Monday, March 14, 2011

Agata Zubel and the wisdom of women

Last week I had the distinct privilege of hearing Agata Zubel, Polish singer and composer, perform with the Seattle Chamber Players.
Agata Zubel

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about all the women who went up in smoke courtesy of the Christian church's assertion that they were witches who needed saving...this is, of course, hundreds of years ago, and those of us who are products of the European Judeo-Christian tradition can rest assured that we've gotten over that sort of thing, as regards women. Except that those efforts so long ago did serve to wipe out the matrilinear conveyance of the so-called womanly arts: healing traditions, a mystical connection to nature, midwifery, knowledge of medicinal herbs...and countless rituals I'm sure I know nothing about.

The upshot is that the learning and passing on were arrested in their tracks, and replaced with a fear, among women, of practicing these arts: a fear of being authentically womanly. This is what I was discussing with my friend, and I must admit that it's a new way of looking at women's history, for me. I've been turning it over in my mind all week. It's a plausible explanation for our male-dominated culture - I don't mean to say that women don't have all kinds of fantastic opportunities in 21st century American society - we do! And I'm incredibly grateful to be alive here and now rather than, say, Iran.

So, when I went to hear the spectacular Agata Zubel sing last week, all these thoughts had been percolating in my mind for a while. Witnessing her performance was a stunning experience. She draws on a deep spirituality and complete commitment to the moment as she performs. It feels like each sound she creates resonates in every molecule of her existence.

Her first work was a Berio Sequenza...she strode onto the stage already muttering under her breath, stood before her music stand still chattering to herself for a few moments before suddenly gawping at the audience, as though she suddenly realized we were staring at her, too. The sounds in the Sequenza ranged from Bushman-like clicks to mad laughter, chattering like I'd imagine a schizophrenic cacophony of internal voices would sound, to the occasional loving and gorgeous melodic line. Her command and control of all these cascading and colliding effects was virtuosic in the extreme.

Her own compositions are filled with space and silence, little sounds at the extremes of her vocal registers, microtones, great swooping gestures, and the occasional intelligible phrase.. a sonic depiction of a deeply personal inner landscape. Or an examination of a psychology played out in real time. The effect was mesmerizing and disturbing. And it was extremely compelling. I felt I was witness to this amazing musician's private, highly organized yet vulnerable inner world.

There was a piece on the program which was about a dream that Hildegard of Bingen experienced - that Europe was to be engulfed by a Muslim invasion. It was during this song, full of searing microtonal tension, that I had the thought that Agata Zubel would not have been appreciated during the time of the various witch trials, whether in Salem or Spain or elsewhere in Europe. She is a woman deeply connected to a spiritual or otherworldly place, serving to allow her listeners to journey to potentially uncomfortable inner spaces.

I found her work utterly inspiring, and am continuing to ponder my sisters, lost so long ago, and what knowledge may have perished with them. But we are fortunate to live in a world where the work of Agata Zubel is not only possible, but celebrated and cherished.