KATHRYN OLMSTEAD

Exploration of two different borders takes ‘(F)light’

Posted May 26, 2011, at 5:26 p.m.
Last modified May 26, 2011, at 5:42 p.m.

Friends since their high school days in Massachusetts, Wendy Burk and Erica Quin-Easter found themselves on opposite borders of the United States in 2009.

Wendy and her husband, Eric Magrane, both poets, lived in Tucson, Ariz. Erica, a composer, had recently moved to Aroostook County, Maine, where her spouse Kate Quin-Easter had grown up.

Erica and the two poets wondered if they could blend their talents in an exploration of the cultures and environments of these two very different border regions. With support from the Maine Arts Commission, they visited each other’s home states collecting experiences that inspired poetry and song.

On May 14 and 15, the product of this artistic collaboration premiered in Portland, Maine, as “(F)light,” a borderlands song cycle, performed by Women in Harmony, a 60-voice women’s chorus directed by Catherine Beller-McKenna. “(F)light” was part of a larger program titled “Moving On: Immigration in Song” also featuring performances by Pihcintu, a multicultural children’s chorus of Maine directed by Con Fullam.

“When Erica Quin-Easter first approached us about ‘(F)light,’ we jumped at the chance to collaborate with a dear friend on a project whose concerns are in our mind on a daily basis,” Wendy and Eric wrote in program notes. “‘(F)light’ is about migration, both animal and human.”

The composition was a first for the three artists. Erica, a former member of Women in harmony, had created music for existing texts and the poets had created poetry together, but none of the three had collaborated to compose with artists of other genres.

“Our joy at exploring and sharing the culture, history and environment that shaped our respective homelands was equaled by our discovery of each other’s diverse approaches to the artistic process and evolving goals and expectations for ‘(F)light,’” Erica wrote in program notes.

During her weeklong residency of cultural conversations and environmental excursions in Arizona, Erica learned about life in a region divided by a wall. When Wendy and Eric came to Maine, they canoed on the St. John River and Eric proudly touched the Canadian shore with his paddle.

Contrasting experiences of the two border regions are portrayed in one of the nine songs in ‘(F)light’:

Crossing

River wide and shallow

I can wade across

Desert bright and endless

I am lost

White-winged dove flying north from Sonora

I want to follow, cannot cross over

Swallow flying by the banks of the St. John

I overtake you and journey on

River wide and shallow

I can wade across

Desert bright and endless

I am lost

“The residencies were the creative part of it,” Eric said in a discussion before the May 14 performance at the Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland. Echoing comments of his colleagues, he affirmed the value of reciprocal visits in providing ideas for the poems that would become the libretto for the songs composed by Erica. “The creative spark was that common experience we had with each other.”

They started out focused on the environment (How does a wall affect animal migration when only birds can fly over it?). “The human story evolved as the politics heated up,” Wendy said in the pre-concert discussion, recalling how Arizona became embroiled over laws requiring documentation of legal entry and outlawing ethnic studies courses. The creative project coincided with the political upheaval and shaped the story the artists tried to tell.

“We put ourselves out there and explored,” Wendy explained. “Then we came home and talked and wrote.” The poets said writing about Canada caused them to reflect on Arizona, noting that Acadians in Maine were once treated as Chicanos are today in Arizona. Both regions are home to cultures that predate the borders and the three artists examined what happens to people when they are suddenly divided by geopolitical lines after living in a region for generations.

“Borders disrupt lives,” Erica said in an interview, citing parallel experiences of Spanish, Acadian and indigenous cultures bisected by international borders. “It also raises the question of sovereignty: What happens to the people who preceded the border, who become legal or political outsiders in their own homelands — or even worse, are forcibly relocated and erased from their native lands?”

“People ask me about my border,” Wendy said, “but Erica is actually closer to her border than we are to ours. This raises the question: just how big is a border region?”

The nine songs that emerged from the artistic collaboration express a range of emotion and experience – from meditation to anger to celebration. Titles include “Lives We Take,” “Migrant Counterpoint,” “In the First Place,” “Mexicadia” and “What Will Stand.”

“We hope that through music, through action, and by bridging the border divide through these kinds of conversations we can create a more common vision for what exactly we will stand for – and what we will not,” Erica wrote.

“At its heart ‘(F)light’ is a project about the absence of borders as much as the presence of them,” wrote Wendy and Eric. “Now as we come to examine our present lives as residents of a region divided by a wall – a wall that separates neighbors and cuts apart indigenous nations, a wall only birds can fly over – we hope that ‘(F)light’ will contribute to a better understanding.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

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