THE SPIRITUAL POWER OF RAVEN

Prof. Tom Plsek /Berklee College of Music - Boston, USA/

As a young child I remember being especially attracted to large black birds (I don’t actually remember, or perhaps did not even know, what kinds of birds they were.) It was not until much later, well into my adult life, that I discovered from a book on Native American astrology, i.e. the “Medicine Wheel,” that my animal totem was the raven. I was struck by how apt the description seemed to be. At that time I do not think that I had ever seen a raven. Since that moment I have been drawn in to the mythology and ornithology of corvus corax, the common raven.

The raven was an important figure in virtually all the religious/ spiritual documents of the world. There are numerous instances of this but I will only indicate a few.

From the old testament of Bible there are several mentions of the raven. Two are very significant in that they represent one of the earliest indications of the raven as a messenger and source of nourishment.

There is the story of Noah and the flood:

And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. --Genesis 8:7

And the prophet Elijah who was cared for by ravens:

You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there. 1 Kings 17:4

The creation of the world is the central episode of Mithraic mythology. Mithraism was a Roman cult (although some sources indicate that it has roots in a much earlier Persia), roughly contemporary with Christianity. According to the myths, the sun god sent his messenger, the raven, to Mithra and ordered him to sacrifice the bull.

In Norse mythology the ravens Hugin and Munin, thought and memory, are messengers for the god Odin, also Wodan (from which we get the day Wednesday in the English language). They fly all over the world and gather news for Odin, whispering it in his ear from their perches on his shoulders.

The “Morrigan” (also “Morrigu”) was the goddess of Celtic legend, linked to the hero Cu Chulainn, who could shape shift between the human and raven forms. Also associated with these legends is the notion of raven as a mediator between the world of the living and the spirit world; that is, they could travel between the two.

Perhaps the role of raven reaches its epitome and variety in the legends and stories of the Native Americans commonly referred to as Eskimos, but actually referring to many tribal groups, especially the Koyukon, Kwaikiutl, Haida, occupying Canada and Alaska (as well as several in northeastern Siberia). Two stories that exist in many versions are one about raven stealing light and creating daylight in an, until then, dark world; and one about the creation of the earth. I quote one of my favorite examples of the second:

Mythology told by the people of the West Coast of North America:

The Beginning

In the beginning there was nothing. Only water, darkness and The Raven.

He flew through the darkness with a bag that hung around his neck. He had been flying for a long time, and was starting to get tired. So while he flew, he removed a rock from his bag and threw it into the sea. This rock became the first land. He sat down upon this land to rest, while resting he took other rocks from his sack and threw them into the water. Thus The Raven made the land.

Rested, The Raven picked up his bag and continued to fly. After a while he became tired, so he sat on a rock and took more items from his bag. He removed the fir, the pine, the spruce, the redwood and all the trees of the world. He also removed the huckleberry bush, the wild strawberry, the grass and all of the plants of the world, including the plants of the sea. These things he scattered across the land and the water, so that they may grow.

Again The Raven took his pouch around his neck and flew through the darkness. And again The Raven became tired so that he sat upon a rock. This time he removed all the animals of the world. The wolf, the eagle, the salmon, the bear, the deer, and all the animals of the land and of the sea.

The Raven looked around him at the world he had made, it was a good world, everyone was peaceful and happy. But before he flew off he looked into his pouch and saw that there was one thing left. So he removed man from the bag and placed him upon the earth.

In Richard Nelson’s book, “Make Payers to the Raven ; A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest” (The University of Chicago Press, 1983), he relates some of those people’s ideas about the raven. These illustrate the complex and deep relationship that they had with it.

A central figure in this ancient world is the Raven (it is unclear, perhaps irrelevant, whether there was on Raven or many), who was its creator and who engineered many of its metamorphoses. Raven, the contradiction – omnipotent clown, benevolent mischief-maker, buffoon, and deity. –Pg 17

But I will begin – as did the Koyukon world – with the raven. --Pg 79

It’s just like talking to God, that’s why we talk to the raven. He created the world. –Pg 83

As a testament to the variety of sounds that a raven can make, the Koyukon also feel that if they hear a sound in the forest that they cannot identify, that it must have been made by a raven.

