We were So Civilized

Digital collage: We were So CivilizedNo matter where I am on the Fourth of July I am likely to think about the country in which I was born and have lived all of my life thus far: the United States of America. The Fourth is the official birthday of the nation, though many of the current states joined the union long, long after that July in 1776 when it was established by its founders. Like so many nations around the world, this country and its history are a tremendously complicated and varied patchwork of fact and fiction, hope and fear, two steps forward and one step back. Over and over and over again.

Imagine this: a pack of refugees from religious persecution left their homeland and sailed into the unknown across an ocean of which they also knew very little except that their passage across it was dangerous and miserable and killed plenty of them before they hit the new shore. When they landed, to their surprise there were already plenty of other people living on that new turf, and did that stop the interlopers from moving in, too? Of course not. I don’t expect it ever occurred to them, to be honest, that there wasn’t room for everybody or that if they took a ton of the resources around them that might just mean there were fewer for the previous residents of the land, folk who had, indeed, already long established a very different relationship with the continent.

That the illnesses and diseases the newcomers brought with them from Home would endanger and kill many of their new unwitting and unwilling neighbors could never have entered these interlopers’ minds, when they were so preoccupied with not only their current survival but their escape from the hardships and sorrows back in their own homeland. That they themselves would suffer privation, fear, danger, loneliness, and the loss of their lifetime homes, belongings, families and friends across the vast ocean they had crossed was a stark enough reality that perhaps they willed themselves not to think too hard about all that they faced next also affecting the long-tenured native peoples across whose lands they moved like human bulldozers.

The establishment of this new home was far from smooth and easy too, as anyone could probably guess, though I wonder if any of them really considered that the goal as much as simple escape from what they’d known before. Still, none of those inhabitants of North America—invaders or original denizens—could possibly imagine at the time, I suspect, quite how vast the whole continent was and what that meant in terms of creating new colonies within it, let alone new nations. In the years that followed, the westward migration confirmed the existence of innumerable tribes and clans of people not before known to the new arrivals, but also of wild creatures unimagined, of terrain unlike any they had dreamed possible, of climates that had been the stuff of legend until then.

In those many decades of carving out new paths and territories, it was inevitable that, just as it had been with the foregoing generations of various indigenous peoples, there would be struggles over who had access to what, who could live where, and who belonged together with or as far as possible away from whom. No surprise that this led not only to separated towns and enclaves and ethnic, religious, political or philosophical communities but also, in turn, to a wild array of accents and ideas that might as well have been different languages and different species altogether.

Amazing that all of this could remotely possibly coalesce into what is known as the United States of America. Today’s states are still so diverse, even sometimes from county to county or one side of the railroad tracks to another, that it’s nearly laughable to call them United. We fight like pesky siblings with each other all the time; it’s a miracle, in my book, that the so-called Civil War, one of the most uncivilized events in the country’s history, hasn’t simply continued from its beginning to the present day. It does, perhaps, at subtler levels. Just because the invasion of the continent by a bunch of frightened Pilgrims who only thought themselves seeking freedom from tyranny didn’t destroy the whole land and kill every one of them off outright, and because the various internal skirmishes that led to, but were far from limited to, the Civil War didn’t complete that annihilation doesn’t mean we’re not still perfectly capable of incredible incivility at every turn. We try, we fail.

On the Fourth of July, I think of how astounding and—generally—good it is that this messy nation has managed to survive this long without self-destructing. But I can’t help also thinking this of most of the rest of the world. Humans just plain are messy. We form and break alliances; we argue over being Right instead of being compassionate or practical, let alone pursuing justice. We blunder around, hog resources, ascribe privileges and powers to ourselves and our chosen comrades that we willfully deny others, or just pretend the others don’t exist, and thanks to our weirdly, wonderfully diverse array of accents, when we do get around to discussing the least of these things, even those who ostensibly share a language can’t understand each other half of the time anyhow.

Just possibly, our life form may have been civilized at a few choice moments. There is plenty of potential in this odd species of ours, I like to think. Even we Americans aren’t entirely irredeemable; we keep bothering and beating up on each other like so many brothers and sisters, and yet most of us still manage eventually to just agree to disagree and, in moments of precious lucidity, even to see each other’s point of view and operate in an environment of respect and hope. As rotten as we can be to each other, we care enough to wrestle it out and try to find ways to go forward. Together, even. If that isn’t a family worth saving, I guess I don’t know what one is. Happy birthday, USA. Go forth and get a little more civilized, if you can.

Self-Annihilation

P&I drawingWhat does it mean to repress or suppress others? We humans have found so many awful and horrific ways to abuse and torment each other, to subjugate and enslave, belittle and diminish and depersonalize them, that homicide and genocide seem afterthoughts, if not almost a mercy at times.

What do we demean or demolish when we do so to other people? Community. Diversity. Complexity. All of those things that enrich our own lives. Things, indeed, that make our survival possible. We become trees hacking at our own roots and branches, all the while drinking toxic rain and poisonous streams.

