From an e-mail correspondence between
Dan Henriksson, librettist and director
Jonathan Bradley, Executive Director of The Crossing
Jonathan, you have a profound understanding of Buddhist philosophy, belief and thinking, and we have been talking about this during our process, which I am grateful for. In my libretto, based on Harry Martinson’s writings, the first lines are:
Here beneath the Catalpa Tree
We sit released from all desire
How does this resonate in your mind?
This is, to me, one of the most interesting quotes from the libretto. If all the crew on Aniara is dead and earth is lost, it makes me wonder who is it that is telling the story? Of course, there is an association to Buddha under the Bodhi tree but why a Catalpa tree? It must have a more specific meaning. Who are the storytellers, are they the reincarnated crew members or something equally mysterious?
You are right. The Catalpa tree is actually from another poem by Harry Martinson, inspired by a 7th century Chinese philosopher and poet Li Kan. But here I hope the audience can accept that the narrator is not a realistic person, our story is actually on a mythical level, beyond realism.
But now my next question. Soon the Chorus is singing about oblivion, and memories seem to be essential at the same time; next we hear transmigration mentioned. What is this? And what do we need to know about the differences between samsara in Hindu and Buddhism thinking?
Relief to sometimes just forget
Relief to not remind oneself
of memories from past events
Relief to not recall one’s tardy transmigration
Two important words here: oblivion and transmigration. The word oblivion means to be unaware or unconscious which, for Buddhists is the whole problem. From the Buddha’s perspective, all suffering has a cause, ignorance (unawareness or unconsciousness) so there is no comfort in oblivion, it’s suffering. The whole reason Buddhists meditate is to see things as they are not to forget or not know. The idea that ignorance is bliss is totally out. Likewise, transmigration, if it’s referring to reincarnation, is also not a comforting idea. Buddhists see the cycle of samsara as an unending succession of lives where suffering is continually present so reincarnation, or transmigration, is, most often, considered suffering.
In Mahayana Buddhism, where the emphasis is not on escaping one’s own problems but instead seeking enlightenment for the benefit of others, one can reach a state of liberation where successive lives are not experienced as suffering.
When the Bodhisattva realizes in their meditation that samsara and nirvana are of the same nature then they become free from hope and fear. From this point on, all phenomena are experienced as great joy and the inherent Buddha nature of other beings is obvious.
In the yoga sutras of Patanjali (a Hindu text), he talks a lot about not having thoughts in meditation. This is very different than how Buddhists meditate. From a Buddhist perspective, thoughts don’t matter whether they come or go. We often joke and say that Christians try to have good thoughts, Hindus try to have no thoughts, and for Buddhists, thoughts don’t matter. So maybe oblivion has a different meaning for Hindus? When you see the term ‘no thought’ in Buddhist texts it’s usually a bad translation. No thought doesn’t mean the absence of thoughts but rather it means that one is not experiencing the world through the filter of concepts and instead, seeing it for what it is.
As far as I know, Harry Martinson did not confess to any particular religion, but it is obvious to find traces of both Taoism and Buddhism in his writings. The epic poem Aniara ends in an expectation of liberation. And Nirvana’s current rinsed us all, I changed it in the final version to:
Placed on an eternal wake,
on board a sarcophagus in a desolated sea
A cosmic night, forever cleft from day
Around the grave: a glass-clear silence
Around Mima’s grave they sprawled in rings,
And through it all Nirvana’s current passed
Can you please elaborate around this? If it is the ending of our piece, how can we describe it for the individuals on board? And for humanity?
This is such a perplexing quote. If I was to look at this through a Buddhist lens it could mean that, in spite of the tragedy on the ship, the nature of the universe continues to be Nirvana whether we know it or not. Of course, this might not be what Martinson was thinking when he wrote this.
It’s also worth noting the way the people are arranged around the Mima in circles. This is reminiscent of a mandala where a buddha aspect sits in the center of a series of concentric circles and gates. In the Buddhist version, these circles represent the wisdom activity of the Buddha as well as the process by which the practitioner comes closer to the wisdom at the center. In Aniara, with people dying in circles around the Mima, maybe Martinson is trying to create a mandala of ignorance since Mima only produces illusions instead of insights and wisdom?
Here’s what a Buddhist mandala can look like
Thanks so much for sharing, Jonathan
I hope these quick responses provide something useful to you!
For me this is more than interesting. But I am convinced that every member of the audience will have his or her own associations. Aniara and Martinson’s cosmos is filled with mysteries and hidden clues, and ”maybe knowledge is a blue naiveté”?
A final quote from the libretto:
Who knows the last answer
at the bottom of the question?
Sonic Discoveryby Paul22/04/2019
Things are well underway with all things Aniara. Discussions/decisions are being made on the various sonic textures needed in order to inspire appropriate emotions throughout the piece. It’s a process of choosing the right moments and sounds. Trying not to spoon feed sounds and punctuate every detail but to make sure Rob’s score is able to convey a musical journey and enhance but not interfere with the musical elements.
Part of this sonic discovery process is thinking what might be going through the minds of our passengers. What sorts of memories, both distant and fresh might be stirred as they are propelled towards eternity?
Right now, Spring is pushing aside the last bits of Winter and we are once again surrounded by shades of green and numerous flowering bushes and plants, returning song birds. The bees in my local hive have taken notice of the improving weather and are in the process of building up the necessary forces to take advantage of all the pollen and nectar available to them. Unfortunately our passengers face no similar promise of renewal. In addition to enhancing our surroundings and bring this space ship to life, the challenge then is to represent these moments thoughtfully and to hopefully bring our listeners closer and more present in the world around them.
