Though the Civil War is a century and a half behind us, our country's involvement in conflict is not. Director Peter Sellars has taken a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb, based on folk songs of the Civil War, and updated it to the present day.
Crumb's Winds of Destiny sets familiar tunes in his haunting style. Sellars says he was attracted to Crumb's score as he realized how our country's current situation parallels the Civil War. The director says that in our modern conflicts he sees "virulence and anger and fury of one part of the country towards another part of the country."
"There's the same loneliness, bitterness, sourness that these songs reflect from the Civil War period," Sellars says, such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." He says similar feelings are evoked in songs of longing like "Shenandoah."
"These were American songs from a time when the country was torn apart," the director continues, "and they reflect the kind of emotional intensity of the divide and also the longing to come together. So the material goes very deep into a still-unhealed wound in the American psyche and it's so American. You can't miss it."
Crumb first set these traditional songs in 2004. At that time, he remembered hearing Dawn Upshaw perform "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" years before. He decided to incorporate her interpretation into his music. "She repeated the first verse in a kind of funereal way," Crumb recalls, "very sad, like 'We'll shout,' and 'The girls will applaud,' and she gave the song an ironic twist for the last verse."
It's come full circle back to Upshaw, who's singing Winds of Destiny in the new Sellars staging. She says "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is one of the most astonishing moments in this cycle. "There's fear, danger, and even anger in the singer," Upshaw observes, "because the singer yells at the ends of many phrases. That's a really extreme and serious moment in the whole piece, one of several. It is taking this tune that we all kind of know from our past as being filled with a fair amount of pride or something, but it kind of turns it inside on itself, in this painful introspection."
Inspired by the subtext in Crumb's work, Sellars has created a character and scenario out of the song cycle: a female veteran returning home from Afghanistan. Sellars says, "The intensity with which women return, and the harrowing experiences they've had, both on the battlefield – the things they've been asked to do that they cannot live with the rest of their lives – in addition to things that have happened to them that still can't be talked about or acknowledged, it's very, very intense."
Pianist Gilbert Kalish and the members of the percussion quartet red fish blue fish accompany Upshaw on stage and are dressed in camouflage. Sellars understands these musicians are not actors, and Kalish says the direction is subtle. "[Sellars] has me doing very simple things," says the pianist, "very slow walking and going over to Dawn as the soldier, and in some very quiet way, trying to comfort her. I say nothing. I almost do nothing."
"The music is so powerful," Kalish continues, "and what he asks us to do was so connected to the music that it felt right. It felt as if I was really involved in this drama."
The drama of war and its aftermath were very much a part of composer George Crumb's initial inspiration — but there's also a reverence for the songs themselves. "Shenandoah," Crumb says, "has to be one of the most beautiful of all folk songs of any country. It just has that quality."
For Sellars, the poetic nature of 'Shenandoah' and its ambiguous meaning leave the interpretation of the production to the audience's imagination. "The song is so haunting and it resonates on so many levels," he says. "I hope what we're making is the same, that it's extremely evocative and at the same time poetic and open. Every audience member puts their own images there, and their own experiences."
Peter Sellar's staging of George Crumb's Winds of Destiny was co-commissioned by Ojai Music Festival and Cal Performances in Berkeley. The world premiere of this production is tonight at Ojai Music Festival in California.