…in memoriam: The Sonority, the Together Sound, Outside of Time
by Natasha Chaykowski
On what was maybe an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in 1885 on land newly minted as Treaty 6 territory in St-Paul-de-Métis (in what is now Alberta), Eleanor (Helene) Thomas Garneau calmly went to the kitchen cupboard where her husband, Laurent, who was in league with the Métis resistance, had stashed a letter written by Louis Riel. The buffalo were disappearing, the treaty-promised medicine chest proved insufficient in the face of settler-introduced small pox and English colonial forces were defaulting on all manner of promised land. The treaty was broken, is broken. When a sergeant and four constables from the North-West Mounted Police, clad in Imperial red, self-righteousness and inane waxed moustaches, barged through the Garneaus’ doors to take away Laurent, Eleanor took the incriminating pages and softly, carefully submerged them in the hot, soapy water of her wash basin, where they were subsequently scrubbed until all but disintegrated. Drip, drip. What letter? Eleanor was leading the Quiet Resistance.
[spoken out loud] [Ell. enn. or. Ell. enn. Taw. muss. Gar. no.] [drip drip]
Many years later, Eleanor’s name would be conjured in our present. Her story, along with those of Victoria Callihoo (née Belcourt) and Mary Cecil, became the basis for Postcommodity and Alex Waterman’s …in memoriam project.1 What follows, is a story about remembering.
A page is a fragile thing. Paper: a vulnerable surface. To employ it for the task of memorializing is a rather radical gesture. Stone and bronze are the typical, hardy materials used to memorialize. Statues of genocidal generals and tender epitaphs on gravestones. The rationale is simple enough: the heavy, dense meat of these materials endures more or less as years drip by. And to memorialize means to encase a person, an event, a thing in some sort of time-travelling device (stone, bronze) so that it might endure. So that they might be remembered.
[drip drip drip]
On what was maybe an otherwise unremarkable morning in 1963, Robert Ashley, a prolific experimental American composer, sat down with a piece of paper and a black pen and wrote a symphony in a circle. A symphony of drones. A symphony of infinite permutations. A symphony outside of time. A symphony for Crazy Horse (Th?ašúŋke Witkó), the famed Oglala Lakota warrior and leader, known for his ability to liaise between the spirit world and this one. in memoriam…Crazy Horse, along with Ashley’s three other in memoriam… compositions (an opera for Kit Carson, a concerto for John Smith and a quartet for Esteban Gómez – all noteworthy figures for their direct and often violent contributions to the colonization of Turtle Island) are stones in the foundation of Ashley’s lifelong work to create an encyclopedia of American consciousness. What is the American consciousness if not a din of violence, an ode to colonization, a song deeply woven with the prosperity of settlers via the disenfranchisement of others, namely Indigenous people whose land was stolen, and Black slaves and Asian immigrants who worked that stolen land? Yet, within the chorus of this song is persistence, resistance, resilience and hope. “What else would you call ‘night-fishing’?” asks Lee Maracle.
In South Dakota, 30 kilometres from the hubristic and heavy-handed presidential faces carved into the side of the illegally occupied Mount Rushmore (a mountain known by the Lakota as “The Six Grandfathers,” who comprise the earth, the sky and the four cardinal directions) by a famous American sculptor and Ku Klux Klan member, lies the workings of a colossal stone monument to Th?ašúŋke Witkó, which, once completed, will likely be the largest sculpture in the world.2 In 1876, Th?ašúŋke Witkó led more than 1,500 members of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne nations to a battle fought and won against the United States Army, in the Black Hills – Paha Sapa in Lakota the present-day site of rocky memorializing of all manner and perennially sacred Lakota territory. The battle was fought over the breaching of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868’s land agreements. There was gold in those mountains. The treaty was broken, is broken.
[sym·pho·ny. Greek: sun (together) and phōnō (sound)] [drip]
To employ paper for the task of memorializing is a rather radical gesture. In a matter of seconds, it could be reduced to smoke and ash, or become disparate pulpy particles in soapy water. In 1963, Robert Ashley sat down with a piece of paper and a black pen and wrote a symphony in a circle. A symphony for Thašúŋke Witkó. A symphony to remember. A symphony for time travel. But what exactly did he compose? A circle on a piece of paper? Or, does in memoriam…Crazy Horse’s essence exist in its potential to create various disruptions in the air when activated? A series of fleeting sounds? Or further still, is it the way in which those soundwaves agitate the thin membranes of the inner ear, triggering electrical impulses in each unique brain that receives them, activating memories, feelings, a shimmering network of affective associations? Ashley’s symphony has infinite permutations; each iteration, when performed, is necessarily singular. Performed infinite times, each time different – an idea can outlast stone and bronze. Or maybe the essence of the composition lies within those who perform it. The symphony. The together sound.