Strangely Uselessby Rob18/04/2019
The score is done, the workshops complete, and everyone is working very hard: the Crossing singers and Klockrike actors are memorizing hundreds of pages of words and music, Donald is preparing the score and overseeing various elements of the upcoming productions here and abroad, Dan is rehearsing with the actors, envisioning the staging, and coordinating the concepts of the design team, Antti is developing the choral movement and his solo choreography influenced in part by the Chinese traditions he has studied for years, Joonas is plotting the kinetic lighting and video projections, Paul is building sound cues out of recordings of the chorus and sound libraries, Erika is designing costumes that will outfit the cast, Jonathan is planning, fundraising, making deals and fundraising some more, Anna is organizing the project’s thousands of minute details as we hurtle toward the first rehearsal in June, and I — I am feeling … strangely useless.
For years, Donald, Dan and I worked very closely to create this big blueprint for the production (the libretto and score), but right now (March through May) I’m not really doing much to help prepare for the first rehearsal of Aniara. In truth, I would revise and refine the score right up through closing night because that’s my nature as a composer. But that would be very unhelpful right now; I need to let everyone prepare for rehearsal. So, for now, my pencil is down. Once we begin rehearsals in June, I’ll feel very useful again! And to be honest, while I’m currently feeling useless, you might guess I’m also feeling ridiculously excited and perhaps even a little anxious.
Much more importantly I feel deeply grateful for all of these amazing collaborators who are working long hours with tremendous passion and dedication so that when we start rehearsing together at Christ Church Neighborhood House we’ll be ready to take off. In every moment along this journey toward the first production of Aniara, during every workshop day with Donald, the Crossing, and Klockrike, every Skype call to Finland to discuss the libretto with Dan, every discussion with members the design team – Paul, Joonas, and Erika, every email and phone call with Jonathan and Anna to discuss production plans, and every minute writing music at home, I’ve felt incredibly happy and fortunate to be working on Aniara. This is an amazing project, and an inspiring team of collaborators, and I am humbled by their individual and collective gifts. I am eager to be with everyone in the same room throughout the rehearsal process; and I can’t wait to share it with our first audience on June 20th!
So, to everyone with whom I’ve been on this amazing Aniara journey: thank you, thank you, thank you. And especially to Donald, who invited me to board this ship years ago, I am deeply honored and so very grateful.
Chapter 2by Donald12/04/2019
It’s been a year since my last Aniara blog. A year of crazy expansion for The Crossing, and one of personal growth and loss for me. Every time I’ve turned to write about our Aniara process, I’ve been distracted by the process itself which has been exhilarating, all-consuming, and exhausting. Creative artists create something out of nothing. As a performing artist, sometimes I feel like I’m recreating something out of everything. Yet, having so many moving parts circling is exciting, and we have the best Team – everyone loves the work and doesn’t seem to mind how the time commitment is ramping up exponentially as we approach the premiere.
A year ago, we were still workshopping words and music, trying to find how Martinson’s words, translated to English by our director Dan Henriksson, placed into musical context by composer Rob Maggio, and placed into our voices, resonate. Two years of writing, many drafts later, we now have a score – a musical composition that is strong in structure, gesture, and statement. It has moments that explore the beauty of the human, and those that expose our ugliness.
Rob is the ultimate collaborator. Patient, flexible, funny, instinctive, creative. This is a monumental effort, a 90-minute choral-theatre work that aims to take the essence of the fractured story – the “fragments of time and space” – and gives us a view of life on the space ship Aniara. Task: consider first Harry Martinson’s quixotic, complex story; plus, the emotional content of a world we can only imagine and do not know; plus the practical needs and skills of 2 actors, 16 singer, 4 instrumentalists, a Beijing Opera-style dancer/choreographer; a sound designer; a director; plus the opinions of everyone involved, from the percussionist to the costume designer to the intern making coffee runs. Result: a fascinating, compelling musical journey that captures hope, sadness, solitude, community, love, hate, and just about every other human habit and instinct. In the process we’ve had a hell of good time with the words, trying to take Dan’s wonderful translation and give it a flow instantly recognizable to Americans hearing those words pass quickly, in real time, in a theatrical production. (Case in point, we do not say “breadloaf,” we say “loaf of bread;” we do not want people’s minds disengaging to consider how efficient the term “breadloaf” would be if we did use it!)
I knew Rob was the right person to take on this City of Needs from the past works we’ve done together. Our story goes back to 1992, when I began my short-lived first university position at West Chester University. (I just wasn’t quite ready for the walls of academia back then!) Rob had joined the West Chester composition faculty a couple of years earlier. He lived around the corner from me in Queen Village and so we began a commuting partnership that was full of lively discussions about art, literature, music, and other lofty topics, but was mostly gossip, because we’re human. Our discussions eventually led to a few works in which I was intimately involved: the first was Hearing Voices: Joan of Arc at the Stake, following the saint’s last days and her compelling crisis of faith, in dialogue with Saints Catherine and Margaret who guide her toward martyrdom. This was a shoe-string production with virtually no resources. Since I’d already spent a number of years in professional opera where money is flushed down the Toilet of Misbegotten Ideas as a matter of course, I was inspired by Rob’s ingenuity in using sparse materials to tell a story. It was effective, it had humor, it was engaging theatre, and it was moving.
Just a short while later, having exited the university but preserved our friendship – which gradually became one of respect and admiration – I asked Rob to write a work for the Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia (now Choral Arts Philadelphia…reflecting our preposition-lean new century). I fell in love with a couple of poems of Seamus Heaney and Rob set one of them – “The Wishing Tree”:
I thought of her as the wishing tree that died
And saw it lifted, root and branch, to heaven,
Trailing a shower of all that had been driven
Need by need by need into its hale
Sap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nail
Came streaming from it like a comet-tail
New-minted and dissolved. I had a vision
Of an airy branch-head rising through damp cloud,
Of turned-up faces where the tree had stood.
