Many musicians today are pondering how they as artists can respond to injustice and violence in the world. Does the very act of creating beauty somehow counteract the destructive effects experienced by those who suffer? Or is it possible for a work of art to actively promote healing and restoration while still remaining a work of art rather than a statement of political activism? And is it possible for musicians to support this work of reconciliation in their music if they have to identify with the perpetrators of the injustice? Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis engages compassionately and provocatively with these questions in his haunting ballet, Going Home Star.
(A brief video trailer for the ballet is included above, as an example of the staged production. The complete soundtrack has been released on the Centrediscs label and is available through streaming sites such as Naxos Music Library and YouTube.)
Going Home Star was commissioned by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Canadian government and First Nations (the accepted Canadian term equivalent to “Native American” in the US) leaders agreed to set up the commission to document the abuses of First Nations peoples under the country’s residential school system. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, all aboriginal and Inuit children were required to attend church-run, government-funded boarding schools intended to assimilate them into Western culture, language, and religion. Aside from the alienation and emotional trauma inflicted on families as a result of this forced separation, in many cases children at the schools were physically or sexually abused by the clergy who were supposedly teaching them. Prior to coming across Hatzis’ ballet, I had been completely unaware of this dark chapter in the history of my northern neighbors. Hearing and reading the story made me not only want to know more about it, but to care more too.
And the story of the ballet does in fact draw audiences to care about the atrocities of the residential schools by presenting two individuals who have been wounded by it. Annie and Gordon, two young First Nations people, are struggling to find their way in urban Canada after going through the residential school system as children. While Annie works in a hair salon by day and escapes to partying and drugs at night, Gordon lives as a homeless person on the streets. As Hatzis describes it, Annie is “trying to make it in the white world… It is only as she’s failing in that kind of life because she’s being discriminated [against] that she realizes she’s not who she’s trying to be, and she begins to discover all her own hurts hiding all along inside her from the residential school experience.” After Annie and Gordon meet and fall in love, they begin the painful process of confronting, even reliving, the memories of their past in order to reclaim their cultural and personal identity and work towards some measure of healing.
For Hatzis, writing the music for Going Home Star posed both artistic and personal problems. In creating a dramatic work, Hatzis aims to inhabit the persona of his characters, feel what they feel, and let the music flow from that experience. Naturally, for a subject fraught with such a dark and disturbing background, this experience proved emotionally draining over the course of the writing process. Furthermore, Hatzis was forced to confront the tension between the core spirituality of the characters and their story and that of his own life and work. With roots in the Byzantine church, Hatzis describes himself as a non-denominational Christian, and many of his works deal with spiritual or mystical themes from the Christian tradition. Yet he recognizes that the atrocities of the residential school system were perpetrated directly by various Christian denominations who tried to impose their religion on the First Nations people, and Annie and Gordon’s process of healing comes from growing back into their distinctive Native American spirituality. Thus, Hatzis confesses, “In some ways, the things that I believe in have become a source of pain for the people whose story I am trying to tell… My catharsis, my salvation, was [in asking], how honestly can I tell their story, even if mine can be placed in a very dark light? It has been a challenge for my own faith, for sure. I don’t think your faith is any good if you don’t challenge it: if it survives the challenge, then it’s real; if it doesn’t, then it’s not.”
While Hatzis faced this spiritual tension between his subject matter and his personal beliefs with remarkable openness and authenticity, the project itself posed the real danger of cultural imperialism, as he was tasked with “telling a Native story in the most non-Native kind of way: a ballet, which was invented in the court of Louis XIV.” It would be easy, given the circumstances of the commission, to co-opt the Native story by repackaging it in a Western genre, thereby predisposing the audience to view it through a Eurocentric cultural lens rather than on its own terms. His solution was to adopt a postmodern approach and rely on collage, irony, and parody to critique Western cultural standards, bringing them down from their assumed normative status to an equal footing with the First Nations culture.
To accomplish this, Hatzis deploys a dizzying array of musical and sonic materials. Native traditions are represented by several astonishing passages of katajjaq (Inuit throat singing, traditionally done in competition with a partner but here performed in a solo version by the remarkable vocalist Tanya Tagaq, who has forged a distinctive career as a solo katajjaq artist), several authentic First Nations songs and chants (as sung by Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers), and spoken accounts of survivors of the residential school system (narrated with beautiful simplicity by Wood and Tagaq). Modern Anglo-Canadian culture is strongly present as well, running the gamut from lowbrow (tango and dubstep) to highbrow (quotations from famous ballets like The Rite of Spring and Swan Lake, as well as something that can perhaps be best described as “Anglo-American classical lite”—imagine a Canadian remake of Appalachian Spring). Meanwhile, several distorted versions of the famous “Old Hundredth” hymn tune (known to many modern Christians as “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”) and some original music from the court of Louis XIV (a pompous march by Lully, also distorted in various ways) suggest the colonialism of the early white settlers and the priests that followed. Finally, the electronics track accompanying the live score includes a diverse collection of musique concrète sounds, from trains passing, church bells, northern birds, and flames burning, to human screams, gasps, and giggles.
By placing Native American, Anglo-American, European and purely natural sounds as equal components within this gigantic sonic collage, Hatzis raises the question in listeners’ minds as to what cultural mindset they will use as the norm in interpreting the work. For example, as a listener familiar with the Western musical tradition but not with Native American music, my first instinct was to perceive references to the latter as simple exoticism, evoking a “primitive other,” while interpreting the Western-style music according to the emotional cues I’ve learned (this tune is happy, while that one is sad). As I continued to listen, however, I became aware how the Native music contains an equally diverse range of emotional content of which I am largely unaware, while the quotations from Western music could equally be seen, from a Native point of view, as simply standing for the invasive “other” culture. For example, while the “Old Hundredth” tune is constantly transformed in its emotional connotations, appearing now as a festive dance with trumpets and timpani, now as a solemn elegy with lush strings, it always refers to the supposed “Christianizing” influence of the residential schools.
I was initially drawn to Hatzis’ work for its collage, quotation, and distortion of pre-existing musical materials, deconstructive “postmodern” techniques I often practice in my own work. Yet, after listening to the entire ballet and Hatzis’ remarks on it, I recognized that these techniques are not just a game of clever cultural critique to be enjoyed for its own sake, but a means towards a greater goal. Hatzis’ ultimate aim in this process is not deconstructive but constructive: by undermining the Western cultural assumptions many Canadians (and Americans) may hold, he opens the possibility for true reconciliation between the Anglo/Euro-Canadian and First Nations cultures through a shared understanding of each other’s experiences.
This theme of reconciliation is most poignantly embodied in the final scene, “Morning Song,” where Hatzis layers musical strands representing the conflicting elements—an eerie pizzicato version of the “Old Hundredth” with electronic sounds in the background, a group of Inuit singing a hymn at an Anglican service, a distorted recording of katajjaq, and the spirited powwow song “Tootsie”—on top of each other with increasing intensity, until finally they are all overwhelmed by a recording of flames licking up wood, as Annie and Gordon burn a model of a residential school on a ceremonial pyre. Out of the cleansing flames, the sound of the Northern Cree Singers emerges a final time with the joyful “Morning Song,” representing a new day of hope for Annie and Gordon. The effect is devastatingly cathartic: like Annie and Gordon, I too am able to let go of some part of my cultural baggage as I seek to compassionately and courageously engage with those different from me.