[spoken out loud] [Ell. enn. or.] [drip drip]
On what was certainly a remarkable afternoon in 1962, Victoria Callihoo (née Belcourt) was dancing the Red River Jig at the party for her 100th birthday. Sixty years earlier, she was in the prairie grass, on land not-so-newly minted as Treaty 6 territory, petting that really soft spot of her horse’s nose, and packing a cart with Hudson’s Bay Company goods, to be transported from Edmonton to Athabasca Landing. The buffalo she’d hunted as a young girl were gone. Traditional Indigenous ways of supporting a family or community were either made impossible by encroaching settlers and their institutionalization of the land, or were outlawed as a colonial war tactic. Yet, as a mother of 12, Victoria had to work to support her family. And, as a Métis woman, she knew the land and knew the horses. Women have always known, always worked, even if their labour hasn’t always been recognized.
[spoken out loud] [Vic. tor. ee. uh. Cal. ee. hou. Nay. Bell. kor.] [drip drip drip]
Before she died in 1966, Victoria made a point to tell her stories, which spanned more than a century, and unfurled on land that had witnessed multiple statehoods. She had 165 great-grandchildren, within whose bodies and minds, and whose children’s bodies and minds, her stories live now. A web, a shimmering network, an oral history. Can a sound be destroyed? Robert Ashley didn’t think so. Can a story told be burned? Victoria knew it couldn’t. To tell a story, to speak, to dance, to make music is to travel in time: an idea can outlast stone and bronze.
[spoken out loud] [Vic. tor. ee. uh.] [drip]
On what was maybe a chilly morning, sometime around the turn of the century, on the Stoney Nakoda reserve, Mary Cecil was called to the missionary’s house. Eliza, his wife, was in labour, and Mary was a Cree midwife. She brought that baby, and countless others – settler and Indigenous alike – into the world as, in those early settler days, there were no doctors to be found. Black women and Indigenous midwives birthed the settler-colonial nations now occupying Turtle Island. Their ways of healing were often more sophisticated and caring – are more sophisticated and caring – than the crude and frequently violent protocols of Western medicine, which have mandated practices such as bleeding, lobotomization and sterilization. Yet, we seldom know the names of the Indigenous midwives who so caringly gave life. Women have always known, always worked, even if their labour hasn’t always been recognized.
[spoken out loud] [Meh. ree. Sea. sill] [drip]
Robert Ashley said of his in memoriam … compositions that they are, “an attempt to allow performers to recompose the music in a way that the composer is practically absent …in the end, the music is determined by the musicians themselves.”3 For performers to recompose the music themselves, without a composer, sounds like sovereignty. In this sense, Ashley understood the limits of authorship, its relation to power, and the importance of undermining this power.
The singular genius is a Western invention.
There has always been power in the collective.
[sun (together) and phōnō (sound)]
On a remarkable evening in 2017, Indigenous musicians from across what is now called Alberta, gathered at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton (amiskwaciwâskahikan in Cree), on land long ago delineated as Treaty 6 territory, land which is also home of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 4, and of Inuit who reside there, to perform two of Robert Ashley’s in memoriam… compositions, and a third, new composition. Curated by Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective (an Indigenous curatorial collective comprised of core members Jade Nasogaluak Carpenter, Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, Erin Sutherland, Becca Taylor, and Kristy Trinier [a non-Indigenous member], and program coordinators Jessie Short and Missy LeBlanc) and lead by Postcommodity (an Indigenous artist colective comprised of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist) with experimental cellist Alex Waterman, the project brought together eight Indigenous musicians to re-imagine the possibilities of memorializing. To re-interpret Ashley’s ode to the American consciousness. To create Indigenous sovereignty in colonial architectures – both physical and immaterial. Strings, drums, voices, electricity, synthesis, wind: the way in which soundwaves agitate the thin membranes of the inner ear, triggering electrical impulses in each unique brain that receives them, activating memories, feelings, a shimmering network of affective associations. A sound can be more powerful than stone and bronze.
[spoken out loud] [Oh. tits. ee. wan. Post. com. mod. it. ee.] [drip drip drip]
There has always been power in the collective. The symphony. An alchemy. The together sound.
