… Passage of Ash …
The trapped sparrow hovered around the skywell.
… She swirled downward. She sunk to her last breath.
Her ashes gleaned the Sedona sky.
The piano lay dormant over the years.
Within the ammunition vault,
… a black widow spins her web around the cocoon.
Tchaikovsky’s last thunderous note sent waves upon waves of questions
… to those who feel his solitude.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
03 November 2009. In traffic on the 10 freeway. Stuck. National Public Radio played in the background. Stories after stories told, one resonated. The journalist shared news of Claude Levi-Strauss’s passing, his accolades, his contributions to humanity. What struck me was his gloomy vision of our world which he expressed in one of his last interviews. The broadcaster played Levi-Strauss’s recording of that interview in French.01 With a voice over in English, he conveyed that “There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals. And it’s clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves. And the world on which I am finishing my existence is no longer a world that I like.”
I guessed being stuck in traffic was a good thing. The stagnation allowed me to meditate on these last words. I turned off the radio. Sat in traffic. Thinking. What a brutal, harsh reality. Levi-Strauss’s pessimism slapped me in the face, awakened my consciousness, my mind to my surroundings. Yes, Claude. I understand that we live in a choked up world – suffocated. Resources depleting, evaporating, done. Gone. My mind traveled downwards, into an apocalyptic whirlpool. Stop!
Mind settled. Rest.
You see Claude, although you are no longer with us, I am still here and I still like this world – every ray of light, every moonlight. Traffic subsided. I began to move from a standstill to a steady flow. I left my consuming thoughts with hesitation. What can I do to reverse this pessimism? I can hope.
Weeks later, a curator had invited me to consider a space for an exhibition. The site was the former armory vault at a historic 1934 National Guard building which has since been converted into an art center in 1989. The long narrow space measured just 6 feet wide, 30 feet deep covered with varying values of greys. It was dark inside. I moved towards the middle. The curator followed. She jokingly mentioned that there was a myth at the art center that if the world would end, this space would be the safest place to be. My agreeing nod veiled preoccupied thoughts that this room once housed ammunition to kill others. Is this what Levi-Strauss envisioned the world to be? In a suffocating vacuum? No room to move; no room to breathe. No! I refused! “How to give life to such an empty space?”, I whispered to myself.
“I need more time.”, I told the curator. The site visit left me dazed.
As if timing could not be better, my dear friend, Victoria, had asked me to accompany her on a road trip a few days later. She was on a search for vortices in Sedona Arizona. Without thinking twice, I said with a resounding “yes!” not knowing what Sedona would be like at the end of December. It turned out to be cold, freezing cold, beyond cold – for me at least. Snow covered pine forest surrounded the landscape on our approach. We took a long narrow winding descent into the heart of the woods, drove into a camp site. It was deep into the night. Silence, stillness. I heard water flowing as if a stream echoing nearby. With our car headlights on, we had no choice but to quickly pitch our tents. I recalled not being able to hammer the pegs into the frozen ground. I tried. With each strike, the pegs curled. I gave up.
“A still night, no wind. I should be fine.”, I thought.
Victoria, a Michigan native – well, sort of 02, reassured that we will warm up as soon as we get a camp fire started. We worked as a team. I gathered frozen pine needles – lots of them. In between gathers, I cupped my hands over my mouth; used my own breath to warm my freezing hands. I continued collecting. Victoria took care of getting the fire started. It was a long, cold process. Numbed and frustrated, I did not know if these frozen pine needles would work yet I continued on. At one point, I deliriously asked “is it on yet?” referring to the camp fire as a light switch. Victoria replied, “no … collect more pine needles, please…”
The camp fire lasted long enough for some ramen and a cup of tea. Exhausted, I turned in for the night, sought shelter inside my tent. I slept surprisingly sound despite a thin layer that separated my body to the icy ground.
Sunrise between clouds. Stream echoed. Freezing ground pulsed. Beating. Thump. Thump. Thump. I woke up inside my cocoon. I laid in silence. Listening. Thump. Thump. Thump. Listening to earth’s heartbeat, my heartbeat. Thump !thump. Thump !thump. Thump !thump. Hearts conversed. Becoming. Swallows harked back at rising sun, at ashes of time. I awakened to an uplifting sense of freedom inside my cocoon, enclosed yet polar extreme of the armory vault. Claude, this is what I imagined the world to be. Emptiness.
Aligning Time and Space
How to bring the warmth of my frozen cocoon into the vault? Earth’s heartbeat. Claude, from your interviews03, you used an analogy of an orchestral conductor to describe your scholastic approach in your research. You discussed in detailed the notion of alignment of instrumental sounds to make the whole. I reflected on what my instruments would be. What would be required to orchestrate and choreograph movements inside the vault.