What impressed me about Rob’s setting was how he found a way to not compete with a poem that is already so strong, so exacting. It was like he ‘served’ the poem in the way a film composer might think of expanding a scene through sound. And, again, a compact work that had been self-edited with discipline. His attention to detail and to meaning reminds me of Buxtehude, or of my most-revered Josquin.
Years later, Rob wrote a work for The Crossing that would instantly become one of our favorites: The Woman Where we are Living. The discussions leading to this were not easy: Rob wanted to write a work about Alzheimer’s Disease – in fact, about Alois Alzheimer’s first patient, Auguste Deter. Rob’s mother was suffering from the disease, and my father was clearly headed into a deep dementia at the time. I feared we would not be able to find the proper distance from the subject and so we talked about the balance of subjective and objective approaches to subjects that we live in. Rob then gathered Dr. Alzheimer’s notes from his work with Deter and presented them in this rhythmic, clinical fashion, alternating with movements of what we know to be Deter’s words and feelings. This ‘story in relief’ proved to be extraordinary powerful, even shocking, in the revelation of the ephemeral experience of the disease and the studied observance of it.
Which brings us to today’s work: Martinson’s Aniara presents different issues than those is The Woman Where we are Living; he presents a language unique to him and, in fact, to this particular story. Martinson makes up words, machines, gives new names to the earth, to the moon, etc. And his manner of telling his story is both veiled in an opaque language of beauty and mystery, and blunt: we did, we felt, we tumbled, we rebounded. It requires the composer to become observer, to be both in and out of the story, to shift their view around to be characters, to watch characters and, here, to turn those characters into collectives – a choir, representing the one, or the one representing the community. There has been a considerable amount of film-scoring process in which director and conductor have suggested how a scene should ‘feel’ and composer has – as composers do – found that ‘feeling’ in the abstract world of musical sounds. And then we revise, rethink, re-examine and settle. We are now settled. On a story and on the music that tells that story.
There is a short motive in Rob’s score in which The Crossing sings a rhythmic and staccato phrase: “Goldonder Aniara shuts!” (Goldonder being Martinson’s word for gondola, or, ship = spaceship.) When first heard it has a feeling of “we made it onto the ship,” “we’re off on the adventure.” The story has begun with this spaceship Aniara carrying thousands of humans away from their dying Maa. (Martinson’s word for Earth, the Finnish word for Country, and, of course, very close to Mother in so many languages. Martin also calls Earth Doris, a reference to ancient Greece but also to a woman.) We killed our Maa through our inability to control the energies of the earth that we had learned first to harness, then to exploit, and finally to inflict irreparable damage. Later in the work, when things are not going well for the people of Aniara, Rob’s Goldonder motive takes on a strange finality, a devastating closure, sealing fate. Sparse resources used to maximum effect. Story told through composition.
When the theme returns in this way, the journey of Aniara seems all too close to us, the citizens of the Earth in 2019. The story is indeed ours and we are at a crucial moment in it, as Martinson, Maggio, and the Team remind us of the choices we have in front of us, clinging to our damaged Maa.
Exciting timesby Joonas11/04/2019
Exciting times, The score has reached its final form and it is for us to concretely create the flesh for the visual setting. In our workshop in december the music that I heard was sublime and I can’t wait for the next workshop to hear the music live again. I have already strong favourites in Aniara score which I noticed myself singing and humming all day through during the workshop.
For now I have tried to go even more conceptual on my design work as I will try to update the light rig to be in sync with the rhythm of the room, projections and kinetic lights. This is in a way going back to square one as I had this same idea exactly one year ago, fun that it always works that way. You do a long thought process and then you back to your intuitive original ideas. You could call it a circle or a loop that designers quite often do, in a way it is useless use of time but it helps you double check your design concept as you question your decisions. I don’t do it intentionally but it just happens naturally when I have these long design processes like Aniara.
Still lot of things to do with creating the video content. Video content creation is in a way a handcraft work for the designer. It’s like you try to create huge amounts of self containing visual art to support the narrative and the score. It is a huge workload that makes up for most of those practical work hours. Although it takes a lot of time it is at the same time really satisfying work. You really get happy when you happen do something unique and visually pleasing. The more time you use on your work the better it gets, in a way it’s like traditional art sculpting. Maybe tomorrow I could use couple of hours on Aniara’s magical world and sculpt away.
Theatrical Expressionby Antti14/11/2018
I’m the founder and artistic director of the Wusheng Company, and work currently as a performer, director-choreographer as well as a teacher. I was trained in the program for Physical Theatre Studies in Vaasa (Finland) 2003-2007, and additionally I’ve been studying at NACTA (National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts) in Beijing, China since 2005, and on several occasions during the years 2009-15. The studying periods in China were of different lengths, but always very intensive. Asian theatre, dance and the martial arts have had a great impact on my work and approach. I try to find an inner force of a performer both when I’m performing myself as well as when I’m directing others, and create a comprehensive physical presence based on that force. When I succeed to do so, the concentrated physical and mental presence carries the performer, and there’s nothing additional you have to ”do” on stage.
For my own company I have created performances in which I try to apply these principles while enhancing the humane values I very much appreciate. I have pretty much as much experience as a performer and as a director/choreographer. Music has always played an important role in my work, and I have some background in the field of music, too. When I was 20, I still played the cello and dreamed of some kind of music-related career. In Chinese theatre, music also plays a very important role, and I’m especially interested in live music, created specifically for a certain performance. I find it magical to unify music, energetic movement and concentrated thought on stage and see them become something that is telling a story in a new, unexpected way. In my opinion, art should be something that goes beyond the everyday life and elevates things to a completely new level.
This is what compels me in Aniara. The story is quite lofty, but at the same time also very human, dealing with the basic questions of humanity. To tell the story primarily with music suits this topic very well. I see my own role as choreographer as a some sort of mediator between the music and Dan Henriksson’s text and direction. With other words, it’s my goal to help Dan translate his visions into movement which in turn supports and elevates Robert Maggio’s music yet into another level. Simultaneously, the movement creates space for the amazing music, but in some parts also a bodily shape that hopefully succeeds in transmitting the thoughts and feelings that Dan Henriksson has wished to articulate.
