Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.
Carver: “Notes From The Field: Dionysian Wanderings”
Dionysus is the god of masks. After some brutal lessons in childhood, the god learns that to pretend is to protect oneself. And then there is also freedom in pretending. And maybe even the possibility that pretending to be something you are not is the only way to know what you are.
Some sources trace the birthplace of Dionysus to Thrace, which involves many parts of modern-day Bulgaria. This past August was to be my first visit to Bulgaria to sing at the Koprivshtitsa Festival and visit some sites in the southern part of the country.
I would have traveled to the Devil’s Throat: the cave that, legend has it, is the site where Orpheus descended into the underworld, and then I would have continued on to one of the oldest worship sites for Dionysus, an ancient amphitheater carved into the earth.
There are two paths toward worshipping the god. One is by drinking wine, which is what we usually consider to be the major attribute of Dionysian behavior. The other is by deprivation: roaming the woods in the cold, dancing until you fall down, hungry and thirsty, desperately seeking the god within a roving troupe.
Either way, you begin to see as the god sees: life as a smear, gender and identity become kaleidoscopic, the daily anxieties of social status fall away, and you are suddenly unburdened. You are one with the god, and complete abandonment is your holy offering.
I began singing traditional Bulgarian music about seven years ago. Listening for the first time was the experience of encountering something completely unfamiliar that feels like home. Some of the songs present narrative in parallel contradictions.
For example, the gossip song “Ima Nema” (which translates to “it is, it is not”) tells the story of a village girl knitting socks, possibly for a boy she likes. She is both knitting the socks for a boy, and she is also not knitting for the socks for a boy. The reality is both possibilities at the same time, like a Schrӧedinger’s Cat scenario.
Another song is a lament by a girl who has just married and moved far from home. She repeats the chorus “Vurba Ima” (“there is a willow tree”), “Vurba Niama” (“there is no willow tree”)—for while her favorite tree from her village still exists, she will never see it again.
When I sang with Yasna Voices in New York, we sometimes started rehearsal in pairs by standing directly in front of one another, noses almost touching, kissing-distance, singing into each other’s mouths. We would start to sing, and it was a game of keeping pitch, focusing on producing sound, with this incredible effect of a song being sung into each of us, resonating in our skulls.
It has been during this past year that I considered what danger lurks in sharing this kind of a moment with another being. In terms of musical practice, it is difficult to recall anything more close, more contrary, more confrontational. I miss this. I hope for more moments in the future that push me to reach my edges.
Beyond the association with drunken derangement, Dionysus is also in the lineage of fertility gods—the fruit of the vine and the capacity to be reborn year after year. In the early days of quarantine, I released my second solo record, Point Of Grace, and am ready to record the next one, Wreck On, as soon as it is possible.
From a new song, “A Cult Of You”:
Where will the boat row if we all let go?
merrily, merrily, merrily
Are we under a common spell to draw from, to drink from the bitter well?
Have we received a command from the maker to wallpaper the void?
Thank you Vicki Carver for the cross-stitch of one of my favorite lines from Matt Hart’s book Radiant Action. Much love to the memory of Susan Anderson, whose gaida (Bulgarian bagpipe) I am learning to play. Love to everyone in Svitanya/Vesna y te amo Lalo. Thank you Krysten Terry and Christine Hamiltion for troubadouring throughout the grounds of FDR Park this past year with me. And thank you Chris Sikich and MAGNET for the Isolation Drills series.