City Life

Symphony addresses slavery; MAH investigates winter weather; poet laureate revisits Iraq

Wallace Baine takes us on a quick tour of three upcoming creative projects in Santa Cruz — focused, respectively, on music, art and poetry — designed to make you pause and think.

Don’t let the Omicron-induced quiet fool you — Santa Cruz is brimming with creative projects set to break into public consciousness in the early days of 2022. Here we tune in on three great events coming up in the realms of classical music, installation art, and poetry:

Mourning the unmourned: Monterey composer John Wineglass admits that he was a little surprised at himself for taking on the weighty themes of his composition “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked.” The symphonic piece is a monumental work, addressing the American slave trade, particularly those who lived and died in slavery in the rice plantations of coastal South Carolina and Georgia before Emancipation.

“I’m a film and TV guy,” said Wineglass, who will be on hand this weekend when the Santa Cruz Symphony performs “Unburied.” “That’s where I got my start: commercials, daytime TV, CNN, MSNBC. That was my world for a good 20 years. And being a Hollywood guy, you don’t usually get into real substantive topics of discussion in the musical paradigm.”

Monterey composer John Wineglass.

Then came a phone call. It was from Edda L. Fields-Black, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. Her area of interest and research was the slave trade between the U.S. and West Africa in the realm of rice farming. Fields-Black was looking to translate some of her work into music, and she began to notice the name Wineglass within the Black communities around Charleston, South Carolina.

“So we met in South Carolina,” remembered Wineglass. “We went out to the rice fields. I found the plantation that my (ancestral) people were on. It just became this whole thing.”

Wineglass ended up traveling to South Carolina four times and also accompanied Fields-Black to the rice fields of West Africa with a documentary film team in tow. After a period of artistic cultivation, the result of all those travels is an ambitious collaboration between the history professor and the composer that seeks nothing less than to redeem the memory of all those whose lives erased from history by slavery.

On Saturday evening at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium (and again on Sunday afternoon at the Mello Center in Watsonville), the Santa Cruz Symphony will perform “Unburied.” Fields-Black’s libretto will be narrated by Santa Cruz singer Tammi Brown, as the orchestra takes on Wineglass’s musical interpretation of the “Middle Passage,” the trade routes between Africa and North America in the days of slavery. The piece moves from a musical reenvisioning of the voyage by ship across the ocean of newly enslaved Africans to the rice fields of the Deep South with environmental recordings augmenting the music. It culminates in a mournful meditation titled “Lament for Lost Souls.”

“These people were unburied, in some ways,” said Wineglass. “They were not typically mourned on the ships. If you got sick or something, they would literally throw your body overboard. And then, where there were burial grounds, most of the graves were unmarked.”

The piece was first performed in 2019, and since then, Wineglass has composed other pieces marking the deaths of George Floyd and Elijah McClain at the hands of police. He’s also still working on “Unburied”: “We’re talking about a full-on opera down the road, so who knows? It’s a work that’s in its present stage now, but it’s developing as we go.”

“Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked” is part of the Santa Cruz Symphony’s “Rites of Passage” concert program Saturday at the Santa Cruz Civic at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at the Mello Center in Watsonville at 2 p.m.

One of the paintings of the winter sky by Enid Baxter Ryce featured in "Atmosphere" at the Museum of Art & History.

Talkin’ ’bout the weather: There might be no surer sign of a coming climate apocalypse than how we in Northern California now refer to winter weather. What used to be simply “rain” is now an “atmospheric river.”

Sounds pretty dire, but a fascinating new exhibit at the Museum of Art & History takes stock of that term and contemplates both the aesthetics and the science behind the atmospheric river and other phenomena of local winter weather.

“Atmosphere,” opening Friday at the MAH’s third-floor Art Forum Gallery, is mostly the work of painter and filmmaker Enid Baxter Ryce, in collaboration with several other artists and scientists. It features paintings, historical photographs, an interactive musical sculpture, even a device that captures that essential element of a Monterey Bay winter, fog.