The movement material I’m creating for Aniara is strongly based on traditional Asian theatrical expression in which exact directions like diagonals are used together with a down-to-earth attitude and strong vertical presence. In a certain sense, this style could be described as minimalistic because I’m using concrete movements with consideration. The stage should express calmness. Each and every movement should tell a story of its own, so they have to be carefully selected. Only the essential should be visible; strong, concentrated shapes in the bodies of the magnificent and talented performers. We’re not working on a dance piece, but creating a bodily frame to the music and storytelling. The key elements include round movements, diagonals, strong rooting in the earth, round-shaped routes in the space, using the whole space and taking advantage of it.
I also have a role as a performer in Aniara. I’m representing a sort of bodily expression of the artificial intelligence Mima. Mima has been created by humans to give them comfort. Mima tells the truth as it is, without embellishing it. Representing a non-human (without words) is a very interesting challenge. I’m fascinated by Mima’s multilayered inner life as she’s carrying a heavy burden of which the humans are not at all aware.
Aniara is an unbelievably interesting challenge, and judging by the results of our first workshops, this is going to be an amazing piece of work. The artistic team is immensely skilled and talented. Robert’s music is simply awesome, Donald can get an incredible amount of nuances out of the choir, and the singers are throwing themselves boldly and without prejudices into the new adventure. It was great to work with them, and I can hardly wait until our next workshop, and especially next June when we’ll all be together for a longer period rehearsing Aniara until its US premiere. The team spirit is exceptionally good – and this will be a brilliant show!
When I was asked to work with the Aniara: fragments of time and space production, I had a moment of pure excitement and thrill. After the first meeting with Dan I had these words echoing in my head: fragments, dystopic, space and artificial intelligence. My mind was rushing through the endless possibilities for the visual setting. The hardest part was not to go overboard with every idea I had, and I had a lot of them. While going through this vast sea of possibilities, three core parts for the visual concept became clear. Playing around with kinetic elements, the usage of video projections and bringing something organic to the set.
A year before Dan contacted me about Aniara I was really into Kinetic Art. I had done an art installation project based on a light source which was moving around in a two axis space. I remember while working on it, it felt like the moving light fixture almost had a personality of its own. The memory of this wandering little light fixture came to mind as I was studying the artificial intelligence Mima in the story of Aniara. Of course incorporating the kinetic lights to the scenic design was the next logical step. The stage setup we decided to work with is a long and narrow stage with audience sitting on both long ends. The setting for Aniara’s kinetic lights is based on achieving the most effective visual effect in this stage setup while at the same time creating with the arrangement a rhythmic sense in the room, almost like fragments.
I have been working with video projections most of my career, and for me the most interesting way to use them has always been the non conventional way. I had been playing around with video mappings to buildings, projections to scenic elements, projections to auditorium roofs and last but not least to stage floors. For Aniara we chose to work with floor projections. While working with video projected on the floor the light from the projector has a lovely side effect, while drawing the image on the floor the light illuminates the performers standing on the floor. When the light source is a video projector, it gives a lot more possibilities for the form of light. I tend to call this kind of light a digital light. It can be hard or soft, it can have vast variations of color and hues, it can include particles moving on the floor and on the performers. It can be so much more compared to the usage of a conventional light source.
Visual elements in video projections are compiled from filmed images from Iceland’s rural scenery, satellite images from Mars, digital fragments, -particles and -effects. This compilation of almost dystopic nature scenery with digital elements were the first visual ideas I had in mind for Aniara, those two elements have an intriguing interaction with each other. Calmness and restlessness together in a symbiotic composition.
All the visual elements in our scenic setting are quite abstract and conceptual, so I felt we needed to add something concrete to the set. While having meetings with Dan he discussed an idea of using dirt or soil as a performative element. While combining these two desires we decided to bring in an organic material to the scenic design. I have had a fixation on mulch for a long time, it has a feeling of transition in it. For me mulch feels like something turning into dust, it has been once sturdy oak, and now its purpose is to be the soil for something new.
For now the design is conceptually ready, and I am really eager to get to the concrete part of the design process. Creating the set, lights and video in the stage with the performers and creative team.
Aniara is truly a dream project for a scenic designer!
Not knowing…by Rob25/10/2018
Not knowing … exactly how to tell you where I currently am in the process of working on ANIARA with Dan (librettist/director) and Klockriketeatern, and Donald (music director) and the Crossing (and soon, the band!). Quite often when I’m deeply immersed in a piece, as I am now, I lose my perspective on it. It becomes difficult to summarize where I’ve been and where I’m going because it all feels fluid and ever-shifting. I’ve been spending most of my composing days zooming in on moments from individual movements, working through the billions of important details in this score that will raise some themes to the fore, and release others. It is a thrilling time, and my energy level is always high when I’m in my studio swimming around in the world of ANIARA.
Not knowing … exactly what kind of artistic “thing” we are making and how it “works,” because ANIARA is at once both a genre-bending (choral-theatre) piece, and also the longest stretch of music I’ve ever written (90 minutes). The more I work on the individual moments in my studio, the more compelled I feel about our complex structure. ANIARA consists of 17 songs, each a fragment of time, snapshots of the journey on board the spaceship, forever heading toward the constellation Lyra, without hope of ever reaching a final destination. At the end, the chorus sings: Who knows the last answer/at the bottom of the question.
