Visual symphony: Macalester hosts 'American Ledger'

Piece of old paper with writings
"American Ledger no. 1" is a narrative visual score by Pulitzer-winning Navajo artist Raven Chacon.
Courtesy Erin Robideaux Gleeson

St. Paul composer Dameun Strange has been rehearsing with a group of musicians — chopping wood, lighting matches, blowing police whistles and dropping coins — all under the guidance of a pictogram version of the American flag.

“The wood chopper was the thing I was most excited about,” Strange says. “If you think about the building of America … it really took chopping down a lot of trees and deforestation. That happens over and over and over again, so it’s repeated a few times throughout the piece.

They are preparing for a performance of “American Ledger no. 1,” a “narrative visual score” by Pulitzer-winning Navajo artist Raven Chacon. At 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, Strange will conduct an ensemble of Macalester College students and local musicians at the St. Paul college’s Janet Wallace Fine Art Center Commons.

“American Ledger no. 1” is  Chacon’s telling of the creation story of the United States of America. The New York-based artist creates these visual scores using standard musical notation combined with symbols and drawings, and then prints large-scale versions on items like army blankets, or in the case of this event, a flag.

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Person conducts in a room
St. Paul sound artist Dameun Strange conducts rehearsals of "American Ledger no. 1" with Brad Neuhauser, Stephanie Watts and Leyna Papach.
Courtesy Erin Robideaux Gleeson

“This musical score is an abstraction of the United States flag,” Chacon tells MPR News. “Taking those elements of stars and stripes and turning those into rivers and percussive notations, and some of them staying as stars tell the story of the violence that has happened on this land, and also considers what’s next.”

Each performance of his work is a unique and fluid interpretation,  Chacon says, but he will rehearse with the St. Paul group the day of the performance and attend the performance. The project-specific ensemble — Richard “Doc” Woods, Stephanie Watts, Sophia Noh, Leyna Papach, Brad Neuhauser, Alyssa Smith, Liam “Firefly” Childs, Alma Engebretson and Isaac Everhart — has been rehearsing since January.

“He’s one of my heroes in the composition world,” Strange says. “I love the space that Raven has created with the piece for interpretation as a conductor.”

Strange tapped local actor, Woods, to chop wood on cue. And Strange himself will be striking matches. For Strange, the match symbolizes three things:

“This Puritan idea of America being the city on the hill that others would aspire to around the world. It’s also made concrete in the Statue of Liberty with the torch that Lady Liberty is upholding. And then I’m thinking of the torchbearers of the Civil Rights movement.”

One moment calls for a handful of the musicians to blow on police whistles.

“This is the establishment of law and order in the country and what that means,” Strange says. “We also discussed that being in the Twin Cities, a lot of folks went back to four years ago, what happened in the summer of 2020, and how they remember police whistles being part of some of the trauma that's left over.”

The performance is part of the programming for “DEATHPOWER,” an art exhibition at the Law Warschaw Gallery which is on view through March 20. 

“Dameun brings a naturally rigorous intentionality, criticality and care to his work that charges this score with the diverse narratives of the ensemble in relation to ancestries, migrations, violences, notions of time and value and futurisms,” says curator Erin Robideaux Gleeson.

The exhibition features work by 27 local and international artists that explores “rituals of care, including placemaking for ongoing communion between the living and the dead, language in acts of mourning, transformation and regeneration, survival and the role of haunting for justice-to-come.”

Person sits with music stand and holds an axe
Local actor Richard "Doc" Woods will chop wood for the performance.
Courtesy Erin Robideaux Gleeson

Except for the performance, Chacon’s “American Ledger no. 1” flag hangs in the exhibition.

“Hanging as a flag, and through its performance, the score acknowledges the land and relatives that came before and that will remain after the nation. It reverberates with survivance — something shared in many of the works in the exhibition,” Gleeson says.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.