When I was a kid, Antonín Dvořák’s symphony “From the New World” was numbered #5. Since then the discovery of four early symphonic works has bumped his best known symphony to #9. I’m still getting used to that.
Much of the #5/9 was written, or at least sketched out, during the summer of 1893, while the Dvořák family visited the Czech faming community of Spillville, Iowa. His near contemporary Leoš Janáček — a Moravian, whereas Dvořák was Bohemian, though they spoke mutually intelligible dialects of the Czech language — had no particular reason to have visited Iowa, let alone Agincourt. But I’m thinking about him this evening, along with Janáček and the Hungarians Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók for three reasons: 1) the were all born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire (though Bartók’s birthplace is now in Romania) ; 2) their collected names have an inordinate number of oddly accented letters (oddly, that is, from our limited American perspective); and most important 3) because all of them approached music from varying degrees of anthropological perspective.
Somewhere here in the house, in the collection of vinyl recordings that will be with me until my estate sale, despite the turntable’s inability to turn, there is a Janáček album with a liner note about his visit to London. In it he observed to a traveling companion the speech patterns of the hotel bellboy, saying something like “There is the true language of the English people!” Until I can find that recording note, this hazy paraphrase will have to stand. The point is that Janáček’s music was drawn from speech patterns, and to that extent he preferred that his operas be performed only in Czech, believing translation would make the work inauthentic.
Janacek’s style was shaped not just by the music but by the speech patterns of Moravia. He was absorbed with Moravian speech, which he once called ”as soft as if it were cutting butter.” Indeed, his fascination with speech of all kinds was such that he was forever jotting down the tones and rhythms of the way people talked – or birds sang -even in languages he did not otherwise understand. The most moving instance of this came in 1903, as he sat helpless at the bedside of his dying daughter, Olga; his notebook consists of pitiful musical notations of her last words, down to the final, sighing, ”aja. …” [from: Tiina Vainiomäki, The Musical Realism of Leoš Janáček, p178]
I am no student of language, barely literate in the English of my childhood. Times without number I have attempted to learn a foreign language — French, German, and Scot’s Gaelic are among those efforts — and each was a dismal failure. Whether the fault was mine or the mode of instruction I cannot say. [Though I must admit the usual method, where the instructor jauntily enters the room and breezily introduces him or her self in the language du jour, is the wrongest possible way for me to learn. I’m a Capricorn, for fuck’s sake, and require structure. Stand at the blackboard, diagram sentences, show me parts of speech and discuss the rules of the connectivity. Treat language like a goddam Erector Set, give me that degree of order and I might actually have succeeded.] Perhaps that is why I am so fascinated by language.
Like the four Austro-Hungarian composers invoked above, I have to believe that the speech patterns of Agincourt weren’t necessarily unique to that community. But also that they were essential to its identity. There have been opportunities to express that idea, here in the blog and elsewhere, but there need to be more, a theme on which I need to expend some thought.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
FURNISS, Allan (1883–1942)
colored graphite on paper / 7.3 inches by 10.3 inches
Born at Leeds, Yorkshire, in 1883, Allan Furniss eventually emigrated to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. During WWI, Furniss enlisted in the 83rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He is buried at Regina Cemetery.
Playing by the rules…and with them
Four blocks of Broad Street (two north of the civic squares; two south of them) are divided in twenty-five-foot wide increments, each 140 feet deep. These were standard building blocks of commerce in any city west of the Appalachians. Their rhythm is ubiquitous, unfailing, so much so that when it does deviate, we notice — like adhering to the cardinal points of the compass, until you don’t.
What was built on them followed an unspoken set of rules governing each storefront’s appearance: central or side entrance; show windows parallel with the street or angled; a secondary door giving access to stairs leading to the upper floors. They accommodated signage, though none of them needed a neon notice that the shop was “Open” because you could easily tell that it was. Protection from sun or rain swung out to form colorful canopies. The material palette included wood, pressed metal, brick, stone, and cast Iron. Glass was in large sheets (at least during Agincourt’s history, they were), but might also include patterned or stained glass transoms (and another opportunity for advertising). As a designer, there might as well have been a drop-down menu and default settings.
I can’t say when those rules ceased to be acknowledged or when they were forgotten or ignored. But the affect on our historic commercial cores has caused a subtle shift.
I chanced to find this image of a business front in Tonganoxie, Kansas, and was shocked by its sophistication. This was no vernacular exercise; a designer’s hand is clearly evident. What seemed remarkable was the inclusion of iconography, symbols representing the virtues of thrift and its part in achieving the American Dream. The Tonganoxie Building & Loan probably dates from the early 1920s and (I’m guessing here) may have been the work of Kansas City architect Ernest O. Brostrom. There is also a particular reference to the famous Woodbury County courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa, designed by a consortium of local architect William L. Steele and his collaborators Purcell & Elmslie. Take a look at the courthouse entry and tell me I’m wrong.
