Part II:The Law of the Instrument

“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.”–Rule 3, Surrick

“Think of a theory as a tool. When you find a new tool…you want to try it out everywhere.” (Kaplan-Weinger, Ullman) Words of caution from the academy–words of challenge to an expert tool-wielder. For ethnographers, it is dangerous to get bogged down in one theory, it can be reductive and fail to capture the groups of people or individuals you study. Perhaps theories are less elegant solutions, less capable of telling stories than those instruments involving bows, strings, stretched leather, the human voice. Theories have limits, and those limits are usually sites of academic one-upmanship or sources of discontent for “studied” communities. For performers, surpassing limits or even bowing to them make the show more real. [Want more on The Law of the Instrument and Abraham Kaplan, who came up with it? See:

What I was listening to when I started this entry: Annie Lennox, Walking on Broken Glass. I was thinking about tools of storytelling–eye contact, gesture, tempo, proximity and contrasting that with the numbing effects of pain and trauma.

Right after intermission in Between War & Here, Ryan and Jackie have a face-off of sorts–fiddle and drum. They stand and face each other, following a reading about two soldiers trying to figure out to protect themselves, stay dominant. The two musicians play like lightning, it feels like you’re watching them clear the hurdles. Their instruments are barely contained, straining against the rhythm. Installment 2 of Ensemble Galilei’s music for your listening pleasure–this one is bright, fast, although the album title: Flowers of the Forest, refers to a song sung in memory of the dead.

Over dinner, Ryan describes singing, dancing, playing, art, architecture–all as forms of communication, pieces of of a universal language that changes over time, such that studying traditional music also means communicating with the past. Preston describes learning from old sounds and replicating old sounds even as he must always breathe new life into his instrument.

In performance, the audience leans forward, hooting and hollering as Jackie and Ryan trade focus. The melody flies higher than words, but sounds like bravery, skill, determination. The rhythm feels older than words, the heartbeat. Their breathtaking pace catapults the narrative forward, moving us all into another scene in the theater of war. I don’t think it would have worked so well with only one instrument. Maybe Kaplan was right.

Image result for if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail

I deal in words. But words failed me.” This are the words Anne uses, narrating her experience traveling with soldiers in a combat zone. This is what Anne says: she slows down, quiets, looks somberly, intently out over a music stand to a group of listeners, clustered in a cavernous church, the last lush colors of the mosaic behind them blinking in the early evening light. This is how Anne uses her instrument–which is not quite her voice, not quite her words, not quite her empathy, not quite her acute powers of observation, not quite her memory, but all of it together–possibilities and limits. Anne, in recognizing the limits of her instrument and facing those limits, makes the whole world real for us.

Back in rehearsal, Sue interprets the group’s comments about her playing in “Jesu,” a narrated story with music, trying each strategy they suggest. Her fellow performers are trying to capture the way she played it in rehearsal an hour or so ago–to amplify those effects, if they can. It made me cry when she did it the first time, my head bent down to my book to not draw attention to myself, tears falling down on the page. I don’t know if they noticed–if they want to make sure they get that back. Sue plays several different ways, without registering an opinion, simply responding. No one else has really been told to do what she is doing now. Her instrument registers different feelings, different resonances, relates differently to the spoken part of the story she is playing against. She trusts to the range of her instrument and to the range of her capacity–this generosity of spirit becomes part of her instrumentation. She is in a good space to explore. After all, she gets responses like “You changed the ending. That was really nice…it was filigreed.” (That was Neal, by the way.) Enter translanguaging.

This group understands language to mean alternately: classical forms speaking across time, music as texture, architecture (where they play) changing the meaning of what they play. The audience nods, shouts, taps their feet. Some of them read/listen (checking the program, perhaps to learn more about the pieces, but also to visually check out from the performers to lock in more completely with the aural experience). All of it is its own participatory language–appropriate, recognizable expression that this type of music elicits. Ensemble Galilei’s producer, Lindsay, who stands quietly in the kitchen during their rehearsal and plays host to their dinner when I visit for the interview, mentions at one point in the background, not to me, but to someone else seated nearer to him at the table: “Every time I see the show, I cry in a different place.” Laughter and tears are language in this show and the fact that everyone’s comes at a different time only adds to a coherence of experience.

The stories of this show are told through nuanced command of a variety of instruments, responsive language from an audience seeking to make connections and spontaneous feelings stumbled across by performers and audiences alike as both melody and message move the group through time. This whole experience flips the script on Kaplan’s (and later Maslow’s) words. If all you have is a hammer, you for damn sure need to find others with a wider array of tools. Or perhaps–if all you have is a hammer, you figure out who else also needs that hammer.

The Eye, 1945 by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, The Eye (1945)

Eye contact. Eye contact for Anne: looking out over the audience–does she see into the past and let us see it too, see the soldier who dies, the mother who grieves? Eye contact for Sue: looking toward the harp strings and to the narrators, Anne and Neal–does she see and feel possibilities as much as she hears them? Eye contact for Ryan and Jackie: there is respect, challenge and above all focus, to keep them racing through time. Eye contact for Lindsay, watching the performers, moving forward and backward in time, anticipating the audience response, remembering past performances, all different. Eye contact for Carolyn at Walter Reed: hers assumes that universal language Ryan was talking about, and all the other “looks” that go into the performance: looking to the past, looking to connect, looking with respect, looking toward the future. And the veteran she makes eye contact with: the fighter looking toward the music, the first audience, what might make that warrior smile?

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