America’s classical music has always devoted a special place to works celebrating nature and the process of discovery. Itasca (2005), explores a narrative based on the 1832 expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. After journeying for a month, the expedition, led by Henry Schoolcraft, then the foremost U.S. authority on Native American culture, and his Indian guide Oza Windib, reached what the Ojibwe called Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan (Elk Lake). Inventor of numerous faux Indian names for geographical areas, Schoolcraft named the lake “Itasca,” chopping the beginning and the end of the Latin phrase for “true source” (veritas caput) into what sounded like the name of a mythological Indian maiden.
A poem about origins, Itasca discloses the unromantic derivation of this mysterious name. But it discloses more. Besides the source of the Mississippi, it also reveals the main sources of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 Indian epic, The Song of Hiawatha: Schoolcraft’s ethnographic work (whose input Longfellow acknowledged) and the Finnish folk epic The Kalevala (whose influence both Longfellow and his apologists consistently denied). In Itasca, Shoptaw contrasts the pleasure of discovery with the embarrassment springing from the revelation that every discovery also brings with it destruction. By erasing the original Indian name (and replacing it with a false one that silenced future inquiry), Schoolcraft’s Indian-sounding, butchered Latin name for the lake already signals destruction, further emphasized in the poem by the description of chopping down the tallest spruce to make it into a flagpole. The Latin name, the spruce turned into flagpole, and eventually the confiscated Indian land all represent a truncated existence, symbol and price of life in the United States. Ultimately the manifold quest for origins in Itasca touches on deep existential questions, trying to reveal possible sources of our future hope and present despair.
The central role of whortleberry in Itasca conveys this ambiguous destiny, intertwined in Finnish myth, Indian history and present perspectives. In The Kalevala, the virgin mother Mariatta is impregnated by the berry and thus brings forth the end of the pagan era and the beginning of Christianity by giving birth to a child who drives away Vainamoinen, the chief hero of the epic. In Native American history the whortleberry, the juice of which Indians used to draw maps that helped explorers, ultimately became a tool that brought forth the destruction of many Indian peoples. In the twenty-first-century epic Itasca, Sawyer and Shoptaw take the whortleberry as a symbol not just of destruction but also of new life and even the reversal of time. The poem ends with the appearance of a vintage camera dubbed “Boxbird” that peers, godlike, at the expedition party, turning them into objects, just as the ethnographer did to the Indians. In the last lines of Itasca, as the Boxbird dissolves into “just a sprig of whortleberry,” the destinies of the Indians and the white men have finally converged: each is deprived of an actual future and confined instead to representing a mythical past.
In Sawyer’s music the constant sound of the river-represented in the poem by the irregular gap that separates the two columns of the text-underlines the recitation of Itasca. Sawyer follows the text’s smooth transitions between mythology, epic, anthropology, history and poetic imagination by subtly transforming the pattern of the water sound according to the narrator’s and the participants’ stronger or lesser ties to nature’s timeless presence. It thins down at the revelation of Schoolcraft’s dubious negotiations that resulted in sixteen million acres of Indian land being ceded to the U. S. government; disappears completely when the story is told through the disfiguring eyes of the Boxbird; then returns, with a changed flow, to show the way into a new perception of time.
Like the current of the Mississippi on which the explorers traveled, these water sounds of mythological and historical times bind together the narrator and the other voices from the story. To create a time-flow that can include all these different layers of narrative, Sawyer constructs the water pattern in cross meter (two-beat figures repeated in three-beat bars), thus establishing its independence from the erratic, impulsive human speech. Yet the seemingly uncontrolled recitation has its own constraints. Responding to Shoptaw’s insistence of writing his epic in the trochaic meter of Hiawatha, Sawyer binds even his narrator’s spoken lines into metrically moored speech, which, like the water figures, undergo subtle rhythmic variations in the course of Itasca.
The female voices, cast often in the trochaic meter of Hiawatha and Kalevala, contrast sharply with the prose narration. The disparity between the two is the strongest in the scene describing the ritual female dance, the shamelessness of which aroused “indescribable sensations” in the expedition’s participants. The wild shrieks of dancing women (represented by parallel glissandi) depart most from the trochaic regularity of the rhythm, merging completely with the water sound. The narrator’s repeated interruptions of this unrestrained music expose the difference between historical events and the inevitable distortions of their written record.
The narration, generally assigned to the male voice, is occasionally switched over to the soprano (as in the description of Schoolcraft’s travel to the lake), signaling the ambiguous identity and hence unreliability of the narrator; or ceases completely (as in musical climaxes in which all voices join together). These climaxes are reserved for epic scenes (Mariatta’s conception), the story’s culmination (the finding of the lake), and the Boxbird’s proclamation about time. The narrator also assumes a singing role at the naming of the lake, a gesture that lends mythological significance to Schoolcraft’s word games and, simultaneously, to white man’s habit of appropriation.
The negative climax of Itasca is the Boxbird’s appearance. The female voices disappear and are replaced by the distorted, alienated echoes of the narrator’s amplified, doubled voice. Nature’s absence (represented by the cessation of the water sounds) at this frightening, anachronistic moment signals that, at least for a short while, Itasca’s true narrator (and only survivor) is not human. The archaic parallel harmonies sung at the Boxbird’s proclamation give emphasis to the call for the reversal of time. Though the poem suggests that the Boxbird has been quickly forgotten, it casts its mechanical shadow over the entire narrative, keeping its identity and the source of its power undisclosed and thus balancing the text’s perpetual quest for revelation with a purposeful obscurity.