Going Home Star: against Babel

cd-cmccd_22015I’ve been listening to Christos Hatzis’ score for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star and by that I mean that it’s constantly playing in my car over the past week.

I saw the ballet earlier this month, a creation that I want to tag with powerful words that might scare you off:

  • Political
  • Inter-cultural
  • Redemptive
  • Utopian

Going Home Star is a ballet created out of the conversations surrounding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I went so far as to call the ballet a genuine part of the TRC, given the way it promotes conversation & healing, not unlike The Diary of Ann Frank. Yes I was intrigued by the way the story was created, the dance & spectacle, including a residential school set on fire (which may have been as cathartic to modern-day residential school survivors, as seeing Auschwitz set ablaze might be to Shoah descendants) but especially the music seemed to be of a particular interest. Hatzis’s score combines elements into a genuine synthesis of east and west. While we’re still in the mode of the dominant culture –it’s still a ballet and danced—the music is much more than just the appropriation one fears when cultures meet. Hatzis incorporates and collaborates with aboriginal musicians, creating a sonic tapestry that is a wonderful quilt or mosaic (in keeping with one of the main national metaphors of Canadian identity).

And so let’s say that Hatzis’s music is rattling around inside my head. Today’s sermon at my church –the last falling in February aka Black History Month—was an occasion for my mind to wander. I usually sit still and listen or fall asleep. Today I did something very different, namely to make notes inspired by the sermon on the spirituals that we hear at this time of year.

I was struck by the utopian possibilities of music, meaning the ideals one can glimpse only through music. Where a resistance movement can try to argue with those beating them with clubs or hitting them with water cannon, a song such as “We Shall Overcome” or “Glory Glory Hallelujah” has an entirely different sort of effect. The listener may resist at one level, their body and their soul hears the music and is at least partly persuaded. In the left-brained discourse that’s linear and verbal, there may be discord but in the right-brained non-verbal processing of the music there is unity.

I was reminded of the myth of Babel, and speaking of babbling, I took notes on my Blackberry. One of the great myths of the Old Testament concerns the Tower of Babel. I am guessing that it’s actually an older myth in the way it portrays a kind of fall not unlike the Edenic Myth. It may be just a projection of our oneness with our mothers, the natural manifestation of ego differentiation, that leads us to feel distant and severed from the oneness we had as babies when our mothers seemed to read our minds: but the Babel myth seems very timely at the moment.

In the American electoral conversation one can’t help noticing the prominence of a certain millionaire who shall be nameless for fear of provoking spontaneous nausea. The current discourse is not really a conversation at all but is more like two solitudes (to appropriate a metaphor used to describe Canada a couple of generations ago). Where legislative politics requires a back and forth, between different viewpoints (such as Republican and Democrat), there is no conversation anymore, as the GOP refuses to talk, taking extreme positions that are unprecedented, unless you want to go back to the Myth of Babel. Neither side seems to understand or to hear the other.  I believe it comes from an impatience with legislative due process, a desire to use executive action. We shouldn’t get all superior though as we saw something similar in Canada, as Stephen Harper made Parliament all but a rubber stamp, while negating conversation & discussion, aka due legislative process.

Of course there might be another way to portray the “fall” of the Babel myth. Yes there were multiple languages that may have been able to debate at one time but then grow into such discord that they no longer really understand one another. But in music there is a unified language.

Hatzis’s score seems to invoke that unity, in a discursive space promoting healing.
I am reminded of an older –more challenging—attempt at a kind of utopian healing. In the concluding pages of Ullman’s opera The Emperor of Atlantis, the onstage characters invoke Death. Note that in this story Death has gone on strike –as he might in a concentration camp—to protest. Death is invited back, to the tune of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, the great Lutheran Hymn. My mind boggles imagining the performance that never happened (because rehearsals were stopped, and the composer Viktor Ullmann shipped off to Auschwitz, where he was murdered), the moment when the jews would sing this Lutheran hymn while calling for Death to release them: a song sung to German Soldiers holding guns, but still possibly possessing hearts that could be moved by the most fundamental tune of their upbringing and their religion, a tune Mendelssohn also used in his Symphony celebrating the Reformation roughly a century before this. Whenever I hear this music i see Ullmann’s utopian scenario in my mind.

There’s also a comparable scene in the movie To Be or Not to Be , as the Jewish actor gets to play Shylock’s scene directly to “Hitler” (another actor in costume), while soldiers listen. It’s a funny movie.  But a stunningly redemptive dream –comparable to that of Ullmann—underlies this moment. Can art’s ideals speak to the human inside the fascist beast, appealing to his better nature?

I think music has done this, when for example the black music of the 1950s and ‘60s thawed frozen hearts affirming a common humanity.

In the meantime I may be frustrated with the so-called debates on TV, but I shall continue to listen to Hatzis’ score in my car, one place at least where the dream is alive.

For further information about obtaining the CD click here.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Politics, Popular music & culture, Psychology and perception, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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