Martin Bresnick’s “Ishi’s Song”







Thanksgiving, the crying Indian, Ke$ha’s headdress: all cultural reverberations of Europe’s New World conquest. We make up for our crimes in a way that asserts a very particular logic of equivalence. “Tolerance” only displays an irresponsible, arrogant paternalism. How can we use materials from the cultures we’ve cast aside without further disfiguring their trampled histories?

J.M Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (staged by Philip Glass in 2005) tells the story of an aging magistrate stationed at a remote colonial outpost who obsessively collects fragments from an excavated barbarian architectural site nearby, wishing to “decode” the shards. The work isn’t profitable because the objects remain unnamed and so they are economically meaningless. He looks at his collection for hours at a time, ordering and recombining. Knowing the past seems to him a way to co-exist with its casualties and a reprieve from guilt over their fate.

Martin Bresnick’s composition for voice and piano, “Ishi’s Song,” begins with a short line of syllables in the extinct Yana-Yahi tongue (Ishi was allegedly the last to speak the language; he was “rescued” by anthropologists in 1911 only to contract some disease and die shortly thereafter). The rest of the piece consists of one repeated melody–borrowed from seven seconds of audio recorded during Ishi’s short stay at Berkeley–whose basic structure remains unchanged throughout. The small melody flowers, opening itself rhythmically and harmonically. Its color is not the multitonal brightness of shamanic vision, but the pure white of American minimalism, which harbors ghosts.


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