Not knowing … how to most effectively dramatize the thematic/conceptual world of the piece because the subject matter is, in many ways, overwhelming and immediate. The central message is the need to take care of our planet: Maa, as it is referred to in our ANIARA. And yet, in ANIARA, it is already too late (sound familiar?) and we’ve already destroyed our planet, the thought of which is terrifyingly real. Sometimes it feels like I’m exploring the corridors of spaceship Aniara, looking to identify with its characters (the passengers, the Mimaroben, Isagel, Chefone, the Mima), listening for their voices, their mechanisms for coping with their plight; searching for the meaning of their journey, a place of refuge.
Not knowing … what today’s news right here and right now will bring, and how it will impact my perspective on this project. Recently yet another hurricane crashed into the coastline and thousands were displaced from their homes, forced to retreat to safety. What did they leave behind? Where might they find solace? How can we change what’s happening to our planet, our country, our civilization? It seems like every day brings a new disaster of one kind or another. Where do we seek refuge? What happens when we feel there is nowhere to go? That we are going nowhere? Where do we put our belief, our faith? What and whom do we live for?
ANIARA takes place amidst disaster of the most profound kind. I’m constantly reminded of this—and compelled to keep composing—as I take in what is happening all around us, and reflect on the urgent messages and projections for the future.Not knowing, and staying open to the journey …
On common sense, or how murk travels towards lightby Dan01/10/2018
On common sense, or how murk travels towards light
Let me first of all tell you, how happy I am to work with Robert Maggio! The Crossing’s conductor and artistic director Donald Nally was looking for a composer ready to listen and collaborate, to develop our material together. And that’s exactly how Robert works. He writes wonderful music, and all the time in a close connection with the libretto, with me and Donald – is this what you had in mind, does it work like this, can we make some changes here…?
Thank you, Donald, for inviting Rob to the project, in to our lives!
As we develop the text and the composition, and try to embody the story in tones and visions, in motion and stillness, the world around us gets, once again, wilder than fiction. “The American situation” causes not only ripples in the pond, but cold shiver down the spine of humanity. Aniara was created during times of nuclear arms race. Now the weapons are in the hands of irreverent individuals in West and East.
Today nine countries possess around fifteen thousand nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia have the largest arsenals, and a quarter of their weapons on high-alert status.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. ICAN’s main task is to promote adherence to and implementation of the United Nations nuclear weapon ban treaty. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was signed by a majority of the member nations that same year. The United States has not signed it. Finland has not signed it. But Sweden – the home of Harry Martinson – did sign it.
Why is Finland not in? Why aren’t all the countries in the world in? Why do we not scrap the fifteen thousand nuclear weapons to save the planet? In the 1980’s there was some sixty thousand, so a change is possible. We don’t need any AI to understand this. Only common sense.
Man is best when he wishes good he cannot do
and stops breeding evil he easily can do.
ICAN was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to prevent the scenario Harry Martinson, the Nobel Laureate in Litterature, saw in his own mima screen aboard Aniara.
This past summer and the hurricane season remind us once again of the man-made climate change. In September 2018 UN climate panel IPCC published a new report.
Man has created a situation in which we are threatening the existence of Earth with slow and inexorable means (the climate) and with sudden, horrible means (nuclear weapons).
We were in the abyss. Sounds like a fairy-tale
written in panic fear in each and every eye
On a personal level – this is something I realize in my work on Aniara – I am still an optimist, in spite of everything. It may be naive, but as long as there is a will, there is an opportunity. And while so many of the leaders and populist movements in the world seem to just not care, we can also hear millions of people in grassroot movements, researchers, scientists, journalists, artists who all want a change.
Harry Martinson’s Aniara is a dark story. Our Earth, left by the ship and its’ passengers, is damaged by radiation, by human action. For the vessel, the ship in space, there is no return.
But doesn’t hope still exist – in Mima, in art, in the light?
– – –
Quotes from Harry Martinson: Aniara. En revy om människan i tid och rum (1956),
Aniara. A Review of Man in Time and Space (translation here: Dan Henriksson)
Chapter 1by Donald06/05/2018
I want to make pieces that help me make sense of the chaos.
I want to make pieces that remind us of the wonder of the Earth, even as we threaten that wonder.
I want to make pieces that allow me to see the world, and my emotional reactions to it, with greater clarity.
I want to make pieces that allow me to understand those emotions.
Aniara is doing – will do – these things.
I suppose a blog by its nature begins with the “I.” I always hope that the pieces The Crossing inspires reduce or eliminate the “I,” as Celan says:
a language not for you and not for me—because, I ask you, for whom is it meant, the earth, not for you, I say, is it meant, and not for me—a language, well, without I and without You, nothing but He, nothing but It, you understand, and She, nothing but that.”1
But the task at hand is to write about my experience in developing Aniara, so I am the “I,” for better or worse. So begins the record of the journey.
As I have wandered through my crazy journey of opportunities, missed or embraced, I have occasionally encountered minds that I recognize as having similar ideas about art, theatre, music, and even life. These are the people I want to return to; I want to live with them artistically, through projects we care about. The artists of The Crossing represent a group of such people. Dan Henriksson and Rob Maggio are such people.
I met Dan on a production of Verdi’s Macbeth at Opera Philadelphia. He was primarily in charge of shaping the scraggly band of witches and, as chorus master, they were my wards. His work began with character definitions, dispensing of a (sadly) common approach to opera choruses, in which the chorus is treated as singular personality, not a group of individuals. With Dan, we dug deeply into Shakespeare’s characters, their reason for being, our similarities and differences. There was Verdi to contend with as well; his work with librettists Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei to distill the persons, relationships, and scenes of a complex play with a lot of words into compact musical contexts that sharpen our understanding. The witches and I quickly came to love the work, the team, Dan. We recognized a shared respect for author and composer, a desire to get to the root of their art and deliver just that. As the production came to a close, we said goodbye to Dan and he headed back to Finland, but with a pact that we would someday work together again.