This tells me that the rhythm of commercial fronts along Broad Street can be a good deal more creative than long blocks of purely vernacular design. The “rules” still apply but not without some wiggle room for personality to emerge.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
MESSENGER, Ivan (1895–1983)
soft-ground etching and aquatint / 6 1/16 inches by 7 1/4 inches (image) / edition of 35
Ivan Messenger, painter, printmaker, teacher and author, was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1895. He came to California in 1916 to attend the Panama California Exposition held in San Diego. In 1921 he graduated from Stanford University with an MA degree in romance languages, after which he taught linguistics at Stanford and the University of Texas until about 1925 when he moved to San Diego.
In San Diego he taught at the State University and held classes in life drawing at Balboa Parks Fine Art Gallery. His most productive period was prior to 1945, and though he is best known for his watercolors, he was just as facile with pastels, gouache, oils and more. He was a member of and exhibited with the Laguna Beach Art Association and the California Watercolor Society and his work was exhibited at the California-Pacific International Exposition.
In 1969 Messenger wrote Not For Tourists Only: An Early Portrait of San Diego and illustrated it with reproductions of his drawings, paintings, lithographs and aquatints. He died in San Diego on September 6th, 1983. —Annex Galleries, Seattle, WA
Messenger must have seen the Benson Lumber Co., lumberyard in San Diego, California, during his visit to the Pan-Pacific Exposition or after moving there in the mid-1920s. The Benson company was established circa 1908 by lumbermen from Portland, Oregon. Messenger’s subject may have been the distant structure in the vintage photograph shown below:
Omaha-born artist Messenger was a cousin of Edward Weise, father of Ellen Weise, Northwest Iowa Normal School faculty member and keeper of the Community Collection. This was added to the collection in memory of her father.
What’s in a name? What, for example, is the distinction between neighborhood and community? As I write about Mesopotamia, that part of Agincourt “below sea level”, I’ve blithely euphemised it using both terms interchangeably. But are they indeed synonyms?
Chicago, city of my birth and foundation for my world view — there, now you’ve got something to blame it on — is a city of neighborhoods, officially recognized urban territory with names and, more importantly, identities recognized through the city. Admittedly, those names often derive from a geographical feature or some abstraction now murky in the public consciousness but more often than not the harken to an area’s ethnicity, the and perhaps even now.
Chicago neighborhoods centered on church or synagogue. And with that came celebrations of faith and food, in restaurants, street fairs and festivals. Though the church may now be closed or occupied by another denomination or sect, the memory lingers on, like the recollection of a great meal and the company it kept.
Then there’s the city that has been my home for far longer than Chicago claimed me; I shan’t name it. But it, too, has established official neighborhoods (far smaller than Chicago’s), based on section-line streets, railway tracks, and such. Most of them make sense — except, of course the one where we live. Ours is the residue when all other proximate parts of the city have been certified and set apart. Except for one. And it may be that truth which raised my initial question: what’s in a name?
Living at the edge of the CBD is marginal, literally, a place in obvious dramatic cyclic change. Change isn’t a bad thing but it’s not entirely comfortable when power rests in other hands. So let’s label ours the Downtown Neighborhood Association and imagine one of its meetings.
We were a motley bunch that night. But our diversity was no more apparent than when the subject shifted to safety. Some DNA residents were concerned about unsavory types lurking near their apartment lobby door. I’ll admit downtown has the city’s heaviest concentration of alcoholic beverage dispensaries, what we in these parts distinguish as “on-sale” and “off-sale” establishments. And they may attract patrons more concerned with consuming the stuff than using it as a medium for socialization, if you know what I mean.
At some point the bulb above my head glowed brightly: I understood from whence came their concerns. “How many of you live in security buildings,” I inquired, meaning building with locked entries requiring a passcode or other means for obtaining entry. Multiple hands went up, most if not all of them the hands of those expressing concern about safety outside their thresholds. Ah, there’s the rub, I thought, these folks need a reality check. I observed, politely, that not all of us enjoy their reassurance, a boundary between US and THEM. “How many of you have found someone passed out on your porch,” I wondered. “How many have found a prostitute servicing someone at 3:30 in the afternoon in your backyard?” I didn’t expect a reply, nor did I get one.
Oh, I should also add that we’ve not been asked to another DNA meeting.
NEIGHBORHOOD vs COMMUNITY
So, on the question of labeling the place where I happen to have lived for forty years, I hold the opinion that we are neither. But what of Mesopotamia?