Text by Jonathan Williams
Commissioned by Carnegie Hall
for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano and ensemble [flute (=picc.), bass clarinet, tuba, percussion, harp, piano, guitar, banjo, violin and double bass]
In "Death on Three-Mile Creek," Christopher Mayo resourcefully evoked Appalachian folk styles, New Orleans funeral marches and the shifting pulses of drum 'n' bass electronica in setting aphoristic eulogies by Jonathan Williams. One song had Ilana Zarankin, a soprano, vaulting to vertiginous heights over a black groan of scraped strings and pedal tones; in another Ms. Zarankin sang in intentionally ragged concord with a second soprano, Clarissa Lyons, and a mezzo-soprano, Wang Nian.
— Steve Smith, The New York Times (April 18, 2011)
Death on Three-Mile Creek was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the New Vocal Works Professional Training Workshop. It was first performed April 17, 2011 at Zankel Hall by Ilana Zarankin, Nian Wang and Clarissa Lyons conducted by Alan Pierson.
'Uncle' Jake Carpenter was born in Yancey County, North Carolina in 1833. Throughout his long life, he kept a red-backed account ledger which he called his "Jot-em-down Book" and in which he would note the deaths of local people in his own idiosyncratic version of the English language. "Franky Carpenter ag 56 did oc 25 1862 harde working womin in farm made corn oats", reads one of his notes. Another reads: "Abern Johnson ag 100.7 dide oc 15 1881 hey was farmer and ran forge to make iron and Drank lichr hs days never wars dronk in his days." Carpenter's "Jot-em-down Book" was later transcribed verbatim under the title Uncle Jake Carpenter's Anthology of Death on Three-Mile Creek and is now considered one of the most important records of nineteenth-century rural North Carolina.
The poet, essayist, photographer and publisher Jonathan Williams was born close to Three-Mile Creek in Asheville, North Carolina in 1929. He too had an interest—though he insisted it was not a morbid one—in noting the passing of friends, colleagues, enemies and strangers in his poems, essays and obituaries. His poems were his own "Jot-em-down Book" and in them he shows great insight into the lives and works of his subjects.
This work sets five of these poems, the subjects of which are as many and varied as Williams' own wide ranging tastes and interests. These subjects are, respectively, the photographer and preservationist of Chicago architecture Richard Nickel (1928-1972), the English author Denton Welch (1915-1948), the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson (ca. 1879 or 1889-1949), the English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) and the poet’s own father Ben Williams (1898-1974).
With his love of the vernacular language of rural North Carolina and his propensity for cherry-picking the best of it for use in found poetry, it is unsurprising that Jonathan Williams turned to Uncle Jake’s Anthology as the source for one of his own poems, From Uncle Jake Carpenter’s Anthology of Death on Three-Mile Creek.
dide jun 10 1871
grates dere honter
wreked bee trees for hony
cild ratell snak by 100
cild dere by thousen
i nod him well
Jonathan Williams died from pneumonia in March 2008 at his home in Highlands, North Carolina.
April 17, 2011 - Ilana Zarankin, Nian Wang and Clarissa Lyons, Alan Pierson, conductor, Dawn Upshaw and Donnacha Dennehy Young Artists Concert, Zankel Hall, New York, NY, USA