How do you measure a life?
It's not a new question for us. Ever since humans, ever since art, ever since memory, we've been wrestling with this one.
How does it move? How does it grow? Is it linear? Circular? Does it have one trajectory? Does it have one meaning? What are the forces that lie behind any one specific moment? Are they the same as the ones that rise to inform the next? And what about memory? What does it conceal? What does it reveal?
"now appears to us in a mysterious light"
is the first line of a gigantic poem by Carolyn Forché that tackles these questions in a profoundly comprehensive and courageous way. Forché's "On Earth" takes a good look at a life that is ending, and explodes it into the million individual images and instances that make it real; the flashes that you see before death. Reading this poem, you swim through a chaos of experiences and visions, each one bound up in just one sentence. And rather than string a narrative through, Forché instead uses a distinctive ordering system of her own: the alphabet itself. There's an exactly ordered place for everything written - but, much as within the synaptic chaos of our own minds, that place makes no linear sense. Stripped of context, it becomes more vibrant, more real.
the early summer's green plums
the empty wet shirts on the line waving
the endless, unbroken lines
the evacuation of ghosts
the flautist's breath in a stairwell
the flumes of white phosphorous marking the city
This was the jumping-off point for A Far Cry, and for five composers we love - in order, from above, Angélica Negron, Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Caroline Shaw, and Shara Nova. Over a year ago, a group of us sat down together on Sarah's porch in New Jersey to talk about turning this poem into an evening-long collaborative composition. We sat and talked, sharing ideas and simply taking each other in. At a certain point, the composers kicked the Criers out and went to work.
between here and there
between hidden points in the soul
between hidden points in the soul born from nothing
between saying and said
between what one has oneself done
We started receiving musical numbers - one by one, large and small. Some dealing with a single image...
a syllable a dove
... others with a whole flowing group of them. Five different composers, five different means of expression, further ignited by the text itself. We read them, sending back impressions, ideas, and cool bow tricks.
The nature of the collaboration was at once frustrating and thrilling. We had to build something in three dimensions. The composers had to figure out how to devise systems to allow them to work creatively as individuals while finding a way to keep all eyes on the whole structure - that kept slowly coming more and more into being.
languid at the edge of the sea
lays itself open to immensity
leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road
left everything left all usual words behind
library, lilac, linens, litany
Thousands of distinct images, brought to life by a poet, brought into music by five composers, workshopped and rehearsed by eighteen musicians and one radiant singer. At any point along the way, that process could have broken down. There were countless opportunities. But if a work that's so dependent on every single individual involved does not break down - if it survives - then it becomes truly formidable.
When I think of The Blue Hour, I always think of a sphere. I imagine us constructing it, climbing here and there, balancing on stepladders, looking across distances, tossing materials back and forth, thinking about balance. And then suddenly the sphere is complete, supported from every angle - and from the center comes its own gravity.
This is a beautiful thing. And yet, I think what I love most of all about The Blue Hour is that we decided, together to collaborate on a work where every image has equal resonance. This poem, this composition, defies the easy hierarchy of narrative. It offers up another way of seeing this world that we're moving through.
What else is art for?