Vassar College

Becoming Prairie

Jonathan Chenette
Professor of Music and Dean of the Faculty
April 27, 2011

President Hill, faculty colleagues, friends, guests, and members of Vassar’s sesquicentennial graduating class of 2011:

Around the beginning of this semester, as we launched our sesquicentennial celebrations, the anonymous senior and cartoonist responsible for the onetwosixohfour blog site – perhaps someone present today – posted a delightful entry – a drawing of 150 boxes, the final three colored red, with the caption

“Vassar’s been around for 150 years.
i’ve been here for 3 of those years. and so
i ask myself, at this historic moment, what
have i contributed to this place during my
2% of its history? Something to think about.”

Many in today’s audience would color more of those boxes. President Hill, for instance, gets five red boxes, having been here for 3% of the College’s history. Among our current Vassar faculty—if I may be so bold as to “out” them—Beth Darlington (1967), Ken Weedin (1967), Shirley Johnson-Lans (1965/67), Richard Wilson (1966), and Nancy Willard (1965), have enjoyed careers here spanning approximately 30% of those boxes. And Elizabeth (Betty) Daniels, among emeritus faculty, warrants almost half of those boxes colored red, counting from the year she arrived as a student. Me – I’m a mere upstart in the 2% range, having come to Vassar a year after most of the class of 2011.

I arrived after a twenty-five-year career in a very different place, the rural Midwest, a land of vast corn and soybean fields, broad open skies, dwindling crossroads towns, expanding immigrant communities, tiny prairie remnants, and big exciting cities like… well, Des Moines. It was not as easy a place to love as some other hot spots of the world. Many call it “fly-over country.” But if you cultivate an eye for what essayist Bill Holm has called “horizontal grandeur” and a taste for friendly small-town interactions pumped up by the intellectual and cultural resources of a fine liberal arts college, you might find yourself quite happy there, as did I.

My emergence as a composer began well before Iowa, around the time I was about where you are in my own undergraduate education. I was a senior math major at the University of Chicago, engaged in late-night conversation with a few dear friends about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. Sound familiar? As a math/science type with an extracurricular passion for music, I was surprised when the question came around to me and I replied, “I’ve always thought it might be fun to be a composer.” I don’t actually recall ever thinking that before, but nonetheless, those were the words that surprisingly sprang from my mouth. And then a wonderful thing happened. My friends said “why not?,” and kept countering every excuse I concocted, including “I know you need a special gift to be a composer” or “I’m sure it’s too late to start now” or “There’s no future in being a composer.” (I’m sure you must have friends like these here at Vassar.)

Bolstered by my friends’ encouragement, I decided to take the leap into music after graduation by moving to New York City, which is something I imagine many of you plan to do. It seemed obvious that composers had to make their way to New York sooner or later. So why not sooner? To support myself, I found a job with the original Stanley Kaplan Educational Center in Brooklyn, hired by Stanley himself to take graduate and professional school standardized tests and create thinly disguised versions of the math and logic questions to use in his test prep materials and courses. Stanley’s slogan for his corps of test-taking spies – “the same, but different” (that is, create test prep questions that require the same insights as those on the test but differ in their specifics) – was later to serve me well in my early development as a composer, when I discovered I could create music that was “the same, but different” than the composers I was studying, like my Japanese idol, Toru Takemitsu, or the German Hans Werner Henze.

During my formative half year in New York, I took and enjoyed a few evening and weekend music history and theory courses at the Manhattan School of Music but then decided that the balance between test prep job and musical studies was too tilted towards the former. Also, those months turned out to be the loneliest period of my life… eight million people and almost no-one I knew. I pulled up stakes at the end of the summer and moved to Indianapolis, where I had family and the opportunity to enroll in graduate music classes full-time at Butler University. Perhaps some of you would deem living with your parents after graduation a humiliating prospect; but in my case, it served as a good stepping stone on my journey. Not only did I fill in gaps in my music education, but I met my partner in music and in life, Jeannie.

The next year, I was back at the University of Chicago pursuing a PhD in composition with a former professor who had encouraged me as an undergrad. There I learned the craft of composition as it has been taught for centuries. We studied and emulated successful composers’ styles, and I made my own music “the same, but different.” My dissertation, a Chamber Symphony for 31 Instruments, owes much to Takemitsu and Henze, but the people who judged it – my dissertation committee – sensed enough originality and craft to allow me to pass.

