Art Away from Home

Part 3 of my blog series, recalling the great luxury of my experience at Civitella Ranieri where I wrote two major sections of If Sons, Then Heirs.

During my second week at Civitella, we listened to three fellows’ recordings:

Xiaoson’s called “Non-violence,” was a 30-minute piece of six movements with fourteen instruments, about two from each major section of the orchestra, and a choir.  He used two spoken or sung concepts in the piece, the English phrase “Shut up!” and the Chinese word, sh?, meaning “kill.”  It moved from discordant playing and singing where “Shut up!” so clearly oppressed and shut down human activity and connection to Indonesian-like ch-ch-cha-ch-ch-ch-ch-cha singing and up-down rhythm, into Kill, Kill, Kill.  In the fourth movement I felt as if the music made me touch a desire within me—not external to me—for mastery, control, I WANT—all the way to kill.  I felt it, as one feels in Prokofiev’s terrible prelude to Alexander Nevsky.  Then the piece pulled out of it into something like exhaustion, and then resolved into a hopeful movement where the music played and sang underneath birdsong and children’s voices.  Birds outside the open windows of the music studio sang along.

Joseph Phibbs’ was a young Englishman educated at Cornell.  He practiced Shubert and Chopin. And when he played Bach, he said, he felt the closest thing to God he’d ever experienced.  His 14-minute piece was tonal and “vertical,” as one of the other musicians called it.  Certainly not a narrative.  “Illumination” began with the high tones of a tuba, which I’d never heard before, and the clarinet, which he likes, with its furry seduction.  Lots of color in the piece, and, for me, a resonance that made me go inside myself rather than listen attentively.  Very selfish, but there it is.

And then there was Michael Gatonska’s “Life Cycle of a Hummingbird,” a string piece performed by a New York string ensemble comprised of two dozen performers without a conductor.  It was a perfect metaphor for Michael, as we were coming to know him, with his anarchic after-dinner humor and unflappable daytime discipline. Gaetan, the French Canadian writer said, “I will speak in the English I have: You are the playful, funniest guy, and yet this music is so tortured.”

It did indeed have deep, dark, rich tones that seemed to be about mortality, a hummingbird’s maybe, but more like ours.

The young Massachusetts babysitter of the daughter of a visiting Civitella board member (whom I knew from the Pew Fellowships) heard in the piece Superman and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.  There was wine at dinner and what I gather were wicked powerful Italian after-dinner drinks of many colors in tiny glasses.  The babysitter insisted that Michael hear her and share his response:  Did he think he was Superman; was there an Eeyore slinking around inside him? There was some awkwardness, and a group effort to move the conversation to a wider, but concentric circle.  But her talking did move me.

Who the hell are you, I heard her saying, behind that curtain of musical creation? What is your art doing?  Where does it come from? Why does it matter?  What makes it good? Regarding the avant garde and accessibility: what’s the difference between originality and self-absorption?

At the end of this week, so that Jim from Minnesota could see it before he left, the writer Faith Adiele, showed us her the 30-minute PBS documentary about her life as a first-generation U.S. citizen looking for emotional, psychic, cultural home. We had visitors this night, too, from the American Academy in Rome, giving the presentation an added feeling of public-ness. Who would have believed that in a few years we’d have a president with a similar pedigree?

Raised by a Finnish immigrant to Sunnyside (dear heavens, the name!), Washington, who’d married a Nigerian during the Civil Rights movement, Faith grew up in a town whose non-whites included Mexican migrant workers, one black family—and her. She grew up with beautiful handmade books from her mother that told her Finnish and Ibo folktales and yearning for some group, some people somewhere, who would understand what it meant to be both, “people who would speak that language,” she says in the documentary, scripted largely from her writing about the experience.

The film follows her to Nigeria to the home of the father who left the States during Nigeria’s fight for independence and became a minister of education, a staunch supporter of Biafra’s doomed fight for liberation.

Faith went to find him ten years before our meeting at Civitella, and discovered a difficult man who, when he returned to Nigeria from the States, understood the impossibility of bringing a white woman home.  Instead he remarried and named his daughter there the word for First-Born girl. We saw a phenomenal, mythic tree that was said to save their village during the Biafran war, because every time the Nigerian army chopped at it, it ran with blood.  Its roots, above the ground, looked as thick as legs, intertwined.  One shot showed Faith sitting on them, writing in her journal as the sun went down, as if she were sitting in an outdoor tent.  She said that in the village each time a child was born, its umbilical cord and placenta were buried in the ground and a fruit tree planted.  “How can I take root,” asked her voice-over, “in a place where I was never planted?”

Finally, she reported the father telling her, in a rare moment of intimacy and apology, that his families—and she—have borne the weight of the sacrifices he made to build the Nigerian nation.  Unlike most other leaders he did not make great personal gain, and all the time and energy that might have nourished his children went instead into the dream of building a nation that would lead the continent in post-colonial growth and glory. But instead, he said, the great experiment failed.  All the sacrifice and her suffering, he said, weren’t worth it.

At the end of the documentary, we returned to Sunnyside, WA, where it’s raining and grey, and to the 60th birthday for her Finnish-born mother.  She gave her mother a dress made from Nigerian fabric we saw her purchase at the market and tickets to Finland, where they were to travel together so that her mother could introduce Faith to that place where she also had roots, but was not planted.


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