March 23, 2017

Music Department Presents “Song of the Land: Poems of Ishion Hutchinson”

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Barnes Hall was packed for “Song of the Land: Poems of Ishion Hutchinson,” a performance presented by the Music Department that put Hutchinson’s poetry to compositions by graduate student composers. The performance presented a fusion of the old and the new, incorporating multiple forms of art to deliver a powerful concert. Guest artist Rachel Calloway, a mezzo soprano, sang a dramatic reading that conveyed the emotion communicated in the performance, and did so in a way that drew the audience in to share in the experience with her.  This innovative project brought the respective virtues of literature and music into a symbiotic relationship that managed to showcase both the artistry of the music and the postmodern themes of Hutchinson’s poetry.

The English department’s Ishion Hutchinson writes narrative poetry that investigates colonialism through his depictions of landscape and the emotional weight of colonial history. He was most recently the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection of poetry House of Lords and Commons, but has also won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for his collection Far District. In a similar style to the recently-deceased Derek Walcott, Hutchinson writes simple but profound prose that commands the emotion of the reader. The performance, which featured four of Hutchinson’s poems, began with a tribute to Walcott with his poem “The Season of Phantasmal Passing.” While not directly related to the performance, it introduced the themes of love, temporality and passing that pervaded the works of the poets and the musicians in the concert.

Throughout each piece, the natural rhythm of the poetry blended with the rhythm of the music and the dramatic performance of Calloway. The complementary relationship between mediums of art allowed the emotion evoked by the music to reflect the emotion of the poetry. One piece that was particularly striking was “Sharp: Bones Be Still.” In this piece, Hutchinson’s writing came alive, and brought with it provocative images of death and migration. The poem’s themes of immigration and sacrifice draw on the image of the Middle Passage with lines such as “undead, fathers’ bones, / make the Atlantic your home.” This motif of the sea pervades the poetry, but was fostered in the performance by the music. The chaotic percussion mimicked the tumultuousness of the sea in addition to the turbulent emotions of migration. As “the sea swells,” the music, too, crescendoed. This relationship brought the writing and the music into a harmony that, though distinct, allowed both art forms to complement the other.

While the concert was largely defined by its dramatic performance, it was also marked by the fusion of the old and the new, the classic and the postmodern. Hutchinson’s contemporary style, blended with the classical feeling of the music, allowed not only for a blending of art forms, but also a blending of ages. Whether through the use of technology as a part of the musical production, or through the juxtaposition between the music and the writing, the concert was a refreshing take on what music and literature are capable of, both as distinct entities and in regards to each other.

 

Victoria Horrocks is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at vrh23@cornell.edu