I turned to historic pasts to begin my composition entitled Piano Loom, Tchaikovsky’s Cocoon. I travelled to places of mass sufferings, of individual sufferings, to Colonial India and to Tchaikovsky’s last symphony specifically. Back in the day, workers picked cotton in the fields of British India. Day after day, month after month, year after year, mounds of raw cotton travelled back to the mother country, to the textile mills of Lancashire. The processed cotton fibers returned to India, sold for a profit while workers continued to pick in the cotton fields. The cycle repeated itself – over and over again, an unending record player. Gandhi broke this silent hum, encouraged fellow citizens to spin, to weave their own fiber, to collectively boycott the imported British textile. Their actions sowed into the hearts of a birthing nation. I sowed their spirit seeds into the vault. A loom grew from 30 feet deep from the heart of the vault to the entrance – sweeping the suffocations to the open space – out the door.
A handcrafted piano, constructed out of multiple loom frames thread together as one, sat deep inside the vault. Light filtered down through the piano onto an armless chair. A record player rested on the seat – spinning Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, Pathetique.
The thought of an orchestral conductor triggered memories of my worn nomadic feet in Guanajuato Mexico, 12 Aug 2008. Serendipitous moments brought me to Mexico – a long story to digress; however the source of my trip stemmed from my chance encounter with a rattle snake. It rained early in the morning. I went on my morning walk through the narrow pathways of the historic town, headed to the central market to take my usual breakfast – homemade nopales burrito with eggs. The colors of the city, on the buildings, of the markets vibrated, pulsed, moved to a rhythm that breathed life! My days were spent observing the subtle unfolding of the everyday – sitting and reflecting on the mundane. On one of these moments, I walked past a concert hall – I could not recalled the name. An old-school advert, the ones that’s glued, pasted onto the wall surface, caught my attention. It promoted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. I entered, purchased a ticket for the evening show. The clouds darkened as the day grew, the air thickened – baking rain. I walked in anticipation of a sudden downpour. It never happened. Evening arrived. I washed myself, prepared for the concert.
Should I bring an umbrella or not? I thought. Should. I arrived to a packed concert hall, an old colonial building with a grand entry. I seated, flipped through the program to learn about Tchaikovsky’s work. The program was in Spanish. I could only guess the meanings through association with English. One word stood out, Pathetique. House light dimmed. I folded the program to my lap. No need to know, just feel, I thought. Loud applauses from the audience. As the sounds settled, aligned themselves, I opened my senses, absorbed. I cried. I cried profusely in response to the work. It overtook my emotions, the sounds moved me to places of longing, love, joy, sorrow, more longing. Midway through the performance, raindrops tapped on the roof. Tap. Tap. Tap. Light taps. Tap. Tap. Tap. They crescendoed into raindrops that move elephants to seek shelter. They echoed into a loud daaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh – vibrating inside the concave dome above the orchestra. Thunder cried. Tchaikovsky cried. I cried. As the orchestral sounds arrived to the very last note, thunder roared, shook the building as the last note played out until the vibration subsided.
I sat for a while until everyone cleared out. Wiped the tears of flooded emotions off my face and left. Who was this person – Tchaikovsky? Why did I cry uncontrollably? Outside the building, a number of orchestral members stood around conversing in Spanish.
I approached one of the group member, asked, “Excuse me, do you speak English?”.
“Yes. I’m actually from America” he replied.
“Can you tell me more about this symphony No. 6? All the way through the performance, I could not stop crying. And, on the very last note of the symphony, did you all hear the thunder that shook the building?”, I asked.
The man smiled and said, “Funny enough, we (referring to his conversation with his colleagues) were just talking about the storm that shook the building. It was magical! And, about Tchaikovsky, I love playing his last symphony, Pathetique. To me, it’s the “rock and roll” of classical music. Tchaikovsky wrote and performed this right before he supposedly committed suicide. The work is regarded as his love note, his suicide note. He was trapped as a gay man in the 1800s and sought death as a way out. I guess you cried because you heard his story.” I thanked the man and his fellow musicians. I left, walked in the rain back to my guesthouse.
01. “Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss Remembered.” Narr. Michelle Norris, Robert Siegel. All Things Considered. National Public Radio. 03 November 2009
02. Michigan native by way of Chinese parents who migrated from China to Taiwan then to the deep south then to Ohio where she was born and finally to Michigan at the age of 3. The point being – she’s accustomed to the cold.
03. Claude Levi-Strauss in His Own Words. Dir. Pierre-Andre Boutang and Annie Chevallay. DVD. ARTE, 2009.