There arises the obvious question: Why did all these rich and varied mythologies arise? It is my theory that it comes from the observations and study of the natural life of ravens, that is, from the ornithology. There have been numerous scholarly articles and book length studies of the common raven, species corvus corax; genus corvus, family corvidae. Three recent and especially noteworthy examples are John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell’s “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” (Yale University Press, 2005); and two by Bernd Heinrich: “Mind of the Raven” (Cliff Street Book/ Harper Collins Publishers, 1999), and “Ravens in Winter” (Vintage, 1991 – paperback). A reading of just these sources will give one a good insight into the complex, unpredictable, marvelous, and highly intelligent mind of the raven. The latter book supplied my initial source of musical ideas for what became my series of raven pieces. The first one, “Corvus Corax 1” was based on the behaviors of juvenile ravens and was created for a group of, appropriately enough, high school students in 1996. Subsequent versions and extensions (Corvus Corax 2-6) fueled by more research have evolved for groups of other musicians and performance artists with recent performances having been done in Boston (2005), Ireland (2005) and Germany (2006). In these pieces performers are asked to model raven behaviors and, in a sense, to become raven. They are fairly controlled structures for improvisation and interaction among the performers.

In addition, I have done a series of performances with the performance artist Joanne Rice (member of the Mobius Artists Group in Boston) in which we have explored, in an artist gallery, the trickster/thief side of the raven; as well as the mythological side in a quarry at sunrise in winter. A recent performance at the Mobius International Festival of Performance Art (Boston, November, 2006) of a collaboration with Rice entitled “Styx” – a play on the river of Greek mythology and well as long thin pieces of wood (we used 10,000 of them!) was directly connected to the life and death cycle which the raven is able to transcend. I have also created a performance practice, “Wednesday,” for three performers, that gets its source from the Odin legend.

In all of the works the potential mediums of performance have been expanded to include virtually any available. In addition to performance by musicians; dancers, performance artists, real-time video artists and visual artists have all taken part in some subset of these works. I like to challenge myself and others to discover methodologies that allow a diverse array of performers to participate.

Even though the connection might not be always obvious, I think, and feel, that Raven will be a source and inspiration for most, if not all of my future works. I welcome the challenge.

Corvus Corax 6: Discovering the Inner Raven

Introduction

Corvus Corax 6 is an ensemble piece for a group of performance-based artists, which explores the improvisatory and group collaboration capabilities of the group. It is largely based on the behavior of juvenile ravens as described by Bernd Heinrich in his book Ravens in Winter (Vintage Books, 1991). The common raven, Corvus corax , is a member of the crow family, the Corvidae, and has approximately 3-4 times the mass of the American crow (in New England, the Corvus brachyrhynchos ). It has far different behaviors from the crow as well. In virtually all mythologies of northern peoples the raven has assumed a position of major importance. These include those of the Nordic peoples (Odin’s two ravens Hugin and Munin - Thought and Memory respectively), the ancient Irish ( to whom the phrase “raven’s knowledge” means to see and know all), the Vikings (their battle bird), the English (numerous references in Shakespeare and “Beowulf,”), and even the ancient Hebrews (Noah sent a raven from the ark first, but it did not return). It is perhaps in Native American cultures that the raven attains the pinnacle. To the Koyukon, Kwaikiutl, Haida, and other northern tribes, the raven was no less than the creator of the world, including man, as well as the greatest trickster.

To ornithologists it is no less deserving of respect and wonderment. Its complex social patterns and behaviors are only beginning to be understood. While most of the other Corvidae, including crows, jays, and magpies, have behaviors that are codifiable and for the most part predictable and relatively simple, ravens exhibit some of the most complex behaviors and highly developed intelligence of all animals. Bernd Heinrich has spent years studying the concept of recruitment in ravens, a behavior in which ravens sometimes actively, and sometimes do not, recruit other ravens to share in food bonanzas. Because of the northern climate, these behaviors are especially significant in winter.

