Josepine Facehead Remembers James Sellars, 1940-2017

 

 

I recently learned that James Sellars died this past February. James was an incomparable composer, thinker and force of nature and I can’t quite imagine that he’s gone. James used to call me Josepine ( which he pronounced “who’s-a-peen”) Facehead, for reasons of his own. I think he meant it affectionately, but who knows.

 

When I heard the news, I was sitting in a bar in Salzburg with composer Douglas Knehans, discussing plans for our second opera. We’d just seen Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, directed by the South African artist William Kentridge, and were deep in discussion. James came up in conversation and I was thinking that I really wanted to reconnect with him again. I wanted to find out how he was doing, what he was working on, talk with him about Wozzeck, ask him what he was listening to these days. We hadn’t spoken face to face since we’d worked together in Hartford, almost 25 years ago. I had no idea he’d been ill – he’d seemed equal parts monumental and fragile to me, even in those days.

 

I probably wouldn’t have been in that bar in Salzburg if I hadn’t had the great privilege of knowing James – as well as laughing, eating, arguing and working with him. This was in the early 1990s, when I was Artistic Director of Hartford’s Company One Theater, and I spent as much time as I could in the legendary Hog River Family living room (and dining room, when I was especially lucky). So I must also say that Gary Knoble, Robert Black, and Finn Byrhard – as well as the whole brilliant Hog River Gestalt that vibrated around them – were part and parcel of this education for me.

 

Another Sellars, the director Peter (no relation, as I recall), preceded James as my first opera mentor. I saw every production of his that I could, and then got to observe the rehearsal and production process of his Marriage of Figaro in the late eighties. So one of the great delights of my professional life was directing James’ monodrama Chanson Dada in São Paulo, BR, knowing that Peter had directed its premiere at the Monadnock Festival. Douglas and I are preparing for the premiere of a monodrama of our own, Backwards from Winter, so James had come to mind more than once during the process of writing it, but I never followed through on my impulse to get in touch with him.

 

The real crucible of my opera education with James was writing my first libretto (adapted from Gertrude Stein) for his opera The World is Round, then directing the production for Company One in 1993 at The Wadsworth Atheneum, in the same theatre where Stein and Virgil Thompson premiered their Four Saints in Three Acts, 60 years earlier. The two other opera libretti I’ve written since, and the new one I’m beginning now, along with the dozens of lyrics for various plays with songs, have all been influenced by that experience, in one way or another. The World is Round was the first full length work of any kind that I’d written for the stage since undergraduate school, so that was the project that really started me on the path of thinking of myself as a writer, as well as a director.

 

One day we were working in his sweet little composing studio at Hog River, crammed as it was with instruments of every stripe, going over structural questions about the libretto and its interaction with the music. I muttered something about wishing I’d really studied music composition, learned more music theory, stuck with piano lessons longer – so I could write music. I remember him saying something like this: “Can you make up a tune and hum it? Can you clap a beat with your hands? Then you can compose music.” At the time, I thought he was being a bit disingenuous, or perhaps just uncharacteristically modest. After all, this is a man who composed in his sleep, spinning tunes out of his dreams, humming away in his bed. But the echoes of that conversation come to mind when I think about my decision to start writing songs for my own plays, starting with Broken and Little Patch of Ground.

 

I don’t call myself a composer. But I am today accorded the great joy of making up tunes and clapping out beats as I work on writing the songs for Splitting Atoms with a Butter Knife, my new play with songs about the Atomic Bomb. Immersed in that history, I’m thinking about impermanence even more than usual. Our parting had been complicated, as they say, but James and I exchanged friendly letters a few years ago, and I’d always thought that I’d see him again someday, preferably during a second production of our opera.

 

The Hog River house had a truly extraordinary collection of flora, thanks to the brilliant green thumb of James’ partner Gary. There was one particularly spectacular plant, I think it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, that only blooms one night a year. So for one night each year, the giant yet delicate alien blooms emerge for a few hours, smelling like sex in heaven, giving the household an excellent reason for cocktails, company and celebration. I have one of these beauties next to my meditation cushion, although it’s a puny thing compared to the magnificent one at Hog River. It didn’t bloom this year, but I’m going to try to coax a blossom or two from it next year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Splitting Atoms with a Butter Knife

 

I grew up with the A-Bomb. I knew that my mom and dad met during the war, working on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, TN. This seemed somehow normal in our house. When I asked my dad what he did at work, he said he split atoms with a butter knife. It took me a while to start asking more complicated questions.

