One of the ways we’re able to see the effects of climate change in the Arctic comes from film footage shot in the 1920s by San Rafael native Louise Boyd. Boyd used her family’s gold mining fortune to make expeditions to the North Pole in the early 20th century.
She started out mostly as a tourist, taking photos and making films about polar bear hunts, but she ended up becoming a serious scientific researcher.
Boyd’s films are remarkable today because of the changes they can show in the Arctic ice. Back in her day, they were remarkable because she was traveling and exploring at a time when women were expected to stay corseted and closeted at home.
Boyd’s story is one of many used as inspiration for “Glorious Ravage,” a new film and music performance project based around the lives of pioneering women adventurers.
The name comes from a letter British explorer Isabella Bird sent to her sister while on a voyage to Hawaii in 1874:
Monday evening, March 3rd. Sitting at the door of a hut at the end of the world…This is the height of the last and most glorious ravage, a ravage which has had no precursors as it can have no successors for I am really alone.
Isabella Bird was a daughter of aristocrats. She made many voyages all over the world before she died in 1904, venturing out when most upper class women lived constrained and predictable lives -- tied to home and family, and not much else.
Glorious Ravage composer, project leader, and musician Lisa Mezzacappa says Bird was often ill when she was at home.
“And then she would just go on a ship for three months and wind up somewhere beautiful and exciting and interesting, and she would write about how fantastic her health was,” Mezzacappa says.
Mezzacappa’s project brings together 14 instrumentalists, one vocalist, and four filmmakers for a series of live performances, all inspired by Victorian-era women adventurers like Isabella Bird.
“They wanted to go deep into the desert. They wanted to go way to the top of the mountain. They wanted to be in the heart of the jungle,” says Mezzacappa.
As a female artist, it’s a quest she understands.
“I was in my late 30s and I started reading a lot of these things,” she explains. “And I was looking around at what all the other women in my family did that is not what I did, what I do, and you think about all the choices that you make that send you in one direction or another.”
Mezzacappa plays stand-up bass. She started as a teenager on Staten Island, “jamming with guys in basements and garages -- I was always the only chick,” she recalls.
Nowadays, she’s a highly regarded experimental jazz improviser, which is kind of like being an explorer.
“The idea of adventuring is really related to improvising for me, kind of having the sense that I know I need to go somewhere -- I don't know exactly where,” she says, laughing.
At a Glorious Ravage rehearsal, Mezzacappa conducts a roomful of some of California’s top improvisers – a drummer drops lengths of chain into a small brass bowl; there’s a harmonium and a fiddle; a tangle of cables connects a laptop to an assortment of strange electronic keyboards. At the center of it is Mezzacappa, with her arms wrapped around her big bass, eyes flitting between her music stand, the players, and a nearby laptop showing one of the films that will be projected at the performance. It all has to work together -- the musicians will perform a live score for the movies.
For one section, Mezzacappa and filmmaker collaborator Konrad Steiner wanted to move away from the focus on aristocratic European travelers.
“We were really interested in trying to figure out how to find some place for these other voices of the people who were in all of these places -- Africa or in the US or any of these places where people were visiting from some kind of colonial passport,” she says.
Together, they found the writings of Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute activist and diplomat who grew up in Nevada and California in the mid-1800s. Winnemucca lectured widely, started a Native American school, and advocated for her people with the federal government.
“I found a letter of hers in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley where she was writing to the head of Indian Affairs,” Mezzacappa says. “And she's really making a fantastic case about what could have happened if only this had been done, or if only you had asked us, if only you had given us this opportunity.”
Winnemucca’s story inspired a song called “For the Dusky Mourner.” It’s a line from her book “Life Among the Piutes,” the first known autobiography written by a Native American woman.
Your so-called civilization sweeps inland from the ocean wave; but oh, my God! leaving its pathway marked by crimson lines of blood, and strewed by the bones of two races, the inheritor and the invader; and I am crying out to you for justice, — yes, pleading for the far-off plains of the West, for the dusky mourner, whose tears of love are pleading for her husband, or for their children, who are sent away from them.
Another song in the show takes the audience into the heart of early San Francisco. It’s called “City of Wonders.” It’s based on the travels of Ida Pfeiffer, an Austrian woman who visited in 1874. Pfeiffer was not impressed.
“She kind of says: well, San Francisco, it’s supposed to be the city of wonders. But this place, who would ever want to be here?” says Mezzacappa. “Only people who are only interested in money would ever hang out at a place like this. It’s all sand dunes there's no view and it's chaos.”
Mezzacappa says she sees a resonance between Pfeiffer’s account and the city today.
“She goes on with a whole list of how everything is so expensive,” Mezzacappa explains. “And it's so funny because a little bit of it mirrors a little bit of the tension -- those demographics about people who are here making a lot of money now -- and it made me feel like, maybe this is the character of this place. Rather than the exception. We always act like the next bubble is all freeloaders coming in, but maybe that’s who we are.”
Sometimes we understand who we are when we see ourselves through someone else’s eyes. And sometimes we understand ourselves when we travel far away from everything we know. In other words, when we improvise.
“You're embracing those surprises as the goal, and you’re embracing the surprises as a place where magical things can happen between people: where you can be yourself, but also someone can change your mind. And I think it’s so relevant to how people are in the world together,” says Mezzacappa. “It's really not esoteric at all -- it’s totally how we interact as humans all the time, and we just happen to do that with instruments in our hands.”
The ensemble includes Fay Victor, Nicole Mitchell, Kyle Bruckmann, Vinny Golia, Cory Wright, Darren Johnston, Michael Dessen, Dina Maccabee, John Finkbeiner, Mark Dresser, Myra Melford, Kjell Nordeson, Tim Perkis, and Jordan Glenn. Filmmaker collaborators are Alfonso Alvarez, Janis Crystal Lipzin, Kathleen Quillian, and Konrad Steiner.