Fifteen years later, we finally found our project: Aniara. Changes in our country, and our increasing divisions, inspired a feeling of urgency to bring together The Crossing with Dan’s company, Klockriketeatern in Helsinki, and create something unique. The Crossing was ready: the chaos of Jeff’s death was passing, the enormity of Seven Responses was waning, and we needed another big project to push us, make us grow, ask questions, force our organization to build better infrastructure, and challenge the feeling of comfort in having established a recognizable artistic profile. (Status. It opens doors, but it can close minds.) I knew joining hands with a group of theatre folks from Helskinki who recently traveled Europe dressed as the Three Musketeers, singing songs to people on the streets, would provide that challenge. Dispelling skepticism, I pointed to Klockrike’s dizzyingly creative productions of classics like Uncle Vanya to assure my friends I wasn’t nuts. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage encouraged us, recognizing that there is a little “nuts” in all big ideas.
Aniara was Dan’s suggestion and it has quickly proved a perfect vehicle for some of the theatrical questions I aimed to investigate. We want to make a piece that explores the intersection of music and theatre. Sure, it’s been done before. Opera, for example. Choral theatre, for another. But, I’ve grown weary of seeing performances in which one medium – for example theatre – is dressed in the art of another – for example choral music – and the results are a dissatisfying acceptance of various levels of discomfort for performer and observer. We want to find out what happens when a particular type of choral ensemble and a particular type of theatrical approach intersect; what works, what doesn’t, what are the frictions, how to overcome discomforts or acknowledge them and use them.
I first read Martinson’s Aniara in one sitting. It’s a kind of simple presentation, presented in 103 cantos; on the surface, they read as
Life went on despite…
Even reading that little distillation I see a certain recognizable melancholy that invades the work and captured my imagination. The book is more relevant today than Martinson may have imagined it could be when he finished in 1956, though, it’s not so much nuclear Armageddon we fear, it’s our destruction of the resources that make human life possible, and our inability to engage humanity’s great tool, imagination, to fully understand and reverse that.
But, what initially struck me – moved me – about Martinson’s work is the feeling that on this ship – a large gondola for 8000 refugees of Earth, headed to a distant constellation that all on board know they will never reach – there is a palpable presence of love that has no direction. Love that can fill know vessel; an environment with a cultural aversion to receiving. It feels so relevant to the fears we live with and the cruelty almost systematically reinforced by our own government – a numbing disregard for the benefits of giving and receiving. The little voice (in the vastness of space) of Aniara’s narrator is also grappling with the systems and organizations of their culture, his own vast pool of feelings and their suppressions, and the rise of an authoritarian regime in the claustrophobia of their hopeless world. But one can feel that love lies underneath his thoughts, his actions, his need to write. His story plays out against a tide of brilliant philosophical and artistic ideas, while the vastness of space unfolds before them in ways they could not have imagined back on Earth.
Surely, the origin of Aniara lies in warning: we have one Earth, we are the unelected curators of it, it will continue to spin without us, our destiny lies with us. Martinson notes:
The strangest omens would be seen in space
but, since they were unsuited to the program
of our day, they were promptly forgotten. 2
But the work moves far beyond this warning; like most great art, it is a story about us.
The initial development of our Aniara coincided with the passing of both of my parents over an eighteen-month period. The grace of Martinson’s story and his words were perhaps magnified for me at that time and I realize that we are also making a piece about his simplest premise: leaving home. Alongside the complex scenes in which catastrophe strikes; authoritarians rise; suicide strikes closely; rage, hope, and fear become indistinguishable; and love slowly disintegrates, is a truth we all share: at some point, we can no longer go home. In fact, like the Lost of Aniara, we are all, always, moving away from home. And the farther we wander away in our own space and time, the greater the desire to remember – to capture the images of a time when things were simpler. Perhaps, when they felt secure. A time we owned.
And yet, the narrator of Aniara persists in his need to tell his story, to understand his world, and to remember. As do we.
When someone you have loved has reached death’s door
Space stands harder and more brutal than before. 3
What a gift, to tell stories with friends.
May 6, 2018
1. Conversation in the mountains, Paul Celan, From Collected Prose, trans. By Rosemarie Waldrop, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986.
2. Canto 87, Aniara; a Review of Man in Time and Space, Harry Martinson, trans. Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg, Story Line Press, 1999. (Subsequent references from this edition.)
3. Canto 89, Aniara.
In my next blog, I’ll talk a bit about Rob Maggio – our history, and his vital role in Aniara.
Despair and inspirationby Dan25/04/2018
There are small stories and there are big stories. And then there is Aniara – the earthly lovestory, placed in cosmic solitude. The legend of the human race, who ruined its only home, the blue planet. A story about the hubris of man and the end of the world. About the longing for Paradise.
The space ship Aniara, with eight thousand souls in need of comfort and coherence, dashes through the sea of space, like a bubble of air in the glass of a bowl – infinitely slow, without a goal.
The goldonder Aniara – one of thousands alike – is loaded with emigrants leaving Earth, with Mars as intended destination. They are refugees in space, from a desolated planet, destroyed by themselves.
Does it sound all too familiar?
I had in mind a paradise for them
but when leaving the one we ruined
the night of empty space became our sole home
a never-ending chasm where no god would hear us
Aniara veers off course and heads out into the cosmos. Outer space seems bigger and different laws apply. Who are we and where are we heading? When we believe there is an answer, we soon realize that the unknown also expanded.
The Chief Astronomer gives a lecture on board Aniara:
We’re coming to suspect now that our drift
is even deeper than we first believed,
that knowledge is a blue naiveté
[assuming] the Mystery to have a structure
Aniara (1956) is the magnum opus of Swedish author Harry Martinson, and the work which gave him the Nobel Prize in literature, almost twenty years after the publication. In the summer of 1953 he managed to get an image of the Andromeda galaxy in his telescope. He later recalled this encounter as a moment of inspiration. It was a decisive impulse for his imagination, a strong experience and insight. He dictated the first third of Aniara during a couple of summer weeks, in a poetic outburst, with his wife writing down the words. His impotent rage was channeled in a therapeutic session.
