Martin Bresnick ~ On the NY Premiere of “Ishi’s Song”

Martin Bresnick ~ On the NY Premiere of “Ishi’s Song” at Lisa Moore’s Sunday Gig, and Related Things

The great composer Martin Bresnick had a few minutes to speak with me about his piece “Ishi’s Song”, which is about to have its NY premiere by his wife, the great pianist Lisa Moore this Sunday afternoon at 3 PM at The Church of the Transfiguration. Lisa will also be performing works by Haydn, Schumann, Scriabin, Janacek and Jerome Kitzke. For info on tickets and directions, see bottom of the page.

CM: Can you please talk about the piece “Ishi’s Song”?

Martin: “Ishi’s Song” was commissioned by Emanuele Arciuli, the great Italian pianist. He was the start of it, and the money for it came from the people at the Aeroporti di Puglia (The Airports of the Italian Province of Puglia) because Emanuele was interested in Native American visual arts and culture. Interestingly enough, this Italian guy loves the art work of Native Americans, and he asked a number of folks to make piano pieces on the basis of art works or other subject matter from Native American traditions. One of the most famous stories about Native Americans is the story of Ishi, who was an Indian from Northern California, who may have been one of the last Native Americans to live completely independently from white people. Unfortunately his tribe, the Yana-Yahi Indians were practically all killed and rooted out of their homes…

CM: He was the last survivor?

Ishi350Martin: He is, in a sense, the last survivor, he was actually found homeless and almost starving after he had been hidden in the mountains. He was found, fortunately enough by people who knew that he was a person of great human worth, so they took him down to the University of California in Berkeley, which at that time had a branch in San Francisco, where he lived, as the guest at the anthropology department, and he taught two of the anthropologists there all about an interesting and generous soul. He taught these people about his language–He was the last native speaker of the Yana-Yahi language. He sang songs for them, he showed them how to make pottery and other handi-crafts, fished, and so on. He finally passed away after a very short time. He wasn’t really used to living in that kind of urban world, and I think he finally contracted some illnesses that white people have that he’d been exposed to. Before he died, he made recordings of songs that he knew and loved, and one of them was called the Doctor’s Song. I had seen it in a documentary about him, and when I heard he actually recorded some music, I was really interested in it. I heard it, and the University of California actually has it online, you can go listen to it. It’s only seven seconds long! Whether the song was meant to be longer, which it is likely that it was meant to be repeated over and over as it was a medicine song–All they’ve got is 7 seconds worth of that song, and I made it the source of my piece.

AUDIO: UC Berkeley page w/Ishi song

Martin: What’s interesting about it is that most Native-American materials are in a pentatonic mode of some kind. A 5-note to the octave mode, in the Native-American tradition, is virtually always without any half steps. The Japanese have a pentatonic mode that has a very characteristic half-step, but Native Americans don’t have that, so it just completely consists of whole steps and a minor third. That’s all that’s in this mode as far as intervals are concerned, in the adjacent notes. And that was a challenge to me because I wanted to be true to that.
The other thing is that the phrase lengths of many Native-American materials is irregular, they are not symmetrical 4+4+4 phrases like we have. My constraints were to write a piece for piano that was both pentatonic and hemitonic pentatonic, which means without any kind of half steps, and which used a phrase of irregular length. The result is this piano piece, which turned out to be challenging to write and quite virtuosic to play. It was already premiered by Emanuele, he played it several times already, most notably in Santa Fe, but we’re pretty certain this is the New York premiere.

CM: Any time somebody takes an existing piece and makes a longer statement on it, whether they use it within the work or they base it on that portion or fragment–That Gavin Bryars piece that runs like 25 minutes…

Martin: Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet!

CM: Yes, that’s the one! It kind of reminds me of that!

Martin: Actually, the refrain that the gentleman says over and over again in the Gavin Bryars piece–There is a kind of analog in my piece because Ishi’s little tune repeats consistently throughout the whole work until the very end. But you don’t feel it that way. You’ll notice a lot of polymetric cross-rhythms that only a really skillful pianist can negotiate around it. You hear it, but you almost lose a little bit of the track’s own stable character. Light seems to be thrown on it by these varying lines around it–all pentatonic and all of this type would be coherent in that tradition.

The questions that seem to occupy me now are very often existential questions. The album Everything Must Go is really all about the question of the existential fate of human beings and myself among them. Like Everything Must Go, it is a kind of existential journey, and Ishi is a part of that, in the sense that–Ishi is identified as the last of his tribe, and in some real way, he is the the last survivor of the terrible fate of the Native Americans after white people came to the continent. Not all white people were mean and horrible, but this clash of these two civilizations did not help Native Americans at all, and it’s only in our own lifetimes that they seemingly recovered somewhat from some of the terrible things that happened to them. Still in all, the fact that Ishi was identified as the last of the Yana-Yahi Indians, there’s a way in which we all feel like we are the last of our tribe. When we go, a certain amount of history that is in us will go, and it will go eternally and it will never come back. That’s something that strikes one at a certain stage of life, that the parents are going, the mentors are going, and even in so far as we are able to salvage something that they’ve left behind or something of value that we see, we know we can’t salvage everything, so it’s important for me in a sense to remind people of that in music, in Ishi’s music to bring it back to us, what a gift it is to have it, and what a loss it is to have to say farewell to it.

CM: I was there to experience another piece of yours that was premiered by Lisa Moore and Ashley Bathgate–“Prayers Remain Forever” the cello and piano work. I watched this piece several times now, and the ladies always look quite winded and spent by the time they finish the piece. It’s an exhilarating thing to see them go through that! It’s like a seance that they are going through.

Martin: It’s a very demanding work, but I knew that the people I was writing it for were capable of it. But even so, it was a piece that would allow them to exercise this formidable skill that they have in a way that was congenial to them. It wasn’t working against them in any way. Into some of the profoundly obvious strengths that they have. In a way, when you do that as a composer, if you write music that demands things from great players that you know can achieve, you often reap benefits that you didn’t anticipate. They both add things like intensity and energy that is really their own contribution which I value very much

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