivers, its great mountains, and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely-hearted living and often return to visit, guide, and comfort them.
8. We will ponder your proposition, and when we decide we will tell you.
9. But should we accept it, I here and now make this the first condition that we will not be denied the privilege, without molestation, of visiting at will the graves where we have buried our ancestors, and our friends, and our children.
10. Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe.
11. Even the rocks which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the lives of my people.
12. And when the last red man shall have perished from the earth and his memory among the white man shall have become a myth these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe;
13. and when your children’s children shall think themselves alone in the fields, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.
14. At night when the streets of your cities and villages will be silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land.
15. The white man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly with my people for the dead are not powerless.
16. Dead — did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.
Here are a few excerpts from A. J. Liebling’s marvelous profile, The Earl of Louisiana, which I highly recommend reading if you have any interest in Louisiana, politics, racism, or fabulous writing… WOW!
When the new Charity Hospital was built here, some Negro politicians came to Huey and said it was a shame there were no Negro nurses, when more than half the patients were colored. Huey said he’d fix it for them, but they wouldn’t like his method. He went around to visit the hospital and pretended to be surprised when he found white nurses waiting on colored men. He blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn’t fit for white women to be so humiliated. It was the most racist talk you ever heard, but the result was he got the white nurses out and the colored nurses in, and they’ve had the jobs ever since. (reporter Tom Sancton, quoted in A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
“After all this over, he’ll [Rainach, Long's primary opponent] probably go up there to Summerfield, get up on his front porch, take off his shoes, wash his feet, look at the moon, and get close to God.” Then the old man, changing pace, shouted in Rainach’s direction, “And when you do, you got to recognize that niggers is human beings!” (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
The Deep South has gone on for a hundred visible years since the Civil War bemoaning the twenty-five years of its own total history that preceded. In this submerged fifth of its past, according to the legend, great “floating palaces” went up the majestic rivers (since sullied forever by Yankees washing their feet in them) to thriving cities (like the Alick of 1854). Short-order aristocrats, rich from cotton made on new land by prime Negroes, built the great houses, and elegance busted out all over.
From the beginning of the rush for cotton lands, in the 1830s, to the beginning of the War, in 1861, was a span shorter than separates us from the administrations of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Walker. This included the Caliban beginnings, the making of the money, the achievement of elegance, and the historic split-second left for the elegance to harden–like a quick cake icing. This knockabout-comedy turn in history has furnished forth the brooding squashy ancestral memories of a hundred Faulknerian heroes, echt and ersatz.
It is as if, in 2029, the whole nation should blame all intervening misfortunes on the stock-market crash of 1929, and think of the few years of money-making — for atypical people — that preceded 1929 as a thousand-year Reich of Stutz Bearcats for Everybody. I opened my mind to my friend when we got on the road again, and he, since he was from New Orleans, took no offense. In New Orleans a planter was always a figure of fun, a pigeon to pluck.
“The South doesn’t believe the story,” he said, “except when it seems useful to pretend to believe it. That’s why I can’t read Faulkner. And one of the bonds between Earl Long and his audiences is that he doesn’t believe it, and they don’t believe it, and it’s a kind of private joke between them, like two kids in Sunday School that don’t believe in God.” (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
In its passion for politics, the Gret Stet of Loosiana, as southern Louisianians refer to it, resembles most closely the Arab republic of Lebanon, but in its economy it is closer akin to the Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The Gret Stet floats on oil, like a drunkard’s teeth on whiskey.Â (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
The Mediterraneans who settled the shores of the interrupted sea scurried across the gap between the Azores and Puerto Rico like a woman crossing a drafty hall in a sheer nightgown to get to a warm bed with a man in it. (A.J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana, 1960)
“Fellas like Faubus and Rainach and Leander Perez and da rest of da White Citizens and Southern Gentlemen in dis state want to go back behind Lincoln,” he said. “And between us, gentlemen, as we sit here among ourselves,” he said, arresting a chunk of fried steak in mid-air and leaning forward to give his statement more impetus, “we got to admit dat Lincoln was a fine man and dat he was right.”
Then, as he turned back to the steak, skewering it against a piece of ham before swallowing both, he caught my look of astonishment and cried, too late, “But don’t quote me on dat!” (p.138)
I am really a very simple person is the first piece I wrote after completing a journey by kayak and bicycle down the Mississippi River. It was inspired by something the visual artist H. C. Porter said to me soon after we met, in Vicksburg in November 2009. This choral version uses solfÃ¨ge syllables as the lyrics for the piece, which perhaps will evoke thoughts of the old shape note singing traditions.
Here is a score of the piece in pdf format.
I am open to performances of the piece by any group of instrumentalists and/or singers. I can supply you with various different arrangements I have made, or with the Finale file so you can make your own arrangement. Please let me know when you perform the piece. And you are warmly invited to support this very low-key way of publishing:
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.
more pictures here