A word for powerlessness (vanmakt in Swedish) is quite frequent in Martinson’s texts. His conscience would today be described as global. He was tormented by despair at the Second World War and especially the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and at the Soviet hydrogen bomb a few years later.
The Nobel Prize (1974) was awarded for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos. In Harry Martinson’s entire output, love for nature and the earth is a continuous theme. The wonder of the dew drop.
Between the poetry of your heart and the poppy
there is a contract
written by the wind and signed
It is written with the quill of a crane
dipped in the blood of a mayfly
In the space epos Aniara we still have Earth in focus – the blue planet mirrored in the cosmos. Aniara is a cosmic tale about humanity at the grand crossroads. Martinson gave Aniara the subtitle a review of man in time and space.
More than sixty years later, the reader is blinded by how much the poem was ahead of his time. On board we have artificial intelligence, a source for possibilities and comfort – mima is a telegrator; had invented half herself. The book is a cry of distress, born out of confrontation with the threat of nuclear weapons – they cry out of stones with Cassandra.
Martinson sees the global impact of environment pollution. He plays with the technical development, seducing and destroying. Space becomes the stage for a science fiction adventure. Man in search of himself, and at the same time the universal threat remains.
There is protection from near everything
from fire and damages by storm and frost,
do add whichever blows may come to mind.
But there is no protection from mankind.
A couple of years ago we were with Donald Nally – The Crossing’s conductor – strolling on a beach down the Jersey shore on a windy day in July. Aniara popped up as a thought, as material for the new piece we were sketching out. Aniara examines several of the themes we wanted to explore. “Why didn’t I know of this book!” was his reaction soon after, when he had read the book.
Aniara is a distillate of one hundred and three songs, written on verse in a rich and poetic Swedish – the reason it is such a challenge to translate it to other languages. Like all great art Aniara contains an ambiguous explanation. There is a struggle between light and darkness. To interpret the deeper meanings is a never-ending play with thoughts.
How does one read beyond Harry Martinson’s boyish curiosity about science fiction? His fictitious technical jargon and the breathtaking dimensions of the space adventure crash with astronomical inconsistencies. Curved space glides over in religious images.
The mythical level drowns rational objections. The dream is sometimes light as the Nordic summer night, in the next moment we meet a coal-black sun. We find archeological and paleontological fragments, the Ice Age settles. Did climate change happen when man with radiation poisoned and overshadowed the sun?
Aniara examines the development of the collective. The space ship is, like the earth it left behind, filled with human pettiness. One can recognize the need for affiliation, context, nearness and love in all its shapes. Dictators from the past are present. Detention cells, camps and execution plutoons are mirrored against Vasco da Gama and the walls of Niniveh in an ancient golden era. Cults, rites and religions seem as comic they can be from a distance, while human inside the collective is burning.
Aniara is a cosmic tale about humanity at the grand crossroads. That is why also the song about the Samaritan’s humanity and collection of funds for aid stations is included, to show possible paths. The longing for love is a continuous theme. But what is the style the poet switches to, when he dives in to the lust of the body, looking for comfort in the womb?
A classic work is one that is in a dialogue with the present, with the here and now of the reader. When I write these lines my mother has very recently passed away. The very last moment, a diminuendo into death, opened up another interpretation of the song of parting on board of Aniara:
Not visible for our eyes she drifted away
to the region of the Cardinal Numbers
with laws and reserves to be called upon
when Chance is installed and inspired
When your loved one reaches the Gate of Death
Space seems colder and more brutal than before
When your beloved has reached the door of death, space stands out harder and more cruel than before. The Mystery has many names. Martinson did not confess to any particular religion, but it is obvious to find traces of both taoism and buddhism. The epic poem Aniara ends in an expectation of liberation.
And Nirvana’s current rinsed us all.
Aniara was born out of wonderment, but probably even more out of powerless despair. To me comfort and inspiration are hidden in the thought that mankind can support the future of the Earth.
Thoughts on February's Aniara Workshop in Philadelphiaby Rob15/04/2018
- We just had an incredibly exciting workshop where all of the American creatives and artists got to meet our Finnish counterparts for the first time for face-to-face interaction. What are your takeaways from this weekend.
The February 2018 workshop blew my mind. It was amazing to see the chorus sing and move around.
Honestly, that not something I’ve ever seen before. It was only a brief moment where the choir memorized a short passage, and then performed Antti’s choreography along with it, but it was very cool. I wish we workshopped everything in the world of concert music. It’s such a rare experience to be able to hear a piece “on its feet” before it’s prepared for performance.
I was thrilled (felt like I was on the right track) when The Crossing read through the fragments of the first four movements in December 2017, and then the first nine movements in February 2018. I really needed the feedback from Dan and Donald, and from the singers and accompanist. I needed to get a sense from the room of what was working and what wasn’t. I have a general sense of being in the ballpark with the variety of musical language(s) in the piece, though I’m still trying to figure out what the boundaries of genre and style are. How to define the musical idioms of the characters and the story with these instruments. I’m still trying to figure out how much “popular” music has a place in this score, and how far out to expand the vocal techniques. As I said earlier, this is a group that is comfortable doing just about any vocal style, extended techniques, and so forth, and there might be moments in this score where unusual vocal timbres would be utilized to great effect. I think, for me, that’s more of a 2nd draft kind of discovery.
- Talk to us about this collaboration between you, The Crossing, and Klockrike on Aniara: fragments of time and space, and how you got connected with Donald and Dan.
