Corn Field, Ercourt, France – Tessa Brinckman
This summer I spent a two week residency at Centre Pompadour, a neo-feministe haven, where I wrote the first nine minutes of music, Box | Grown Men Sing. Endless hours of being buried in loops of electronics and bass flute necessitated walks around the farmlands in this part of Northern France. The fields of wheat, beets and corn, with their sideboards of poppies, were as mysterious as they were ubiquitous. They offered me sideways metaphors to the topic of my composition, which is solitary confinement.
Music can be treacherous in a matter of seconds, by robbing a narrative of its power and truth. Wary of that, within Box I’ve used sounds often drawn from the natural world, as near-metaphors or distant relatives of the narrative recordings from three men who had endured solitary, for years on end.
A work in progress: rough backing track excerpt from “Nose” in Box | Grown Men Sing; all sounds here derive from recorded voices of former prisoners in solitary confinement. The end product will also have live bass flute.
I’m interested in the complexity of feelings, humor, and attachment experienced during incarceration, inside a place that is trying to kill them. There’s a gracefulness to the men I recorded, who live with their rage and grief, in a culture that erases their humanity while appropriating their labor.
A work in progress: rough backing track excerpt from “Body” in Box | Grown Men Sing; some sounds derived from birdsong plus the recorded voices of former prisoners in solitary confinement. The end product will also have live bass flute.
We’re in a cultural crisis around the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. It’s an uphill battle to prevent erasure and the conflation of one issue with another.
A good example is right in my neighborhood. White supremacists are cheerfully visible here, presenting themselves as agreeable organic farmers and vegans. American Neo Nazis want to be known as national socialists, as if that makes them sound more rational. They erase historic events (the Holocaust, slavery), and appropriate lefty causes such as pro-Palestinian human rights movements and organic permaculture. They even run for mayor. My rural neighbors are often reluctant to really see what is going on, preferring solutions to racism that spare the feelings of white people. It’s disheartening. Oregon is one of the most racist states in the nation.
Even the Western appropriation of Buddhism can feel like a palliative or a weapon in the arsenal of neo-liberal capitalism. Tropes circle around social media that “stories are just stories”, “everyone has a story” or “….” (insert neo-Buddhist syllogism here), as if we are all living within an equal playing field, as if individual work magically changes the structures that imprison us, or that the prison is not real, because, you know, “it’s all an illusion”. While meditation et al continues to save lives, I think the value of attachment to narratives cannot be underestimated. As a performer I don’t step out on stage in an arbitrary state. Sure, an eye, an ear is witness to the entire process while I labor in the midst of it all. But commitment is everything, it’s a kind of mothering, in its inevitable honesty, vulnerability and potential of being wrong.
The thing that terrifies survivors most that their narrative will not believed, that their stories become co-opted by more dominant ones. I like to undo and reweave as an act of solidarity and making amends.
Last month I took the rest of my grandmother’s ashes to wild places that I knew she would have loved. It was my way of undoing a decision made around eight years ago, where her ashes were deposited in a place that would have upset her had she been alive.
This is the woman who took me to the marae to watch and learn basket-weaving from some of the oldest Maori kuia. I can still smell the flax she stripped, the wool she spun, the cigarettes she hand-rolled, her talcum powder, cloudy weak tea and freshly baked shortbread. We snuggled up close to talk, laugh, and watch chilling TV histories and terrible English comedies. She showed me, at age ten, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and asked me, every day that she saw me, how I felt.
As I prepared and scattered her ashes, a brilliant red throated hummingbird drummed its wings furiously in my face, circled back around to drum some more, followed in turn by circlings of a snowy egret, a crow and a turkey vulture. My grandmother loved to watch birds in the bush and in her garden, as they hatched, fed, fought, and died. She saw them as meta-allies, with complex, earnest and brief lives. She understood what was at stake as they shouted at each other about who got to live in the nesting box.