Introduction: Speaking of War

An ethnographic/behind-the-scenes study of the performers of the spring 2019 tour of Between War & Here, for Ethnography of Communication, University of Maryland, Baltimore County


“What do you hope the audience gets out of this experience?”  That’s one of the questions I wrote down to ask the performers in Ensemble Galilei’s recent tour of Between War & Here.  When I actually asked the question, each performer had a specific story to communicate with the audience, to motivate a certain kind of change. 

It seems only fair that I ask myself that same question as I begin this blog, and the question is a doozy.  Stall…

I’ll try to stall beautifully…  Each blog post on my time with this incredible group will feature some of their work so you can either get to know them or get reacquainted.   This link leads you to their website, click on the Album From Whence We Came which leads you to the recording of Iris.

If you did click and did some exploring, you saw that Ensemble Galilei does Celtic and Early music.  They are especially drawn to mashups, taking melodies from different genres and making them talk to each other.  They play and sing, collaborating with/responding to fellow musicians, singers and speakers, as well as image collections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hubble Space Telescope, National Geographic and others.  Neal and Anne, their co-conspirators on this project, are best-known for their work as NPR correspondents; all of them operate with mega-competence at an audible frequency.

In March the group graciously allowed me to observe a rehearsal in Annapolis, attend a concert in Baltimore and join them for a dinner/interview in Philadelphia.  I told them I would be looking at their experiences through an academic lens—I also told them they were doing performance ethnography: Ryan asks me to repeat that so he can add it to his resume.  Several of the others chime in over the din of music blaring over restaurant speakers, clinking cutlery and other assorted conversations ebbing and flowing around the table.

What they do is more accessible and much more technically impressive than writing jargonese about culture-communication-community. They speak into a space where NPR can meet FOX NEWS, a staggering and profoundly needful ambition in 2019.  They tell stories of American combat veterans and their families, encountered at Walter Reed and on active duty.  These players also come from performing communities which hand down traditions and techniques that have aided in telling stories of war for centuries if not millennia.

Each post will also include something I listened to while I was writing.  Ostensibly this music is unrelated, though I’ve been noticing that the songs connect up anyway.  This first one is Khaled’s C’est La Vie.  He’s an internationally known Algerian performer whose music has folkloric roots, whose performances often involve collaborations.  This song is in French and Arabic…”that wound have to heal with a medicine”…

The performers have long since completed their “data collecting,” listening to and walking alongside of soldiers.  The phase this March/April was the live “methods section” where they distilled those experiences into moments of connection and awareness.  Proceeds from their concerts go to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.  I ask Carolyn why she and Sue started playing viola de gamba and harp at Walter Reed.  She says “you do what you can.” 

If you sign up to be a soldier in this country, you’re doing what you can.  How many of us make a practice, a real practice, of honoring those who do what they can, especially if we don’t identify with them already?  A horrifying article came out last week about empathy in this country:

Read this if you dare, and then pray to God she is wrong.

There is a piece in Carolyn Surrick’s book: between war and here called “Rule 3.”  She wrote this collection in response to her time playing music at Walter Reed.  Then the pieces were built into the body of the show.  A phrase from Rule 3 will lead each of the subsequent blog posts, which will be about this speech community of performers.  The idea of “speech communities” comes from John Gumperz, who meant by that phrase a group of people that often use common signs.   If you talk the academic-speak and you want more, see

Rule 3 goes like this:

“It’s important to make eye contact.  If you can get a soldier to look you in the eye, and you smile, he might smile back.  There are days when there isn’t much to smile about and when you get to see one of those shy smiles from a twenty year-old, well, you just might start believing in god.” (Surrick, 19)

Carolyn, Sue, Ryan, Jackie, Preston, Anne and Neil are a hybrid speech community. Five of them speaking several musical languages.  Some of them sing in or speak multiple verbal languages. All seven of them collaborate within a system of tacitly understood signs.  They share a common understanding of silence, pacing, timbre, articulation, to say nothing of signs of attention, support and control which they display differently in rehearsal than performance.  With all due respect to ethnomusicologists, the academy is only just catching up in terms of studying this–check out this project on music’s capacity to increase empathy (also deals with responses to the fire at Notre Dame):

What do I hope you get out of this? I want us to look at the languages in these mash ups.  War is hard to talk about.  Pain is impossible to think through.  How can you gesture at what is gone?  I intend to explore the ideas of translanguaging in this group—translanguaging is a way of switching back and forth between languages or voicings, using all of what each language affords to better communicate with others.  The term is attributed to Welsh scholar Cen Williams and now used most often in bilingual education; here is another Celtic contribution to broader human understanding.  Translanguaging involves speaking in more than one language, but there is no hierarchy in translanguing—no sense that one language is better than the other.  For Ensemble Galilei’s translanguaging practice, there is a lot going on between notes and words, between techniques and practices, between improvisation and the black and white of the page.   

New voices emerge from history, new speakers voice the suffering present, academic disciplines shift and grow.  Reporters, online activists and performers alike wake people up, joining communities of choice where common threads are compassion, awareness and a vigilant effort at understanding.  Ensemble Galilei is playing toward that future.  What are they saying?

Poetry from between war and here by carolyn a. surrick, upper green publishing, llc.


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