Part III: Food for Thought

There are days when there’s not much to smile about… (Rule 3, Surrick)

Ensemble Galilei only rehearses for this week of performances once. Carolyn says it takes too much out of them to do more than that.

Carolyn is in black (she says she brings the dark energy), Jackie is in the sunglasses, Ryan is sitting up top, Sue is sitting down below. The other man in this photo is Isaac, one of their regular players-in-arms, and they are all standing in front of the VA in Los Angeles–this picture is part of a series called 25 years of EG on their website.

Anne and Neal talk to me at the restaurant about what it’s like to play the scenes, inhabit the lives of the families from Walter Reed:

Anne: Everybody gave me good advice [about performing the characters]…don’t be too dramatic…[yet] there are moments when it’s bad, when mother says “I can’t do this–“

Neal: That’s devastating. Devastating.

Anne: But the music…the interplay…changes the way we feel about it.

When I first met Carolyn, I came to her office: she is the office administrator for a church. There is a jar of hard candy on her desk. It is a tiny hint of the hospitality in the wings. When I show up at her house, an extraordinary work of history and art in itself, there is a dog in the yard, I enter the house and the kitchen is hopping. Carolyn has muffins out, is making omelets as various of her family members pass through, musicians tune and chat–she makes me some tea. Cups litter the floor in rehearsal and later in performance. There is a necessary lightness to this, to combat the intensity of the stories. In a way, the food stands in for what their playing at Walter Reed initially was: respite, acknowledgement, sharing.

Halfway through the rehearsal, Carolyn’s daughter does a coffee run to a local coffee shop. Lunch is in the offing. When the group has dinner together, there will be drinks after. There are talks of bonfire gatherings to come. Being together is a full-time job in this week of shows–hospitality, ceremony, community all rolled into one. I am reminded that there is always a lot of food at a funeral.

I am on the sidelines, yet accepted. I was greeted by a dog when I pulled up to the house. I am asked to let out another dog shortly after I arrive, and thus I see Neal, Anne, Lindsay and Madison pull up–the musicians having already been getting comfortable, getting ready: Preston says “the dogs always have the best reactions to the pipes.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RzUGjAJtlk (This is Preston, by the way, he seems to have put this up this weekend.)

It seems to me that hospitality is the pre-requisite for any ethnographic study–a willingness to let someone in, and that hospitality must be reciprocated somehow. This is a hospitality while life still goes on, family moves in and out, Ryan “forgot my frickin toothbrush…how many times have I traveled…”, dogs bark at the door, bills need to be paid and time passes. It always comes back to time.

Image result for quotes about hospitality

After I wrote the second blog post, I started telling people about it–classmates, family, friends and the performers themselves. I asked for feedback and started gathering more food for thought. One professor noted how my manipulation of time was like the internal thought process at a live performance. Another wondered what sort of tone was being set–how experimental this was trying to be. I must confess to never trying to do something new or experimental, ever–but I suppose I’m always improvising and I frequently make mistakes. I am especially thankful for the links to other articles, other research and connections with other people who might take something from this project and these stories. This is my modest form of hospitality (or cheap, I’m not actually supplying any food or even toothbrushes).

Several people liked the soundtrack part of the blog, which is problematic today, because I’m writing without music. I’m currently sitting at the front desk of the Frederick Douglass Isaac Myers Maritime Park–one of many jobs this year that land me squarely on the NPR side of that NPR/Fox News audience equation. There is a restaurant immediately behind my desk, so the sounds of food preparation filter through, punctuated by the occasional visitor, by vendors setting up for an outdoor celebration–perhaps a wedding. There is a story quilt in front of me, mosaic images beside me and upstairs a terrific new exhibit about fabric and natural dyes in the state of Maryland. Different kinds of sensory impetus today, just when I found something that was actually working…

When I was thinking about how this blog might work, I did jot down some song titles, although the ones I’ve used so far are ones I was actually listening to. I’m going to put in one from that list, in part because of some great feedback that my first two songs were more solo artists than collaborative groups, which seems somehow quite wrong.

So maybe check out America The Beautiful by Three Mo’ Tenors to make up for that. This multi-generational, multi-talented group is now one I really wish I was listening to. I put it on very quietly as no one else is in the lobby.

I mentioned in the first blog that I asked all of the performers (and their producer) what they hoped the audience would get out of the performance–here is some of what they said:

Preston: What it means to go to war as a country.

Lindsay: Have this experience openly. We live in a real world where the stakes are high and it’s not abstract, these are people.

Carolyn: Awakening.

Neal: Listen.

Ryan: That [the storyteller is] passing on her pain to me.

Jackie: Most of the time I’m an entertainer. Here, I’m giving back.

Sue: That [young people] hear it before they rush off to join the army.

They do a piece in the show about a veteran bleeding out on the streets of Washington, DC. Several of the stories have to do with veterans and music, not just listening but playing too–with Carolyn. Or sometimes “I can’t play today. Maybe next week.”

Preston says in the rehearsal “It’s noncommittal. Folk music is noncommittal.” Not quite the same as universal, not a magic elixir–open to interpretation and collaboration–when the mood takes you. Neal: We have all these hand-offs and they change every night.

Sometimes these performers were talking to each other and I wasn’t even there (maybe because I was trying to erase myself from the room, become a living pen and paper, maybe because they had more important things to do than worry about me in the corner). Sometimes I was at the table as they were sharing, eating, laughing, interrogating each other. I threw questions into the center of the table, perhaps I offered some food for thought. The moments when they were really talking to me, though, were when they sat and stood just above the audience, channeling pain, deciding to play, letting it be hard, letting it change, wanting things from each listener. They kept us all at the mourner’s table–a gathering of people who care about those who are lost–laughing, crying, using the time we have together for remembrance.

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