Ryce, who teaches cinematic arts and environmental studies at Cal State Monterey Bay, said the new exhibit should have wide appeal for anyone regardless of their interest or background in art or climate science.

“We all interact with the sky,” she said, “and the weather affects us all. That’s just something universal for human beings.”

Of the phenomenon known as atmospheric rivers, the exhibit makes the case that they are not a product of solely contemporary times. With historian William Cowan, she presents historical photos of similar storms in the winter of 1861-62. Also part of the exhibit is Ryce’s film “War & the Weather,” which, she says, “asks the question: What was the impact of atmospheric rivers on the colonization of the American West? And, in asking that question, I found out that although the story of atmospheric rivers and contemporary science is new, there are scientists in the film (who say) there have been stories through thousands of years of Indigenous storytelling that accurately describe the phenomenon.”

Amid the scientific and historical explorations is a series of Ryce’s own paintings that capture the moods and character of fog and cloudy skies. It also includes a project from scientist Dan Fernandez that’s called a “fog catcher,” a device on the outdoor rooftop sculpture garden that captures fog.

“It’s really exciting when art enhances your perception of the world,” said Ryce, “or makes us sensitive to the world in a way that maybe we weren’t before we experienced it. I hope that this (exhibit) does that for viewers, and I also hope it gives them a calming space to be in.”

Enid Baxter Ryce will be on hand during a virtual opening of the exhibit that features a discussion and film screening, taking place Friday at 6 p.m.

Santa Cruz poet laureate David Allen Sullivan (right) with Iraqi poet Faleeha Hassan.

Back to Iraq: Forget the image of the poet quietly contemplating the clouds from his comfy writing desk playing footsie with the Muse. David Allen Sullivan put in a ton of leg work and interviews for his new book of poems, “Black Butterflies Over Baghdad.”

Sullivan teaches poetry at Cabrillo College and he also serves as Santa Cruz County’s poet laureate. Next Wednesday, Jan. 19, his newly published book will be celebrated with an online event and reading co-sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods.

“Black Butterflies” is a collection of poems inspired by the lives and experiences of Iraqis in the years following the U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein. Sullivan estimated that the number of Iraqis he spoke to about their lives is close to 100, many of them having evolved into good friendships. Most of those voices are young people who grew up in a post-Saddam Iraq, and many are women, not often heard in the country’s historical narrative.

“One of the things that young people say again and again,” said Sullivan, “is, ‘Hey, yes, Iraq was kind of invented when European powers carved up the Middle East, but we are a country now, with a shared history. And we want to be reflecting the multi-ethnic, the multiple kinds of Muslims, the Christians, the Jews, and not separate out or have those groups used against each other. So the young people are really pushing for a multicultural Iraq. So there’s a poem that refers to Jews in Iraq. There’s a poem that references the Kurds in the northern part of Iraq. And I tried to do a number of cities, there’s mentions of Basra as well as Mosul and Baghdad. So the book, as I constructed it, really was trying to use multiple poetic voices to also reflect multiple personalities, genders, ethnicities within Iraq.”

The project’s origin story goes back more than a decade when Sullivan first encountered the Iraqi point of view among his students. That led to the book of poetry “Every Seed of the Pomegranate” which focused largely on the Iraq-U.S. war during the George W. Bush administration. The new book focuses more on life in Iraq since the war.

Sullivan said that he “stumbled into” an interest in Iraqi life and has been exploring the rabbit hole ever since. “It really was my students, and me being compelled by their stories and wanting to understand more,” he said. “And that compulsion led me to realize that I really didn’t understand the Iraqi viewpoint. And the more I delve into it, the more I want to reflect the modern times of Iraq.”

That interest might lead to a third book, he said, this one a “novel poem” about Iraq based on the Mesopotamian classic poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh”: “It’s basically a retelling of the Gilgamesh epic where the outsider is now an American soldier hired by the CIA to go back to Iraq.”

Stay tuned for that one. In the meantime, check out David Allen Sullivan’s virtual event next Wednesday He’ll share the reading with Santa Cruz poet Farnaz Fatemi. Things get started at 6 p.m.