Still, when I got a College-level teaching job in Iowa, as the search committee’s second choice, I felt like an imposter… a composer with a tiny portfolio, still floundering, still learning, and now expected to teach 18- to 22-year-old liberal arts students how to understand music and compose. We did a lot of “the same, but different” composer study and imitation in my courses. And maybe my classes benefited from the fact that I felt I was still developing as a composer right alongside my students. When my derivative-seeming doctoral dissertation was selected for performances in some prominent venues, I began to think that it might be acceptable to be an imitator rather than an originator. Maybe that’s what all composers are at heart, I mused, building on tradition by creating music that is “the same, but different.”

After my dissertation premiered in Amsterdam, a Dutch reviewer described my music as gentlemanly and well-crafted, but not very American. I puzzled over this remark. Was there anything wrong with music, inspired by composers from Japan and Germany, sounding international? What did it mean to sound American? Or was the reviewer’s comment just another way of saying “Too much of ‘the same.’ Not enough ‘different?’” I began to think more seriously about my role as a composer among the corn and soybean fields. I began to ground my work in my place.

Having made this commitment, I needed role models. My search began in the library, where many journeys of self-discovery and imaginative transformation start. Seized by the idea and the opportunity to compose an opera, I embarked on a months-long quest for literary nuggets of the rural Midwest. I devoured everything by Willa Cather, the Nebraskan whose novels Song of the Lark and My Antonia demonstrate that art can arise from the prairie. I found an early story by Cather, Eric Hermannson’s Soul, about a Norwegian immigrant fiddler/farmhand on the Nebraska prairie – a story filled with vivid dialogue, sharply drawn melodramatic characters, and epic themes – perfect material for my opera which premiered 7 years later. My library explorations also led me to Iowan James Norman Hall, co-author of the famed South Seas novel Mutiny on the Bounty. During his twilight years in Tahiti, Hall published a whimsical collection of poems about his small-town Iowa childhood, passing it off as the work of a 12-year-old schoolgirl named Fern Gravel. His hoax worked; the New York Times reviewer proclaimed “We have found the lost Sappho of Iowa.” After completing my opera, I set 14 of these poems to music. One of the songs is a sort of joke related to my conversion from math to music. Fern, you see, was not very good at arithmetic, and her friendly neighbor, Mrs. Hendrixon, did her best to console her. I represented Fern’s arithmetic challenges musically by notating time signatures as math problems – 2+2+3 over 4 and the like – and by using a mathematical compositional technique known as serialism, but getting it wrong:

EX 1: “Arithmetic Again” from Oh Millersville!

Poem by Fern Gravel (a.k.a James Norman Hall)

Mrs. Hendrixon said, “Fern, it doesn't matter at all
If maybe you should not pass next fall
Because of arithmetic. Do not worry about it.
People can get along without it.
You are good in reading and spelling and geography,
And these are the important ones, you see.
Grammar is very important too.
I wouldn't bother about arithmetic if I was you.”

Several years later, I got to know Ed Hirsch, a noted poet and alumnus of the college where I was teaching; and essayist Mary Swander, whose acute medical reaction to chemicals in food and the environment led her to build a life among Iowa’s Amish; and writer/musician Ray Young Bear of the Meskwaki Indian settlement nearby. Each of these became important collaborators and influences in a multi-movement choral-orchestral composition we created for Iowa’s own sesquicentennial, Broken Ground.

We will hear the beginning of this piece, which takes its text from Young Bear’s poem “The Ice-Glazed Landscape of Our Grandfathers.” The words portray an illusionary, ancient landscape of hills, cool quiet springs, and women deities bearing little resemblance to the checkerboard corn and soybean fields of the Iowa I knew. Young Bear’s deliberate archaism in the opening words, “From whence the day-light begins,” led me to a musical setting that starts in a restrained and formal fashion. The music opens gradually outward from a single note, “From whence the day-light begins.” The texture thickens and the music develops greater passion as the chorus intones the phrase "We lived here once inside and along these ancient hills."  After this brief moment of warmth, the music settles back into the icy quiet of its opening.

EX 2: "The Ice-Glazed Landscape of Our Grandfathers"
Poem by Ray Young Bear

From whence the day-light begins,
toward the cardinal point of morning-
talking mother, the ghostly lake
undulates in the bluish-gray haze
of the valley.  And although the sun
reflects there are no waves breaking on
rocky shore.

