Elegy and Observation is an environmental requiem. Drawing on ancient and modern texts, the piece leaps and lurches among perspectives from intimate to global, tender to catastrophic. So too, our perceived relationship to the natural world is constantly shifting, from the poet’s tension between fear and delight, to scientific observation, biblical prediction of catastrophe, the unassailable truth of species extinction, and the poetry of those who have experienced natural disaster.
Songs 1, 4, and 8 are settings of poems by Meng Hai-jan, Sono-Jo, and Basho. In between, I have intertwined highly contrasting sources. Songs 2 and 6 started with bits of reportage from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which are assembled into poems. Song 7 sets a list of extinct birds. The remainder of the texts combine scientific abstracts related to climate, a nineteenth-century translation of an ancient Celtic text, The fifteen tokens of Doomsday, the book of Genesis, and an anonymous oral history from a survivor of Hurricane Katrina.
I. Spring Dawn
In spring sleep, dawn arrives unnoticed.
Suddenly, all around, I hear birds in song.
A loud night. Wind and rain came, tearing
blossoms down. Who knows few or many?
[Meng Hai-jan (689-740 CE) – translation by David Hinton (used by permission)]
II. I remember one,
hovering at first
and then, as only those in flight are able, focused;
she was above, determined
and he was below, carrying on
into the keening wind and rain.
We have a problem, I thought.
III. Considerable research has been undertaken,
yet detailed studies concerning these dynamics have only recently begun to emerge.
Previous hypotheses have proposed causal relationships between precipitation
variability and species survival, though these are predominantly built upon the inferences
of a narrow range of datasets.
These are the tokens of the eleventh day before Doom, to wit, all the birds and fowls of
the earth will be moving and flitting continually, without resting or delaying.
IV. The sea darkening…
of the wild ducks
crying, whirling, white
V. Described herein is the parametric and structural uncertainty quantification for the
monthly Extended Reconstructed Sea Surface Temperature. And these are the tokens of
the tenth day before Doom. All the seas and waters will rise from the face of the earth up
to the clouds of heaven, fifteen cubits above the mountains, and all the springs of the
great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens open. And rain, because
initial experiments indicate the existence of significant nonlinear interactions.
VI. The event does not create the preconditions,
and to the extent that preconditions create the event they do not,
but if they did, there would consequences
and those consequences would increase exponentially as a result of the preconditions
that did not create them.
And frequent, rough, keen winds rise there, whereby the whole world is shaken at
once. Wailing and screaming and crying and wretched sorrowful groaning.
Elephant bird, Upland moa, King Island emu,West Coast spotted kiwi,Crested shelduck,
Réunion shelduck, Mauritian shelduck, Amsterdam duck, Saint Paul Island duck,
Mariana mallard, Finsch’s duck, Pink-headed duck, Réunion pochard, Labrador duck,
Auckland merganser, pile-builder megapode, Viti Levu scrubfowl, Raoul Island scrubfowl,
Himalayan quail, Javan lapwing, Kiritimati sandpiper, Tahiti sandpiper,
White-winged sandpiper, North Island snipe, South Island snipe, Eskimo curlew,
Slender-billed curlew, Great auk, Canary Islands oystercatcher, Antillean cave rail,
Hawkins’s rail, Red rail, New Caledonian rail, Norfolk rail, Chatham rail, Réunion rail,
Ascension crake, Saint Helena crake, Hawaiian rail, Kosrae crake, Passenger pigeon,
Bonin woodpigeon, Sulu bleeding-heart, Dodo
Society parakeet, Cuban macaw, Carolina parakeet, Saint Helena cuckoo,
Laughing owl, Puerto Rican barn owl, Brace’s emerald, Turquoise-throated puffleg,
Ivory-billed woodpecker, Nuku Hiva monarch, Mysterious starling, Grand Cayman thrush,
Slender-billed grackle, Lesser koa finch, Hooded seedeater, Bermuda towhee
I remember coming in at dawn in mid September and seeing the new moon over Pine Street, and a flock of white egrets using the street for a flyway. Nature was looking to reclaim the abandoned city. The street still & quiet, and piles of broken branches and twigs everywhere, buildings all of wood. All it would take was a careless flame and a bit of wind to wipe out all.
(anonymous visitor to the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary exhibition)
And all our world
Is dew…so dear,
So fresh, so fleeting
Eric Chasalow, PhD, is the dean of the Graduate School, Irving G. Fine Professor of Music, and director of BEAMS, the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio at Brandeis University, where he has taught since 1990. He is especially well known for works that combine instruments with electronic sound but has collaborated with other musicians and artists to create a wide range of projects. The Eric Chasalow collection in the Library of Congress was established in 2009.
- Email: Chasalow@brandeis.edu
- Website: www.ericchasalow.com
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