Thursday, September 18, 2008

Day 16 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Stone Age communications edition)

Winding down Week 04, cranking up Weekend 04.

Every year around this time (mid-September, 3rd or 4th week of the semester) we run a little music & dance festival. It's a jump-start for a bunch of things: cranks the Celtic Ensemble up quickly--sometimes a little too quickly, though fortunately not with the current crop of players; puts the Ensemble and the range of vernacular music activities around the South Plains back on everybody's radar (in a university town, even the folks who don't attend or work for the university have a tendency to order their year from Fall semester to Fall semester), and helps us forward-promote the year's activities; most immediately the Celtic Christmas which has been a crucial scholarship fundraiser for us for the past 7 years.

So every September about this time we crank up the Caprock Celtic Fall Festival and Harvest Dance, a weekend slate of activities that includes listening sessions, pub sessions, a dance concert, and a listening concert. Like any smart shoestring-budgeted arts organization, we do this by cobbling together a variety of sources, contributors, venues, and regular/weekly events, and subsume them all under the heading of a "Festival." In any environment in which you're seeking audience development and education (and, where we live in the Buckle of the Bible Belt and "two weeks from everywhere", we are always seeking this), it helps a lot to have some kind of umbrella term or title that creates a sense of Event. This helps with turnout, raises visibility not only for the event but also for the participating organizations and, perhaps most importantly, sets up a track record--being able to say "Second Annual" or "Fifth Annual" or, in the case of the Celtic Christmas, "Seventh Annual" does a whole lot to legitimize your activities and convey to potential stakeholders that it's worth investing their time, money, effort, or attention. Plus, the West Texans love a sense of occasion: a chance to dress up, go out, socialize, and feel valued (rather than denigrated) for their support.

So that's what we do. And, over the years, we've built up something of an annual calendar:

Fall Fest and Harvest Dance in mid-September (get the ensembles back in the saddle, put us back on the academic community's radar, forward-promote for the Celtic Christmas);

Madrigal Dinners first week of December (service performances, Morris dance dog & pony show, provide dance element for what's otherwise a bunch of singers standing still),;

Celtic Christmas third week of December (previewing bits of the Fall semester "hard repertoire" program, late in the season to avoid stepping on anybody's prior-calendar turf, big splashy fundraiser, community/campus groups participating and contributing, family-friendly);

"Midwinter" show (third week of January, not long after we get back, full program of the "hard repertoire");

late-Spring "Mayday" performances (longer, simpler but more impressive "festival" repertoires).

Break (or "summer band") in June-July, and then we start all over again.

This kind of annual cycle has a bunch of pragmatic, pedagogical, and ritual functions:

Pragmatic: provides a regular schedule that both engages the CE's returning vets and provides the new recruits a chance to work in; keeps the ensemble visible on the campus/community horizon, by providing a series of events each of which we can forward-promote from the previous one; generally keeps to the cycle of attention, availability, and free time the audience pool can accommodate;

Pedagogical: as above, but also gives the kids, both recruits and returning veterans, a sense of what's coming next, of the strategy that dictates the schedule, of the necessity of both planning for the future and also chunking through the day-by-day work; also a sense of accomplishment, reward and confidence ("accomplish your tasks and you'll improve, develop more confidence, and be rewarded for your effort"); also a good practicum in how to be a working musician and public artist--how to take care of musical business, performance business, and promotional business such that your survive and thrive;

Ritual: this is less obvious than the previous two but, in my view, way more profound. It is an old, old, old paradigm--one that I would argue, after 40,000 years, is engrained in our DNA and collective unconscious--that life, experience, accomplishment, meaning, identity, and survival of the tribe are--must be--tied to the cycles of the season. Long before the first civilizations in Asia Minor discovered that if you planted and cultivated certain wild grasses, you could raise large crops of grains whose complex carbohydrates and enhanced proteins could both feed large numbers and be stored for long times (and thus made possible leisure, wealth, and the literacy and nation-building that leisure in turn enabled), it had become apparent that the tribe's chances of survival were best if you understood when to plant, when to hunt, when to store food by, when to lay in fuel, when the cold would come, how you could turn when new plant life was emerging and four-footed protein was beginning to move. Tribes or groups that failed to develop and retain this nature-based expertise (or forgot it) either didn't last long, or had to become warrior empires so as to subjugate others who could raise the food for them. Tribes that did recognize the essential survival embodied in this knowledge learned likewise that one of the best ways to ensure that information's survival was to teach it, and to provide it ritual and spiritual importance.

For 40,000 years--at least--homo sapiens has ritualized the cycles of the seasons: hunting or harvesting, planting or reaping, summer or winter, spring or fall, and most crucially at the moments of transition from one to the next, we've learned the value of recognizing the cycle of the seasons through ritual. You may be sitting in an air-conditioned office with airtight windows and artificial light and spending most of your day in the glow of an LCD or a cathode-ray tube. Your water may come mysteriously out of a faucet. Your heat may "come from" a thermostat. Your entertainment from electrons driven by marketing. Your sonic world and the air you breathe dictated the internal combustion engine. But somewhere, deep in your brainstem and your DNA, is the recollection that, somewhere under the concrete, past the smoked glass, behind the roar of the engines, there is a quieter world driven by chlorophyll and Vitamin D, and that the cycles of that world are--or should be--the cycle of your own body.

It may be so deep you don't even know it. You may not even know that you miss it. You may not even think you would recognize it. But then a moment comes when a flame flares in the darkness, or the wind shifts to the north, or you hear the call of south-bound geese overhead in the twilight (Robert Graves's "poetic moment, when the hair rises on the nape of the neck"), or a knock sounds upon the door and the masked dancers caper forward into the light, and at that moment...

at that moment...

at that moment, if the musicians and singers and poets and dancers know and understand their central role and contribution over forty-thousands years of human ritual,

You are one with The Ancestors.

That's why we do what we do.

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