Nathaniel Mackey - Poet and Narrator
Mellissa Hughes - Soprano
Bill Kalinkos - Bass Clarinet
Tim Leopold - Trumpet
Mike Lormand - Trombone
Doug Balliett - Bass
Sam Budish - Percussion
Brad Balliett - Conductor
"Red Wind" sets selected verses from Nathaniel Mackey’s Blue Fasa (2015), which continues his two serial poems "Song of the Andoumboulou" and “Mu.” His poetry braids these poems into several volumes, which exhibit themes of movement, migration, and transit. As Mackey points out in his introduction, Blue Fasa “announces an Eastern turn” to the poems. It constantly alludes to non-Western traditions and is highlighted by imagery from India to the Caribbean, California, the Sudan, and beyond.
Among his influences is fieldwork from a wide range of ethnographers, and specifically for Blue Fasa, Janice Boddy’s Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zār Cult in Northern Sudan (1989). Boddy’s work details the zār-possession rituals of the Hofriyati, a pseudonym she uses for the people of the village where she did her fieldwork. In this Islamic culture possession (by a zār, called a jinni in the Quran), is considered an affliction, one that occurs most frequently among Hofriyati women. The afflicted must be cleansed through a ritual that may involve dance, trance, animal sacrifice, and feasting. The trance-inducing chants invoked by the musicians in their efforts to coax individual spirits are called “threads,” which are “pulled” when they are sung. Mackey’s usage of this imagery from Boddy’s fieldwork is strikingly evident in the excerpted passage from the poem “Hofriyati Head Opening.” "Red Wind" takes its title from the Arabic name for a particular zār spirit that bothers the possessed, rīh al-ahmar or “red wind.”
The narrative of Red Wind begins at the gaming table of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. The “caught strings” evoke this romantic setting of “A Night in Jaipur,” Blue Fasa’s opening poem. The themes of trance, dislocation, and multiple identities are highlighted in lines like “Insofar as there / was an I it wasn’t hers.” This thematic material is echoed in the second excerpt from “Hofriyati Head Opening:” “I was possessed. I wasn’t there.” Boddy finds a paradoxical aspect of the Hofriyati spirit tradition intriguing. The possessed are simultaneously themselves and alien beings. I have chosen to set passages that deal with this multiplicity of identity.
In their inclusion of elements of blues, bossa nova, jazz, and ragtime, "Anabatic Jukebox" and "Rag" allude to Mackey’s constant process of signification, of reference to other cultural, musical, and poetic traditions. The penultimate movement, "Anacoluthic Light," highlights the theme of multiple identities by juxtaposing the soprano, who represents the world of the spirits, and the narrator, representative of our own world.
Mackey employs Rasta-influenced terminology in Blue Fasa, which “runs claim and qualm as one, nomination and agnosis as one, proposing a subjunctive, qualified I, an alternate, unmortared I. Such a self, speaking or singing with a torn voice […] laments cosmic dislocation, social disability, sexual distress, and other afflictions.” These societal afflictions are referred to by the Hofriyati as the “illness older than books.” This imagery is present in the last excerpt of my final movement, "Rag," where the narrator is prevented from seeing the “light” by his own conflicting identity—the manifestation of which takes the form of books old and new. I interpret the ending of the excerpt as a commentary upon the problematic nature of societal conflict and the difficulties of confronting issues of identity and social status. "Red Wind" reflects the contingency of our own reality upon one that is inherently other, and aims to demonstrate the possibility of coexistence between the two realms.
- Song Cycle