The first performance was of Ashley’s in memoriam… Esteban Gómez. With Indigenous voices, Indigenous instruments, Indigenous musicians, this memorial to Gómez – a 15th-and 16th-Century Portuguese explorer and “Indian killer,” as Candice Hopkins poignantly describes in the accompanying publication – reinterprets the story of colonization, through drones, through sounds, through music, performed by those who were colonized. For Gómez, the east coast of Turtle Island was land suitable to bear his name as he myopically considered it Terra Nullius, and viewed the Indigenous people who called this land home as a rich, new source of potential slaves. In this iteration of in memoriam… Esteban Gómez, there was discord, anger, enmity. A drumbeat on hide, throat singing, strings plucked urgently, the blows of a retrofit recorder. Protests against, a remembrance of, the colonial violence perpetrated by Gómez and other early European colonizers. These expressions reverberated beyond the droning sonority, which is the underlying default sound of the composition, established by the musicians, and unchanging in tone and timbre in this iteration. The musicians moved through the circular composition, diverging from the sonority for 16 beats of time, then re-joining it, outside of time. The sonority is the together sound. The sonority is without time. The sonority is a place of power. And here, perhaps, the sonority is a place of healing. What does it mean for Gómez’s story to be told by those he envisioned enslaving? This performance was not a celebration of his story. But rather a quartet to tell the story of the violence of colonialism in Indigenous voices, and a drone outside of time as a possible way to heal from it. A story can be more powerful than stone and bronze, depending on who is telling it.
Fifty-five years after Ashley wrote a symphony in a circle for T?hašúŋke Witkó, that symphony of infinite possibilities was performed by Indigenous artists for the first time in the second performance of the evening, in memoriam… Crazy Horse. The two Indigenous collectives took the space that Ashley left for musicians (“in the end, the music is determined by the musicians themselves”) and filled it with Indigenous voices and presences, a gesture that asserts agency and sovereignty within colonial structures. These structures include art forms that borrow heavily but without acknowledgment from diverse Indigenous epistemologies, the hallowed reverberating halls of the opera house and the European symphony, all on land forcibly taken by settlers. Alex Waterman, Cristóbal Martínez, Raven Chacon, Jared Tailfeathers, Malaya Bishop, Jaynine Lena McCrae, seth cardinal, Matthew Cardinal, Kris Harper, Marek Tyler, Curtis Lefthand, Mark Taylor, Amber Paquette, Keanu Shaw, Raven Shaw, Chandra Shaw, Kristy Trinier, Tiffany Shaw-Collinge, Missy Leblanc and Jessie Short performed the piece together, at a pace gracefully set by conductor Becca Taylor. Incorporating five discrete groups of musicians, the performance is designed to tend towards achieving a pure harmony or a complete dissonance within each group: a group of ideal densities, a cacophonous kind of magic. A gestalt, in a sense, but one that does not disregard the importance of the parts. There was an energy in the performance unlike any iteration that preceded it. It was a galaxy of disparate stars, swirling proximate to each other, around a dissonant centre, with the occasional slipping of musicians between worlds– an appropriately ambulatory remembering of T?hašúŋke Witkó.
[sun (together) and phōnō (sound)] [drip]
If the stone monument to T?hašúŋke Witkó in Paha Sapa is an addition of sorts to the four stone presidential faces, an attempt to start to counter a one-sided story of American history, then the fifth in memoriam… work, composed by Postcommodity and Alex Waterman, is an additional chapter to Ashley’s likewise necessarily incomplete portrait of the American consciousness. To add as a critique of incompleteness, as this project did, rather than break apart that which is there, is a gesture generous beyond description. in memoriam… Mary Cecil, Victoria Callihoo (née Belcourt), and Eleanor (Helene) Thomas Garneau, the final performance of the evening, was not only a together sound, but a together being. Clustered around six stations, which formed a circle, the musicians started the performance by submerging white fabric in silver wash basins, evoking Eleanor’s Quiet Rebellion, and then hanging these saturated pieces above other basins before moving on to a different station to repeat the action. Drip, drip: the sounds of Eleanor’s Quiet Rebellion were the sonority, the constant to which to return, outside of time. Three groups of four singers orbited this circle: each stop they made contained another circle within it, whose quadrants were the syllables of a name to be sung, written on a thin piece of paper torn from one of the accompanying publications. Each member of a group sang one syllable at a time, 16 times before moving on to the next syllable. Once the name was spoken in full by each musician, the paper on which the name was written was also washed and hung up to dry. Drip. Each group completed a full circle, speaking every name. The together sound. A choir of utterances. And, with that, the performance began to conclude: the musicians slowly left the stage, one by one, names rhythmically rolling from their mouths still, walking up the aisles of the audience, and exiting the theatre through the back. Syllables still reverberating through the plush seats and the bodies filling them. We were left only with dripping: the sonority, the echoes of voices sung. A sound can be more powerful than stone and bronze. A sound is a way to remember.
[Spoken out loud]
[Ell. enn. or. Ell. enn. Taw. muss. Gar. no.]
[drip drip drip]
[Vic. tor. ee. uh. Cal. ee. hou. Nay. Bell. kor.]
[Meh. ree. Sea. Sil.]
Eleanor (Helen) Thomas Garneau. Victoria Callihoo (née Belcourt). Mary Cecil.
“Their names are worth repeating and with this repetition they are conjured in the present.”4