We lived here once inside and along
these ancient hills.  There were springs,
cool and quiet, that served as doorways
to women-deities who used attraction
to alter inevitability.

But all that remains are the shiny hills,
the ones that are covered with snow
and ice, creating a watery illusion.

Gradually, through works like Broken Ground, my music changed. By engaging with the people and places around me, I was finding my voice.

Apparently, people noticed. Just last week, I had occasion to phone someone I hadn’t spoken to in over a decade – someone who, like me, had left Iowa for new horizons. His first words, after ritual hellos, were “Are you still soaking yourself in that prairie mythos stuff?” I was taken aback. Had I really been that parochial and shallow? Had he forgotten my international bona fides? I replied: “Actually, I was hoping to become bard of the Hudson Valley, but it seems like Pete Seeger has that sewn up.”

I know what he meant, though. The prairie now is indeed mostly myth. Once covering over 80% of Iowa’s landscape, it shrank, as farms grew, to less than one tenth of one percent of its original range. There is danger in romanticizing an unrecoverable past filled with enticing images of unsullied prairie teeming with meadowlarks, coneflowers, and bluestem. Ed Hirsch, one of my collaborators for Broken Ground, offered a corrective in his poem “Iowa Flora,” where he included “quackgrass and thistle” and other alien species among Iowa’s treasured flowers.

You can experience prairie today primarily in your imagination, but a few stands of native prairie persist in graveyards, along rail lines, in parks and flood plains and river bends, and on land that was miraculously left in pasture and never plowed. These remnants have much to teach us. I sought one out, about 12 years ago, as stimulus for an orchestral composition. Standing in the middle of the 160-acre Kalsow Prairie Preserve – unplowed former pasture land identical in shape to the neighboring square tracts of corn and soybeans – I listened intently, breathed deeply, turned on my tape recorder, and closed my eyes. Becoming more and more conscious of bird song, insect chatter, buzzing bees, and wind sweeping across grasses, I began to feel at one with this place. I even thought I heard the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.

Later, the recording from that day, with excerpts slowed down, lowered in pitch by several octaves, and transcribed for wind instruments, became the source for much of the musical material in the third movement, “Becoming Prairie,” from my Rural Symphony. I found that the entire soundscape of that prairie plot harmonized nicely in the key of Bb. I share now a short mix-tape of four of Kalsow Prairie’s “greatest hits” – birds and insects from that day slowed down and lowered in pitch – followed by an excerpt of my music drawing on those sounds. [EX 3 & EX 4]

After seventeen years in Iowa, through sustained engagement with my place, I had become prairie. I had also become much else: a father, an avid Iowa canoeist and cyclist, a teacher devoted to engaging students with their surroundings, a composer of internationally-performed works informed by a prairie sensibility, and a person with broadening interests and deepening relationships with those around me. This ultimately led to my interest in collaboration on an institutional level, a fresh career in academic administration, and my appointment at Vassar.

Prairie is still with me. But I have added to it a growing intimacy with the people and places of the Hudson Valley. I really do visit the big city now, and I hike in the Hudson Highlands, bike the Dutchess rail trails, and watch fireworks with the Fourth of July crowds on the Poughkeepsie waterfront. I am becoming something new, and time will tell what that is. My prairie experience suggests it will take longer than my three red boxes to work it out.

What is the point of all this prairie talk? The process of finding one’s place in a new setting can be challenging. Putting down deep roots, like the grasses on the prairie, is even harder, given the pace of change in lives today. You will face these challenges soon, and when you do, remember the following, if nothing else, from what I have said today:

  1. Listen to your friends, who sometimes know you better than you know yourself.
  2. You don’t have to go to New York to fulfill your dreams, but it’s not a bad place to start.
  3. “The same, but different” can take you far, but not all the way. Head for the different. Seek the prairie.

And one thing more, in honor of our new Quantitative Reasoning Center (and my Math Department friends): if you have trouble with arithmetic… Do something about it. People really can’t get along without it.

Class of 2011, as you move on from here I wish you deep roots. Like these elegantly robed scholars behind me, devote yourself passionately to something over many years, and pass on your insights to others. Come back often to this place that has shaped you, and let us know what you are doing with your lives. Return especially in 2061 – the College’s bicentennial and your 50th reunion year. Remember your red pens, because you will have many boxes to color. If my arithmetic is correct, twenty-seven percent of Vassar’s history will be yours by then. Live it well.

Thank you.

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