The Long Count
by Matthew Ritchie
“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball” Pete Rose, Cincinnati Reds, MVP, 1975 World Series
This is a work about the idea of beginning.
It begins with a question first asked five thousand years ago.
“How should it be sown, how should it dawn?” . . .
And an answer. “Simple words brought it forth…like a like a mist”
Aaron & Bryce Dessner were born in Cincinnati in 1976, the year the Cincinnati Reds, ‘the Big Red Machine’, beat the Yankees to win their second back-to-back World Series. The Cincinnati Reds were the first National League team to win two World Championships in row in more than fifty years (since the New York Giants in 1921 & 1922) but in the soundscape before and after the show you might catch Pete Rose discussing those historic games as if they were yesterday. Baseball is a game whose collective memory transcends linear time, “a fraternity like no other, of the living and the dead” (Richard Gilman). The Dessner brothers grew up in the shadow of a myth, populated with larger than life players like Rose, aka ‘Charlie Hustle’, ‘Catfish’ Hunter, Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee and Tony Perez, ‘the Big Dog’.
When Aaron, Bryce and I began to discuss a project for BAM, ‘Big Red Machine’ was the first title we considered for this project. Eventually their relationship to that moment and the great cyclical rituals of baseball somehow seemed a perfect, if irrational, counterpoint to my own interest in the lethal Mesoamerican ‘ball game’, a reenactment of the creation of the universe. Mayan cosmology is fourfold, quartered from the center, a diamond with a pitchers mound. Most appealingly of all, the Mayan foundational myth involves a pair of ball players known as ‘the hero twins’, who participate in the creation of a vast, millennial calendar called the Long Count.
The Long Count calendar originated in the early civilizations of Central America. Most notably, the Long Count ends, or resets, on Dec 21, 2012, a date that has long been the subject of fervent new age speculation. One book claims the Earth’s magnetic poles will switch, destroying life as we know it. Another says a new age of enlightenment will begin as we enter the Fifth Age, the Age of Ether. An upcoming movie proposes that when the solar ecliptic lines up with the immense black hole slowly spinning at the center of the Milky Way, (the “Black Road” to Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld) the world will end. Typically the idea of an ending fascinates our culture more than the idea of a beginning. But as you might expect, the narrative of the Long Count, which uses a counting system based on non-repeating sequences of 13 day numbers and 20 day names that combine to form a divinatory 260-day calendar that simultaneously represents the transit of Venus, the length of a typical pregnancy and the growth cycle of corn, also transcends mere linear time.
The story of the hero twins and how the Long Count began is found in a narrative poem called the Popol Vuh (the Council Book, or the Light that came from beside the Sea) that describes the time before time, the purest creative space of all. It begins as a debate between creators wondering how they can ‘sow’ the universe and produce ‘the bright design’. It’s inhabitants are shape-changers, cosmic ideas and forces incarnated as players, operating under a set of rules so arcane even the gods do not pretend to understand them, like baseball it “creates the magnetic, addictive illusion that it can almost be understood.” (Thomas Boswell). The hero twins are children of another set of twins. The head of their father is sent back from hell as a calabash fruit and impregnates their mother. They encounter and defeat two more sets of brothers and all this happens before the story really even gets going. A rousing spirit of improvisation underlies the entire poem. Part farmers almanac, part cosmology, it is an anti-narrative, constantly reformulating itself with minor changes, as close to the idea of music as story can be.
We were obviously never going to attempt to literally tell the story of the Popol Vuh, anymore than we were going replay the 1975 and 1976 World Series. But the idea of a game before, or beyond, time became the armature that allowed us to discuss the difficult premise of sharing ideas between disciplines. A basic dialogue was established with cesuras, fratricidal rivalries, mirror sequences, delayed crescendos, terraced dynamics, fatal games and broken symmetries being deployed through the semasiographic (or picture languages) of music and drawing. I provided a pooled text to be shared with the singer-songwriters, even now remaining inevitably unfinished and open. As in the text and the games, in the film and music a few essential ideas are quartered, folded and unpacked over and over again. Like the clock of a baseball game, The Long Count is independent of conventional time, a self-organizing system, a hypercycle, without beginning or end. The historical ‘Long Count’ begins only at the very end of the performed Long Count, with the utterance of the word ‘one’.
In the Long Count the notion of mirroring is exaggerated by having the various twins ‘played’ both by Aaron & Bryce Dessner and by identical twins Kim & Kelley Deal. Legends in their own right, the Deals bring with them another history, the creation of alternative rock; through their involvement with the Pixies, The Amps, The Last Hard Men and the Breeders. The set and films, generated from animated drawings by the animator Nick Roth, place the twins inside another mirror, the fundamental asymmetric condition of time that begins with an anomaly known in physics as ‘charge parity violation’ or the CP Mirror that leads inexorably to ‘the arrow of time’, the entropic decay of the universe. As the twins play on, worlds are created and destroyed around them. Floods and severed heads, mirrors and knives, images from Popol Vuh that connect to myths from every culture are projected, all tightly edited to the music. Like the narrative, the films are not so much out of sequence as beyond sequence, beyond linear time.
Throughout the piece, catchphrases and fragments of both the games and the story are used as counterpoints and motifs between the various performers drawing on the pooled narrative.