I was at Goddard College (School of the Radical Arts, as we called it back then) in a late night discussion on the ethics of war – or whether an ethical war was even possible. Then the subject of the Atomic Bomb came up.

I was the youngest one in the room, by far. I’d graduated high school in December, and then, thanks to the amazing experimental artists who taught us, my world was seriously rocked when I attended Goddard’s summer arts program. So I decided to enroll in their “Program in Integral Education” (PIE) to get me some more of that.

The PIE B.A. was a very early form of what are now known as “low residency” degrees: we all attended a summer program on campus in Vermont, and then came together in regional monthly meetings during the school year to share our papers and ongoing projects. PIE mostly drew adults who hadn’t finished college – people who couldn’t give up their work and family life to go back to school full time.

So this room full of grown-ups and I were talking about war, ethics and the potential nuclear holocaust of the Cold War. Many in the room had been heavily involved in the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 50s, 60s and early 70s, whereas I had only attended a couple of marches in DC at the tag end of that era, chaperoned by my older brothers. I suddenly realized that I did not want these particular folk to know that my parents had worked on the Manhattan Project – especially that my dad had known exactly what they were building.

When I asked my dad what he did at work, he said he smashed atoms with a butter knife. It took me a while to start asking more complicated questions.

As a kid, I hadn’t felt the need to be secretive about this. I’d grown up with the idea that the Atomic Bomb had shortened the war and even saved Japanese lives as well as American ones. My parents agreed with Henry Stimson, Truman’s Secretary of War, who said “…this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.” I don’t remember even hearing about Nagasaki.

Mom distanced herself from the results of the Project, saying that she only knew that they were all working to end the war, and that she was “just an executive secretary.” I did notice that she always put that “executive” in there, which made me wonder if she’d ever seen anything in the letters she was typing. When I asked her if she’d ever guessed at what they were doing, she said that guessing could lose you your job, or worse. When I asked how she felt about having contributed to the creation of the atomic bomb, her responses tended to be in almost exactly the same words and phrases that dad used.

Dad was a profoundly optimistic person, and a brilliant engineer not constitutionally prone to introspection. After the war, he’d supported the development of a World Government (later, the United Nations) to put the bomb in the hands of an international council so that this dangerous knowledge wouldn’t belong to any one nation – and he’d been involved in the Atoms for Peace movement. He felt, as did many others, that our detonation of the Bombs in Japan could and should deter any future use of it.

After the war, he worked on the development of the first atomic reactors as Admiral Rickover’s Technical Director in the Nuclear Navy. He saw the powering of submarines, those deadly instruments of war, as the best way to be at the cutting edge of nuclear technology, with the goal of creating an Atomic Age of Peace and Prosperity. He’d also believed that Free, Safe Nuclear Power for Everyone was a very real possibility and could bring energy and security to the whole world; that there would eventually be a balance of good that would come from this terrible event.

His lifelong commitment to the peaceful uses of radiation and nuclear power now strikes me as a kind of atonement for the Bomb. But I never heard him express even minimal regret for being a part of the Manhattan Project, nor his work on the Navy’s attack submarines. As a 21 year-old kid on an elite team of engineers working on process improvements in plutonium refinement, he often said that being a part of the Manhattan Project had been one of the most exciting adventures of his life. And as an idealistic engineer, he believed that technology – and the secrets of the atom, in particular – would eventually save humanity.

But in 1976, I was beginning to question his boundless faith in technology, and these passionate people discussing the ethics of the Bomb were a revelation. I realized that I had avoided looking into the details of how the government made the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima – and then, unbelievably, on Nagasaki, just three days later.

As a child, I heard about the horrors perpetrated by Japan and Germany during WWII. In the 70s, just as so many of us saw American soldiers as culprits in the Viet Nam war, I thought of everyone who worked on the Bomb as guilty of even greater evil. Decades later, I’m not looking for villains. There is always enough blame to go around in war. But I am looking for deeper understanding, especially as current events show a world rife with rash decisions and selective compassion.

As I research and write this play with songs about the Atomic Bomb, I’m looking for the strange web of connection and disconnection between love of science and love of country; desire for community and fear of the Other; dreams of the future and nostalgia for the past; our longing to understand and our clinging to belief.

