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

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life 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.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs