Songs of California (an acapella cantata for 12 singers)

From a live performance by Chanticleer, Herbst Theater, San Francisco, 1991. Excerpt from the third movement (Ishi), and excerpt from the last movement (John Muir).

Songs of California
an acapella cantata for twelve singers

(based on the words of
Juniperro Serra, Collis P. Huntington,
Ishi, Joe Hill, 
Cesar Chavez, and John Muir)

Duration: 15' 


"Songs of California" portrays some of the relentless forces that have shaped California's history---forces of greed and courage, sacrifice and exploitation, religion, revolution, progress and destruction. The text is based on the words of six men who are part of California's past and present. The piece was commissioned by Chanticleer, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Composer-In-Residence Program. It is in five movements as follows:

I. From Majorca to Monterey—Juniperro Serra founded the California missions. Of his first sighting of the Indians, he wrote, "I saw that which I can hardly believe, their going naked as Adam in Paradise, before sin." The music depicts a meeting of the "neophyte" converts. Their tendency to stray away from the new teaching and return to their own ways is symbolized by the emergence of owl calls.

II. From Sacramento to Washington D.C.—Collis P. Huntington rose from a Connecticut hardware dealer to the dominant railroad tycoon of the West. He forged the first transcontinental railroad, then proceeded to strangle California with monopolist strategies. Unlike his flamboyant partner Stanford, he did not enjoy being in the public eye, nor was he given to philanthropy. His attitude about government was: "They have their laws and we have our railway." The music rushes forward like a Central Pacific steam engine.

III. From Waganupa to the Museum of Anthropology—In 1911, an emaciated Indian was discovered on the outskirts of a California mining town. He was the last of the Yahi, a tribe that had been destroyed by conflicts with miners during the Gold Rush. An anthropologist gave him the name "Ishi", which means "man" in Yahi, and provided him with a home in a San Francisco museum. Ishi spent his last years learning the ways of twentieth century technology and teaching anthropologists about his lost people. When asked if he would like to return to his homeland, he replied, "No. It is dead there. I want to stay where I am." The music was suggested by Ishi's own songs, recorded shortly before he died of tuberculosis in 1916.

IV. From the Factories to the Fields—Joe Hill and Cesar Chavez represent two eras in the California labor movement. The music is simple and straightforward, in the manner of a folk song, and refers to actual picket line melodies.

Seeking a better life, Joe Hill emigrated from Sweden to America in 1901. He made his way across the country, always chasing the job. Seeing the abysmal treatment of workers was no better in California than it had been back East, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World and became a voice for the labor movement, writing new words to popular tunes for every strike, action, and rally. At the age of thirty-six, he was arrested on a trumped-up murder charge, convicted and executed. In his final words, he wished good luck to those who would continue the struggle.

Cesar Chavez, born of a Mexican-American farming family in Arizona, worked in the California fields and emerged as the leader of the struggle for the rights of agricultural workers. An admirer of the philosophy of Ghandi, he fervently believes in non-violent resistance as the only moral way to bring about change. His dedication, faith and hard work led to the formation of the United Farm Workers and have resulted in the nation's first table-grape labor contract and regulations prohibiting the use of pesticides such as DDT.

V. From the Valley to the Pinnacles—John Muir, was born in the Scottish hills, but felt a passion for California's Sierra Nevada. His all-encompassing involvement and dedication to nature spanned the scientific and transcendental, the literary and adventurous, the social and political. He founded the Sierra Club and fought successfully for the protection of Yosemite Valley. Nevertheless, he was defeated in his final battle. In 1913, President Wilson signed a bill authorizing the daming of the Hetch Hetchy, converting what Muir considered a "cathedral" into an ugly water trough. Muir once said, "There must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls. The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. Be of good cheer."

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