Our version of the ‘story’ begins with the historic recording of the 1976 World Series, interspersed with fragments of text. In ‘Ninth’ Shara Worden plays Venus, the morning star, singing at the dawn of the world, when “simple words brought it forth like a mist.” The wordless ‘Long Summer’ and ‘Games’ introduce the twins at play. ‘When Yer Born’ and ‘Bull Run’ locate the relationship of the two sets of twins to each other and the creation of the failed prototypes of human beings mentioned in the Popol Vuh. “We can go, go, go,” sings Kim Deal, quoting Denny Doyle in the 1975 world series, who thought he heard the Sox third-base yelling “Go, go, go!” “No, no, no, this has not worked out well”, sings Kelley Deal in Bull Run, recalling that in reality, Zimmer was screaming, “No! No! No!” and also referencing the destruction of three worlds, or designs, before our own.
In ‘Dry Creek’ the world is flooded with blood and cleansed of the gods’ failures for the last time. The stage is set for the twins to confront the idea of singularity, ‘Seven Macaw’, a Lucifer-like pseudo-deity, (astronomically representing the Big Dipper), played by Shara Worden. “I am the sun and the moon”, claims the Macaw in ‘Long Autumn’. With the help of the ensemble the players create a triumphant percussive storm that topples the Macaw and wakes the lords of the underworld, as the twins go on to confront the ultimate singularity, death itself. In ‘Tests’ and ‘Aheym’, the twins defeat death, eliminating all rival forms of counting and enumeration, by surviving a series of contests, like the razor house, where blades float endlessly seeking victims. To do this, they have to die and be resurrected. ‘Tests’ is sung by Matt Berninger playing One Death, who appears framed by the center of the Milky Way, the “Black Road” to Xibalbá. Shara Worden returns once more as Venus (in it’s last incarnation, the evening star) to sing ‘Long Winter’. Corn, the sign of the twins resurrection, is revealed. In book three of the Popol Vuh, it is corn that will be used by the gods as the flesh of humanity, the ‘bright design’. The twins pass through the final tests and out of this world in ‘Aheym’ (or Homeward) and initiate the great Mayan calendar by becoming the sun and the moon. The world is ready for humanity. Time becomes sequential and temporal asymmetry in the universe is established. The future is revealed.
It’s the Long Count.
“It got late real early.”
—Yogi Berra on the 1976 World Series
Song Titles in Order of Performance
- Long Summer
- When Yer Born
- Bull Run
- Dry Creek
- Long Autumn
- Long Winter
- Long Count
Matthew Ritchie’s installations of paintings, texts, wall drawings, light boxes, sculptures and projections are investigations of the idea of information; explored through science, architecture, history and the dynamics of culture. His work has been exhibited in numerous exhibitions worldwide, including the Whitney Biennial, the Sao Paulo Bienal, the Sydney Biennale, the Venice Architecture Biennale, the Seville Biennale and the Havana Bienal. In 2008 Ritchie created ‘The Morning Line’, an innovative interactive architectural structure designed in collaboration with Bryce Dessner, architects Aranda\Lasch and Arup’s Advanced Geometry Unit to explore the possibility of a visual operating language for the universe and to use that language to create a new type of sonic environment.
Aaron Dessner is a New York based songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer, best known as a member of the Grammy Award-nominated rock band The National. Dessner has also made a name for himself as an influential producer, working with some of the most talented and respected musicians in the rock world. Most recently, Aaron produced Lisa Hannigan’s new album At Swim (2016), Frightened Rabbit’s Painting Of A Panic Attack (2016) and This Is The Kit’s Bashed Out (2015), which was hailed by many as the band’s break-through album and was named BBC 6’s 2015 Album of the Year. He also worked on The Lone Bellow’s Then Came the Morning (2015), Luluc’s Passerby (2014), Local Natives’ Hummingbird (2013), Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp (2012) and Doveman’s The Conformist (2009). Other production credits include the Red Hot Organization’s AIDS charity compilation Dark Was The Night (2009) and the follow-up Day of the Dead (2016), both of which were created, curated and produced by Aaron and his brother Bryce. Day of the Dead is a wide-ranging tribute to the songwriting and experimentalism of the Dead which took four years to record, features over 60 artists from varied musical backgrounds, 59 tracks and is almost 6 hours long. All profits will help fight for AIDS/ HIV and related health issues around the world through the Red Hot Organization. Aside from his work as a producer, Aaron co-founded and curated the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival and Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. He is also a co-curator of the bi-annual Boston Calling Music Festival.
Bryce Dessner is one of the most sought-after composers of his generation, with a rapidly expanding catalog of works commissioned by leading ensembles. His orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions have been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), Kronos Quartet, BAM Next Wave Festival, Barbican Centre, Edinburgh International Festival, Sydney Festival, eighth blackbird, So Percussion, New York City Ballet, and many others. Recently Dessner was tapped to compose music for Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, The Revenant, which received a 2016 Golden Globes nomination for Best Original Score. Recordings include Aheym, a Kronos Quartet disc devoted to his music (Anti- ); St. Carolyn by the Sea on Deutsche Grammophon, with the Copenhagen Phil under Andre de Ridder; and Music for Wood and Strings, an album-length work performed by Sō Percussion (Brassland). Dessner’s music – called “gorgeous, full-hearted” by NPR and “vibrant” by The New York Times – is marked by a keen sensitivity to instrumental color and texture.
Matt Berninger is the lead singer and lyricist for the Grammy Award-nominated rock band The National. Matt’s haunting baritone delivers The National’s emotionally honest lyrics which deal in matters fraught, funny and sad. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Matt formed The National with fellow Ohio transplants in 2000. In 2014 he formed the EL VY project with Brent Knopf of Ramona Falls & Menomena and they released the album Return to the Moon in November 2015.
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