Vanessa Lann: ‘The Pilgrim Fathers “founded” America, but for the Native Americans it was an entirely different matter’

In Far Cries | Distance No Object, premiered in Operadagen Rotterdam in 2020, Vanessa Lann addressed the theme of leave-taking. The show was inspired by the 400th anniversary of the day in 1620 when the Pilgrim Fathers embarked on a voyage across the Atlantic to seek refuge in North America. For the present Delfshaven Festival the composer made a new, somewhat extended version under the title Far Cries 401. Two of the four performances take place on 22 July, the very day the Pilgrims set sail for the New World.

‘In May 2020 I was fortunate enough to receive a small grant as part of the ‘balkonscènes’ (balcony scenes) initiative from the Dutch Performing Arts Fund’, says Vanessa Lann (New York, 1968). ‘This was intended to support freelancers who were affected by the corona crisis, so they could realize small-scale productions in corona-proof settings. For me this meant it was a Do it Yourself venture: I was composer, producer, librettist and marketer all in one. When Operadagen offered me a place in their festival, I gladly accepted, for  I have always been a huge fan of the festival and live and work in Rotterdam.’

Embarkation of the Pilgrims on the Speedwell, 22 July 1620. Painting by Robert W. Weir

The production was premiered to public acclaim in September 2020, yet for the Delfshaven Festival you changed the title to Far Cries 401. Why?

‘The Delfshaven Festival was meant to take place last summer, to celebrate 4 centuries of Dutch-American relations, but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. In 2021 it is exactly 401 years ago the Pilgrims made their historic voyage to the New World. They sailed from Delfshaven, a Rotterdam neighbourhood that to this day is home to people from very different cultures and backgrounds, including myself.’

In the promotion material we read about ‘heartrending goodbyes’, but why did the Pilgrim Fathers leave the Netherlands in the first place? Hadn’t they found refuge here because their Calvinist faith was repressed in Britain?

‘This may seem a bit paradoxical, indeed. The English Pilgrims arrived in the Netherlands in 1608, stayed in Amsterdam for a year and then in Leiden for another 11 years. They were very devout and hard-working people, who lived in near-poverty. At a certain point they realized that their children were growing up and falling in love with Dutch teenagers, whom they considered to be a bit on the “wild” side. They feared the kids, and maybe even their own adult group, were veering further and further away from the mind-set which had brought them to the Netherlands originally.’

‘So eventually they decided to journey to the New World to develop their convictions further, and to set up a colony of likeminded people where they could “start from scratch”. In so doing, they would be the first “families” to journey together to the New World, aiming to establish villages and homes. Up to then only single men had been travelling back and forth across the ocean for business purposes. The decision to travel with entire families inevitably entailed the Pilgrims leave friends, family, and their former communities behind. It was evident the crossing would be difficult and filled with unknown challenges. Though only one of the 102 voyagers died during the passage, only 52 would make it to the following spring.’ 

Instead of focusing on this historic background, you chose to broaden the theme. How?

Far Cries 401 explores the feelings of family members when they set sail for distant shores, knowing they will most likely never see their loved ones again. In the production we combine true documentation of the Pilgrims – before, during and after their voyage to the New World – with true stories of people in the Netherlands and the States who recently lost loved ones during the corona pandemic. It’s a collection of stories of enforced “goodbyes”, then and now. Therefore my libretto is both in Dutch and English.’

How did you select the texts?

‘The show is structured around a seven-part song cycle for soprano and piano, based on a text by the American poet Denise Levertov. It involves memory, time, and how we experience patterns, and loss. There is also music for saxophones, clarinets and loop station, incorporating the well-known Emma Lazarus text on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor…”. In the carillon part I have incorporated recognizable American folk music about loss, memory and hope. The speakers quote from documents and journals by William Bradford, the leader of the English Pilgrims, and memorials in online newspapers written by people who recently lost dear ones to Covid-19.’

You chose for a line-up of soprano/violin/clarinets-saxophones/piano/carillon, as well as three speakers, including yourself. Why this particular combination? 

‘The performers are all good friends, with whom I’ve worked before. There is an element of improvisation in several of the parts, so I chose musicians who could act as co-devisers of the sound world. The carillon is special, because it is site-specific, coming from the tower of the Pilgrim Fathers Church. Also, with its hourly bells it symbolically denotes the passage of time – related to journeying, and memory. Thus the church itself becomes part of the story. For his mis-en-espace Neil Wallace has taken into account its dimensions, energy, resonance and depth, involving it as a ritual place. For after all, the Pilgrims held their last congregation here before leaving the country.’

David Kweksilber in Far Cries | Distance No Object, Pilgrim Fathers Church 2020

How do the performers interact?

‘The soprano and pianist are featured as one unit, performing the song cycle, while the clarinettist/saxophonist and violinist perform notated and non-notated music, in solo form and in combination with each other. The speakers and the musicians interact in a subtle mise-en-espace throughout the piece. By the end of the piece they are a sort of family, from which the soprano is completely excluded. The carillon is a sort of “disruptor”, coming from the outside and being brought into the world inside.’

What kind of audience did the first version attract in 2020 and what was their response?

‘The production attracted largely an Operadagen audience, interested in contemporary music theatre, or story-telling through song and movement. A lot of people were very emotional, as the idea of losing loved ones is universal. A number of visitors were very moved by the energy in the Pilgrim Fathers Church, seated as they were in a corona-proof setting (distanced, but still intimate) in the length of this beautiful and historic building.’

‘I expect Far Cries 401 to attract an audience from outside of the performing arts world as well. People who are interested in the history of the region, the link between America and the Netherlands, and the impact of our present situation.’ 

You are a descendant from a Jewish family that emigrated from Ukraine to the United States, whence you in turn moved to the Netherlands. Do you feel a personal affinity with the theme of leave-taking? 

‘Well, the fact that I am both an American as well as a Dutch citizen, makes the historical significance of this production very close to my heart. For years I’ve wanted to create a piece based on the different parts of my background and my experiences as a double national. I feel very connected to the theme of immigration, and how mythologies are formed by those telling the stories.’

‘Obviously, for many people the “story” of America begins with this historic voyage, and the events which unfolded once the Europeans had reached North American shores. But we must never forget there is another side to every story. – For the Native Americans who considered the American continent their home it was a completely different experience. It’s the multifaceted aspect, and the complexity of all these stories which intrigues me the most and inspired my creative exploration.’ 

Far Cries 401 runs twice on both 21 & 22 July, tickets here.

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
This entry was posted in Interview, news, women composers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Vanessa Lann: ‘The Pilgrim Fathers “founded” America, but for the Native Americans it was an entirely different matter’

  1. patriciagoodsonpianist says:

    I had never known about the Pilgrims` connection to the Netherlands. Fascinating – and a great idea for a piece. Hope to hear it someday!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ger van den Beuken says:

    Interessant verhaal over die Pilgrims

    Liked by 1 person

  3. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Thank you, Thea, for broadening my horizons regarding the pilgrims’ journey to America and the events and their whereabouts leading up to their departure!

    Liked by 1 person

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