It’s always exciting to begin a new collaboration. I’ve known Donald since 1992, and Dan and Donald have known each other for a long time as well. The two of them had agreed to work on Aniara with The Crossing and Klockriketeatern before I was brought on board as the composer. In August of 2017 the three of us met at Dan’s home in Porvoo, Finland, along with the actors of Klockriketeatern and the Finnish design team. We read through the draft of the libretto then, and discussed the project in general. It was an amazing two-day immersion into the collaborative process, and it was wonderful meeting Dan for the first time.
- Dan Henriksson is writing the libretto, which is an adaptation of Harry Martinson’s original text. Talk to us about the process of working with a collaborator on the text that you are setting to music, and how this influences the drama and music.
Dan’s libretto, like Martinson’s poem, is presented in fragments. We are creating a series of snap-shots in approximately 20 individual movements. The structural fragmentation presents interesting challenges to us as we navigate the through line of this 90-minute work. While there are clearly linear events (space ship Aniara takes off, it veers off course, and so forth) the piece is not really about the story as much as is it is a meditation on our purpose. Put a community of people on a ship that’s headed nowhere for the remainder of their lives, and what/who are they? What do they want? Who do they become? How do they feel? In a way, we’re already there – traveling on this spaceship Earth; where are we really headed as a community? It’s heady, philosophical stuff, and I’m enjoying floating around in the questions Aniara poses.
- You’ve written music for The Crossing before: your piece The Woman Where We Are Living was commissioned and premiered at The Month of Moderns in 2014. What’s going through your mind when you write for The Crossing?
Writing for The Crossing is a luxury. When Donald asked me if I wanted to work on this piece with him and Dan, I thought about it for maybe half a second and said “Yes!” Working on this piece is like preparing to make a meal, opening the refrigerator, and finding the perfect, most amazing ingredients. OK, that’s kind of a weird metaphor, but I enjoy cooking, and I like food, so maybe you might understand what I mean. The Crossing has a beautiful, other-worldly sound, and they’re loaded with talent and soul; there’s almost nothing I could conceive of that they can’t figure out how to do – so technique isn’t a consideration. This allows me to dream big, and dream of anything that drifts into my consciousness, or subconscious for that matter. As I’ve been writing this piece, I’ve been listening to their magnificent recordings, and one of the things I’m struck by is how fearless they are as musicians. One of the most rewarding experiences in professional career was hearing them sing the premiere of my work (The Woman Where We Are Living – 2014). It is one of the most deeply personal pieces I’ve ever written, and the care and beauty with which they presented the premiere felt like a gift.
- Talk to us about the instrumentation for Aniara: fragments of time and space. It’s a bit of a strange ensemble – why were those decisions made for specific instruments?
Aniara is currently scored for choir, 2 actors, dancer, and 4 instrumentalists. Everyone will be amplified, and we’ll be able to process all of the voices and instruments (with reverb, delay, distortion, etc.) The budget allowed for an instrumental quartet that would accompany the choir and actors. Donald, Dan and I began discussing the specifics of the instruments once I started writing music. The first choice was guitar because the opening movement is like a folk-song (musical excerpt?); Dan suggested that this might be a Kalevala tune (he sang one into my iPhone so I’d get the general idea) and the accompaniment would be like a drone, setting a nostalgic mood, recalling a memory of the beauty of where they had come from before the Earth (called Maa in our story) had been ravaged. So, the acoustic guitar came first. Later on, when I began writing the movement titled “Phototurb,” which is essentially about the nuclear bomb, I started wanting the grit and the drive of an electric guitar (with distortion, and perhaps even delay). After the guitar, we agreed on percussion, since Antti, our choreographer, has training in Beijing opera dance, and percussion is an integral element. Also, percussion can provide so many varied timbres and grooves that will drive the piece. Up till now, the percussion battery includes vibraphone, crotales, a make-shift drum kit, and some other hand percussion. In addition to the guitar and percussion, we wanted to add more lyrical, long-lined instruments, so we chose a string (cello) and a woodwind (clarinet), two of my favorite instruments. Clarinet was my first instrument after piano. Actually, to this point, I’ve solely written for bass clarinet, as that’s one of my favorite tone colors. Both instruments roughly cover the entire vocal range as well.
- Aniara: fragments of time and space is hard to classify in terms of genre. We’ve been using the term “choral-theatre”. What does this term mean to you and how does it fit into your body of work as a composer?
It’s hard to describe exactly what our adaptation of Aniara is as it relates to other works. The term for these kinds of pieces these days is “choral theatre,” though that’s hardly a well-established genre, and I don’t know that there are commonalities among the pieces that live in this interdisciplinary space. In Aniara, there are two actors who speak, sometimes with, sometimes without music being performed simultaneously. In our February 2018 workshop, we began exploring movement and dance by the choir, sometimes when they were silent, and sometimes when they were singing. It was thrilling and new (for me!). In the final production there will be costumes, projections, sound design, lighting, and so forth. There is clearly a story, and there is an over-arching journey that will last about 90-minutes. I have been relying on my experience as a musical dramatist who frequently works in the genre of musical theatre to envision scenes and fragments for this piece. I’ve been trying to think about song forms and dramatic structures that work well on stage; that add up to something larger than the individual movements and moments. Add to that the setting of the future and outer space, with the chorus as inhabitants aboard an enormous spacecraft – well, we’re just not in Kansas anymore.
- Talk to us about where you are at currently in the process of thinking about Aniara: fragments of time and space. What’s on your mind at this moment?
I’d very much like to present a deep dive into a specific musical moment, but I’m hesitant to do so at this stage because I feel like I’m still figuring out the trajectory of the whole. I keep having this uneasy feeling that there’s going to be a moment when I realize, “Oh wait, I need to re-think everything from the start.” Hopefully that’s not actually true, but I know I won’t feel entirely comfortable with my work on the piece until I’ve written a draft of the score that takes us all the way through to the end. I tend to write in broad strokes at first, and then go back and refine and reshape. It helps me to see the forest rather than focusing on the trees. I’m hoping in the next few months to have a complete draft!
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