If we lessen or lose one life, the whole tribe hangs in the balance. If we lose one tribe, we risk the loss of all humanity.

Röda tråden (The Red Thread)

Röda tråden is the Swedish phrase for connectivity. I learned it from my husband, who in turn learned it during his dissertation studies on modern Swedish choral history, and in a way it’s the perfect encapsulation of what his research revealed: that the astonishingly deep and broad influence of such a small country, in such a short time, on such a large field as Western choir singing and music came about primarily because of the remarkable and unique confluence and joining together of a huge number of events, people, ideas and resources in that little land at the end of the Second World War. As unimaginably terrible as war is on any scale, it’s all the more a testament to connectedness that at the end of one of the largest we’ve known, such good and meaningful and positive elements were all drawn into one significant, beautiful growth spurt in the art of singing together.digital illustrationAs a miniature of String Theory in the arts, this surge of the choral art in Sweden is notable (no musical pun intended) not only because it posits a reasonably substantial explanation for the larger choral sector’s modern expansive development amid the general devastation and struggle following the end of WWII, but also because in doing so it illustrates wonderfully how the intertwining of all sorts of seemingly disparate elements such as safe havens from political unrest and postwar reevaluation of norms, personal and professional relationships and experimentation with new media could come into contact and interact to create a new mode of thinking, acting, composing, teaching and singing. In turn, this is a striking model of how people from distinct cultures, educational backgrounds, economic resources and political systems and of widely varying personalities, unified by the one tiny thread of choral music, could be pulled together into a complicated system that, though still colorfully messy and imperfect, led to a potent common end that has had lasting and marvelous influence for long and fruitful decades since.

I am, of course, grateful on a personal level because this Swedish postwar influence on Western choral culture has not only enriched my husband’s professional and artistic endeavors–not to mention was the basis for his award-winning doctoral dissertation that in turn opened a lot of friendly doors to us both in Sweden–but because it produced so much spectacular music and inspiration for so much more.

digital illustration

Röda Tråden is the Swedish version of the idea that–indeed literally–fascinates so many of us: the connecting thread–that which binds one thing to another. I can think of nothing greater than to spend life seeking the Red Thread that shows us our commonalities and binds all people together as well.

Further, though, I am grateful that such an otherwise inexplicable event as the ‘Swedish Choral Miracle‘ seems to me ample proof that all things and people really are connected. And that through recognizing and making good use of those connections, however, odd or tenuous they may appear, there is hope for new and better songs to be sung everywhere.

If I needed further proof of this, last night’s concert gave it amply. My spouse conducted the combined forces of the Chancel Choir of the church where he’s currently interim choirmaster plus their excellent hired pro orchestra in performing Haydn and Dvorak’s two settings of the Te Deum text as the concert opening and closing, respectively, bookending the extraordinarily lovely and moving Missa Brevis of Kodaly. I came in to sit for the concert among strangers and acquaintances from the church and discovered a friend from another parish sitting across the aisle from me, then learned from one of the choir administrators that a friend of hers in attendance turned out to be a long-ago colleague of my husband’s from another state, and finally went up to greet my guy after the concert and found him speaking with a group of ladies in the front row, one of whom was the wife of a former US president. What brought all of us divergent people together in this moment? Music. Beautiful singing and playing. Chance, kismet, divine intervention. Call it what you will, the slender but unbreakable thread that connects us all drew us into one place for a time of basking in the inscrutably beautiful harmony that is beyond craft, beyond art. That is a concert without peer.

Equilibrium

photo montageOne of the things I enjoy most as an artist–as those of you who frequent this joint know–is playing with all of the commonalities I find in the visual world. I am very much an analogous thinker; what I see is tested, examined, recognized and theorized on the basis of what it reminds me of at first glance. I suppose it’s the virtual equivalent of judging a book by its cover, but what it allows me when I’m thinking in strictly visual terms is the opportunity to fiddle with the ideas of what I imagine to be the links between one subject and another and as patterns emerge from it, use that for creative fodder, learn something about these pet subjects of mine, build images based on them, and in turn, learn something about myself along the way if I make even a little effort.

It’s very easy to become a collector. We all have our idiosyncratic passions and interests, to the degree that when we’re not actively gathering objects and concrete stuff that reflects them we are still busy building our internal storage of ideas and images related to them, and we end up with personalities shaped by, and like, them. People associate us with our sets of tastes and ways of thinking. Me, I am addicted to patterns and repetition and all of those other characteristics that seem to me to express the wholeness of the world. I like the unique iterations that make each part of the larger network have its own personality or meaning yet remain subservient in one way or another to the more visible and outspoken qualities that are held in common.

I strongly suspect that this simply showcases my longing for a wider world wherein the beauty of each individual is respected and nurtured yet the things we know we have in common are celebrated above all else because we treasure our place in a bigger picture. That’s a work of art that we shouldn’t have to take art classes to appreciate.