 

The Narrative of History is a Slippery Thing

Lise-Meitner-45-1024x1024

Lise Meitner: Austrian physicist, Ghost.

LISE SAYS:

If this were a Japanese Noh Drama
I would be standing on a cliff above a ravine
And I would tell her a story.
Maybe I’d warn her of the terrible thing that will happen today to a city at the other side of the world.
But I am no ghost.

I was still very much alive
On that particular summer day when a city was destroyed by the power of atomic fission.
That fission which had once been so beautiful to me.
I was in Stockholm that day, so I am no ghost.
At least not to her.
But to you, now, in this room,
I guess I am a ghost.
So I will tell you the story.

In all the years since my death
I return here again and again
To this sixth day of August, 1945.
Sometimes I am under a stadium in Chicago
For that very first chain reaction. .
And sometimes I am in a desert in New Mexico
As The Gadget detonates for the first time.
Sometimes, when I cannot stop myself,
I’m on an island looking up at a blinding light in the sky
As hell rains down around me.
But for now I am here
In this Secret City in the mountains.

I miss my Viennese accent, the German language,
My own body.
But in my current state of… “being” —
For lack of a better word —
My tongue and appearance seem to suit the occasion:
Your occasion.
This appeals to my sense of practicality
Yet somehow leaves me a little sad.

I went where I had to, during the war.
And then, of course, afterwards,
I was invited everywhere.
They said I smuggled the bomb out of Germany
In a suitcase.
Ridiculous.
The narrative of history is a slippery thing.

_________________________________________

Exploratory monologue for the character of LISE, inspired by physicist Lise Meitner, one of many women I am currently researching for:
A PLAY ABOUT A BOMB. WITH SONGS.
Written during a residency at Djerassi Resident Artist Program
As part of Scientific Delirium Madness 3.0, July 2016

“I Know the World is Bruised and Bleeding…”

nuclear_weapons_test_nuclear_weapon_weapons_test“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”

Toni Morrison, The Nation, 23.3.2015

 

I work in an art form that eats itself up as it goes. And yes my work exists as words, but it’s also performers and audience and light and objects and other kinds of magic that get layered and created in rehearsals over time and disappear at the end, leaving sticky little traces of itself in people’s minds.

Just carving words into the relative permanence of the interwebs, all on my own, is disconcerting.

And normally I don’t.

But right now, I’m one of a dozen artists and scientists sponsored by theDjerassi Resident Artist Program and Leonardo: The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology . We get to take part in a cool thing called Scientific Delirium Madness in which we all get a month in the glorious hills south of San Francisco to work on projects that somehow shout over the imaginary ravine between art and science. And they’ve asked us to post things periodically during this month we’re here.

I was also recently awarded this other cool thing called the 2016–2017 Marion International Fellowship. And they, too, have asked me to post things periodically during the year of the fellowship.

So this is the first of these periodic posts…

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Lise Meitner, the physicist who first recognized and explained the phenomenon of nuclear fission (along with her nephew, Otto Frisch). She was brilliant and insecure; cowardly and intrepid; despairing and persistent; ascetic in her devotion to physics and a loving friend to those around her; ostracized then finally honored. Jewish in 1930’s Germany, and yet privileged by her scientific position and Austrian citizenship, she (like so many in Europe and beyond) was slow to see the depth of the government’s depravity. She waited longer than she should have in part because she was afraid to give up everything she’d established. Finally forced to leave and horrified by what Germany had become, she refused to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos even though it would have meant both helping the allies and practicing her beloved physics with every resource she lacked in exile. She could not bring herself to help create a bomb.

All the complex and difficult things that I’m reading: about those days in Germany, about the Manhattan Project, about the horrors in Europe and in the Pacific, about Hiroshima, about collaborators and people of conscience… It’s all echoing in my brain along with every piece of news I see about the continued and targeted violence of all kinds directed against African Americans in our country; about refugees fleeing one kind of hell and landing in another; about our politicians’ unwillingness to take action on gun control; about the ugliness seeping out of the cesspool of what the Republican Party has become.

How the hell are we to respond to all the complexities of our world? War in other countries, murder in our cities, levers in our voting booth, that person sitting across from us at the dinner table…

Despair seems like a logical response.

Then I read the words of Toni Morrison:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.

So today I’m thinking about what it means to refuse to succumb to the world’s malevolence.