I have used the conclusions obtained by Heinrich as conceptual models for structuring Corvus Corax 6.

General Directions

The score is divided into three parts which, when performed, are to gradually evolve one into the other. Specific directions for each part is given in the directions to these three sections. The performers are to consider the following:
They are encouraged/asked to explore a wide and diverse sampling of performance gestures as practical/possible. (Listen to the sounds of ravens; such as recorded on the CD “Know Your Bird Sounds - Volume 2: Birds of the Countryside,” track 30, NorthWord Press, Inc., 1994, NSCD 26512; to get a small sampling of the rich variety of sounds they produce. Many others are available on the web. It is said by the Koyukon people of Alaska that if a sound is heard in the woods that the experienced woodsman cannot identify, it is assumed to have been produce by a raven.) One must, in addition, learn to control the subtleties of their chosen medium(s) such as pitch, timbre, color, shape, gesture, dynamics, rhythm, etc. of any performance gesture used.
Develop and sharpen your perceptual and awareness skills so that one can have an awareness of one’s environment in order find an appropriate and artistic place in it.
Make every gesture that you create and use in the piece an artistic/musical one. It should always be true to the directions in the score and serve the overall structure of the piece.
All gestures in the piece are essentially improvised, and could quite possibly/probably be different in every performance.

A conductor/facilitator may be used to indicate overall passage of time in the piece by indicating the beginning of the piece, by placing and retrieving “food” sources that would indicate the beginning and end of the feeding section, and by indicating when the last gesture should fade away. As the performers learn the piece and become comfortable with it and sensitive to its structure and direction, the conductor’s role may be eliminated.

I. Flying -> Searching

Pick a gesture that:
is not an extreme one
can be sustained for relatively long periods of time
is a very intimate (i.e. not flamboyant)
One must be able to make small and subtle variations in the gesture.

Each performer enters in his/her own time by performing the gesture. As a suggestion only, each performer might choose a number between 1 and 60. When the indication to begin the piece is given, the performer counts the same number of seconds as the number chosen before making an entrance.

Become aware of your gesture; observe it.

Begin to make small and subtle variations.

Become aware of other “ravens.” You may form duets/trios,...

Feel free to rest, i.e. be silent, from time to time.

After several minutes of flying begin to engage in raven activities by proceeding to II. - “Discovering Raven.”
II. Discovering Raven/ Raven Activities

Feeding

Discover “food.” Upon discovering “food” the performers have the following options:
Keep flying, i.e. “ignore” - search for better/other food.
Develop it into a gestural statement/solo.
Some suggestions about doing this:
Feed tentatively; i.e. cautiously - use snippets/short segments, silences
Feed voraciously; i.e. “ravenously!” - improvise freely based on the nature of the food. Be gluttonous, flamboyant, and/or pyrotechnical, use longer segments; but ALWAYS BE MUSICAL/ARTISTIC!
Recruitment While feeding recruit others to share in your food bonanza by using the following recruitment gesture: or action – rest – action – action – rest – action --all very short If recruited by another player, either respond by joining in his/her feeding, or ignore and continue as you were.
Stealing Find someone else’s food; listen to others feeding. Work with it. “Steal” it.
Playing Pure, free, whimsical – just for fun
Observing Observe - be silent
Keep Flying Continue the flying gesture from the first part. Try to remember where you left off and continue from that point Form duets, trios, quartets,.... Listen/Explore the environment you are creating!

III. Roosting

Make gradual transition from flying, silence or feeding gestures to a probably predefined “home.” This should be a safe place where the performer can withdraw into him/herself, but still be acutely aware of the environment.

Each performer arrives at this place in his/her own time. When all have arrived at home, the gestures should be sustained for about a minute more. Gradually fade to visual/aural silence (possibly indicated by a conductor/facilitator), each performer in his/her own time as the last breath is used up.

Prof. Tom Plsek
theorist, performer / Berklee College of Music - Boston, USA /

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