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Monthly Archives: September 2010
In a few hours we come to the end of the United Nations International Day of Peace. Here is Odetta very near the end of her life, frail in body but powerful in spirit and voice. I remember her early in her journey performing at The Gate of Horn in Chicago.
[Once in a while unexpected items from the past turn up in a somewhat related Google search. Because this blog is really a catchall scrapbook as much as anything, from time to time I save such things here.]
T.J. Anderson with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Conductor, Robert Spano
Dr. Thomas Jefferson Anderson’s music is frequently concerned with the African-American experience. His operas include Soldier Boy, Soldier, based on the writings of Leon Forrest… Walker, about black anti-slavery activist David Walker… and Slip Knot, about the execution of a slave in Massachusetts in 1768. His orchestration of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, the first opera written by an African-American composer, led to the work’s first fully staged performances by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Morehouse College, under Robert Shaw’s baton.
In 2002, commissioned by the Cantata Singers of Boston, Anderson composed the oratorio “Slavery Documents 2,” based on public documents of American slaves and slaveholders. The work is conceived as a companion to Donald Sur’s “Slavery Documents,” which the Cantata Singers premiered in 1990. Drawing material from Loren Schweininger’s collection The Southern Debate Over Slavery, the composer asked himself, “Why would anyone want to write a composition about slavery at the beginning of the 21st century?” His answer: “There is now a recognition that racism in America has its foundation in slavery, and we as Americans must address the remaining issues.”
In a program note for the 2002 premiere, Marilyn Richardson wrote, “The resulting libretto incorporates petitions for justice, laments keened in response to unspeakable physical and psychological violence, the defiant words of fugitives acting against all but impossible odds to claim the right to their own lives, and transcendent expressions of deliverance.”
Hear excerpts: Slavery Documents
Marilyn Richardson Comments on
Donald Sur’s “Slavery Documents”
Notions of the separation of church and state notwithstanding, such status as a slave in this nation might have had as a Christian among Christians was implacably defined and superseded by his status as chattel. Protestant divines trod a tortuous and chilly path on the matter, debating the fine points of whether blacks might or might not possess immortal souls, while keeping a weather eye out for the off-chance that The Almighty might take a broader view of things and welcome all the righteous, without distinction, into the fellowship of the hereafter.
The vicious irony of this carefully rationalized system, a pathological mix of fear, sadism, and petty willfulness, spawned by economic expediency, drives Donald Sur’s brilliant libretto for Slavery Documents. This many-layered text, whose facets gleam with angles of meaning as they are turned in the mind and through the music, is a model of indicting the guilty parties with their own words.
In setting the grating smugness of Grayson’s pro-slavery propaganda piece, much admired in certain circles in its day, against the infamous classified advertisements placed by slaveowners attempting to reclaim their property, Sur establishes a link with a strong element of African American musical tradition, both religious and secular, that is the capacity to enunciate the raw integrity of a given theme.
It is the particular burden and triumphant achievement of many of our finest spirituals, those compositions which W.E.B. DuBois so aptly called the Sorrow Songs, to bear perfect witness. The urgent, anguished query, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”; the stark imperative, “Go down, Moses”; or the jubilant affirmation, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” all draw us into a sense of participation in a most compelling and immediate way; at once magnifying and yet making personally accessible the power of the religious mysteries they address.
In many of the slave narratives which have come down to us, there is the recounting of a transcendent moment clearly remembered. From the depths of impossibility, a man or woman chooses resistance. It is the moment of fighting back in ways great or small; of choosing death over enslavement; the moment of flight into the unknown. It is the moment of fugue which sends the fugitive off into the night, shackled, branded, hunted, with only the north star, the drinking gourd for compass.
It is through the evocation of such moments that Donald Sur’s monumental and impassioned oratorio shows us, in an age when we have yet to resolve the import of this aspect of our collective history, that there is no disgrace in having been enslaved. The history of slavery in America, from its inception, is a history of resistance, rebellion, and flight. Such disgrace as must be borne falls to those who presumed to claim ownership of another human being.
Program note, world premiere performance, Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, 1990
Much of Ellen Feldman’s photography deals with motion. Single frames hold a spontaneous moment in suspension. “I . . . spy on people,” she explains, “and like to stay invisible, but don’t much care if my cover is blown.” A woman in motion, the dancer and chorographer, Nicole Piece, has been the subject of a ten-year collaboration with Feldman: the dancer in her studio subverting gravity, inventing form as she leaps, spins, and balances precariously; the photographer in steady but asymmetrical orbit adding time to space.
The images here, in contrast, are still and introspective. They are meditations on how the captured instant is forever the country of the past. They are meditations as well, on traveling with one’s parents to that country, knowing that however much the generations echo each other, they cannot complete the journey together.
[Isabel] found herself desiring to emulate [the talents, accomplishments, aptitudes of Madame Merle], and in twenty such ways this lady presented herself as a model. ‘I should like awfully to be so!’ Isabel secretly exclaimed, more than once, as one after another her friend’s fine aspects caught the light . . . .
Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
Paris light refracted in glass enlarges and distorts. In the City of Light, dark glasses are powerless against the reflection in the vitrine of that shop that sells the secret to the meaning of the city, the shop that is always closed when we try the door. These scarves are talismans, as Gallic as Villon. Arms folded in that way, chin at just that angle, gaze intent on reading in the people passing by their stories. Just like your mother. So much like your daughter . . .
A child of seven or eight and a young dachshund walked gaily west, toward fifth Avenue and the Park and out of Zooey’s sight. Zooey reflexively put his hand on a crosspiece between panes of glass, as if he had a mind to raise the window and lean out of it to watch the two disappear.
Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
A photograph of a woman reading is not the same as a photograph of a woman reading a book whose title we can see, a title that induces a double exposure through the lens of memory. In J. D. Salinger’s novel, Franny Glass, in a spiritual crisis, lies on the couch for days, weeping. Fragile, she may either stand intact or break, under the assault of family and the cosmic notes that can shatter body and spirit . . .
These were my two worries when I was a child: one was that I was not [my parents’] true daughter, and would be sent away. The other was that I was their true daughter and would never, ever manage to escape to the outside world.
Earthly Possessions, Anne Tyler
The women raise their arms in the gesture, both sultry and vulnerable, of Picasso’s subjects in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, it only works because one becomes two just as in the Picasso – - that artist, that lover, that father in summer. The mother holds her cigarette, the ice cubes melting in her drink. The daughter is lost in thought, her leg smooth and curved like a Matisse cutout, wondering about the weather in Paris where she is posing in the nude. They will find their way there together – - one day . . . .
[Introduction and commentary by Marilyn Richardson. This piece appeared in a different format in the Sept./Oct. 2010 issue of the Women's Review of Books.]
I’m just a few pages in, although I’m reading around in it at the same time. Thought for the moment: the cultural context makes all the difference – - the fish doesn’t realize it lives in water. We don’t realize how much of the Old and New Testaments we live “in.” Not just religion, something similar could be said for Shakespeare. But we learn or pick up bits and pieces of the Bible throughout our lives – - so, for example, we know we don’t have to make sense of those begats, but we all encounter the Ten Commandments somewhere along the line.
Picking up the Koran as a text it all has the same “tone” for me. I know that’s not how it functions in the lives of people who have known it from the cradle. And I also know it will never be an intimate element/cultural touchstone of my life in the way the Bible is. I’m not a church-goer, more of a cultural Christian who grew up knowing hymns, Bible stories, some prayers and Psalms and later a whole realm of art historical reference.