News / USA

Civil War Songs Reset for 21st Century

Soprano Dawn Upshaw, portraying a US soldier returning from Afghanistan, rehearses 'Winds of Destiny' at the Ojai Music Festival in California.
Soprano Dawn Upshaw, portraying a US soldier returning from Afghanistan, rehearses 'Winds of Destiny' at the Ojai Music Festival in California.

Multimedia

Audio
Gail Wein

The U.S. Civil War may be a century and a half behind us, but American emotions about the conflict can still be raw. Director Peter Sellars has taken music by Pulitzer-prize winning composer George Crumb and updated it to present day. Crumb’s "Winds of Destiny" recasts familiar Civil War-era songs in a jagged, haunting style.

Sellars was attracted to Crumb’s score after realizing that the situation in the United States today mirrors that of the Civil War 150 years ago.

"The kind of virulence and anger and fury of one part of the country towards another part of the country is bitter, and the same loneliness, bitterness, sourness, that these songs reflect from the Civil War period - "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," but also the songs of longing - "Shenandoah."  These were American songs from a time when the country was torn apart, and they reflect the kind of emotional intensity of the divide and also the longing to come together."

Crumb first set these songs in 2004. He remembered hearing Dawn Upshaw perform one of them years before. He decided to incorporate her interpretation into his music.

"Dawn Upshaw performed some folk songs, including "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and she repeated the first verse in a kind of funereal way, very sad, like the words were there, "We’ll shout," and "The girls will applaud," and all that, and yet she gave it an ironic twist."  

In the new Sellars staging, Upshaw sings "Winds of Destiny" including that song about a soldier returning home after the war. She says it's one of the most astonishing moments in the song cycle.

Dawn Upshaw performs 'The Winds Of Destiny' at a dress rehearsal on June 8, 2011 in Ojai, California.
Dawn Upshaw performs 'The Winds Of Destiny' at a dress rehearsal on June 8, 2011 in Ojai, California.

"There’s fear and there’s danger, and there’s even anger in the singer, because the singer yells at the ends of many phrases," Upshaw says. "That’s a really extreme and serious moment in the whole piece, one of several, but because it is taking this tune that we all kind of know from our past as being filled with a fair amount of pride or something, but it kind of turns it inside on itself, in this painful introspection."

Sellars has created a character and a narrative out of the original song cycle. A female U.S. soldier is returning home from the war in Afghanistan.   

"And so the intensity with which women return and the harrowing experiences, both on the battlefield - things they’ve been asked to do that they cannot live with the rest of their lives - in addition to things that have happened to them that still can’t be talked about or acknowledged. It’s very, very intense," says Sellars.

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and the Red Fish Blue Fish percussion quartet accompany Upshaw on stage, and all the performers are dressed in camouflage.  

Kalish says that Sellars' direction is subtle.

"And he’s very clever. He knows I’m not an actor. And so he has me doing very simple things, very slow walking and going over to Dawn, the soldier, and in some very quiet way, trying to comfort her. I say nothing. I almost do nothing.....The music is so powerful and what he asks us to do was so connected to the music that it felt right. It felt as if I was really involved in this drama."

The drama of war and its aftermath were very much a part of Crumb’s initial inspiration. But there’s also reverence for the songs themselves. Crumb calls "Shenandoah" one of the most beautiful folk songs of any country.

Sellars says its poetry and ambiguity allow the audience to make its own interpretation.

"The song is so haunting and it resonates on so many levels, it remains poetic. I hope what we’re making is the same, that it’s extremely evocative and at the same time poetic and open. And every audience member puts their own images there and their own experiences, and it stimulates your own imagination."  

You May Like

Video Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Gay-marriage opponents are looking for ways to maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture, one writer says More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More