Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Symposium interview with Laurie Spiegel

The following is the full text of an interview with Shimer alum and visionary electronic composer Laurie Spiegel ('67), conducted by Shimer professor Barbara Stone on November 23, 2003.  Spiegel came to Shimer via the college's early entrance program,  and later further broadened her horizons through the Oxford study abroad program.

This interview was published in the Symposium in 2004, but until now only a partial version has been available online.  Republished by the kind permission of Laurie Spiegel and Shimer College.



B (Barbara): How far back does your composing and music go?

 L (Laurie): My grandmother from Lithuania played mandolin and she gave me one when I was about 9. I had a plastic ukulele when I was little, but I wasn't one of those kids who studied music all through childhood. I just messed around with instruments. I improvised and made things up. I just always loved music. My sister and I had about 6 piano lessons, but our father had migraine headaches and couldn't bear to hear kids practicing and playing wrong notes. It just wasn't feasible in our house. I saved up from odd jobs and got myself a guitar when I was fourteen and then a banjo.

When it was time to think about college, everyone in high school asked "What do you want to do when you grow up?" When I said  "Music. I love music best." they all said "No. Too late for that. You haven't studied it. That's only for people who started much younger." So I accepted I'd just be an amateur who loved music very much but would be either an academic intellectual or a writer.

While at Shimer, I began trying to teach myself enough notation to be able to write down bits of music I'd made up so I wouldn't forget them. In England, after the Shimer-in-Oxford program in '66-7, I decided to stay an extra year and took private lessons in theory, counterpoint, composition and classical guitar. I ended up playing all the plucked instruments. I loved to play music at Shimer, as people did then and I hope still do now.

At one point when I was trying to write down some music I had made up in order not to forget it, one of the three Oxford students sharing that house said, "You know, they call that 'composing'." I'd never have been so presumptuous as to think I was actually composing, but by definition apparently I was. I talked to the guitarist and composer Jack (John. W.) Duarte in London and he took me on as a student. He told me, "Well, you know, composing is not a mystery. It's something that you practice like you practice guitar and if you want to learn to compose music, you should practice writing something down every day. It doesn't matter if you throw it away..."

B: How do you compose music? Do you hear it first? Do you write it?

S: I go back and forth. In music, they often say that there are two approaches, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Schoenberg would sit there in a quiet room without an instrument, without a piano, and from his mind, his preconceptions, his imagination and his intellect, he would write out a piece in silence and then hear it played only much later. Stravinsky, on the other hand, would sit down at the piano, start to play something, hit a wrong note, get fascinated by the direction the wrong note was leading and basically just work with the sounds. I've done both but I tend toward the latter. I pick up an instrument or start messing around with electronic sounds. I'm very much an improviser and always have been. I also do a lot of preparatory work, sometimes writing an entire computer program so that I can interact live, in real time, with the sound and see where it leads me. Sometimes I do something completely preconceived like realizing Kepler's "Harmony of the Planets" or translating a genetic sequence into music, but predominantly I'm an improviser. I almost never pick up any instrument, whether I've played it before or not, without finding some sound in it that leads me to more sound and then I follow it where it goes. It's this bizarre combination of active and passive in which people say that they feel as though some spirit has possessed them and they are just a vehicle for the work to come through, although it actually is just some unknown cognitive process. Jack Duarte in London described composition as "improvising slowed down with a chance to edit out the bad parts." I never like to do the same thing twice. I'm not one who finds a successful formula and then follows it. I'm all over the map.

B: What do you mean by that? If somebody puts Mozart on, chances are it will be recognized as Mozart, or someone from the same era.  I think of that as similar to a signature or personal style.

S: People have told me that I have a certain personal style but I don't see it myself. I might write something that's a Renaissance piece in the style of Dowland or some motets in species counterpoint or I might use electronic sounds that are almost unpitched, just textures and densities, but people say it all sounds like me anyway. What we consider recognizable style might be described in terms of Shannon's information theory (which I like a lot), such as the rate at which you make changes, the rate at which new information is introduced, the curves in variation density leading up to climaxes, how the timbre and the loudness and the pitch change in relation to each other, all on a sensory and cognitive processing level. If you hear Bach you can always recognize Bach. It has something to do with the rates of change, the degree of parallel processing, and of course he has an incredible ability to be completely active on the emotional, intellectual, sensual and symbolic-associative levels all at once. Bach is one of my idols.

B: Do you use a musical score in the same way as Bach?

S: He was a traditionalist in his own time. One problem I had more than many musicians was that because I started late and lacked traditional musical skills, the rate at which I could write things down did not keep up with the rate at which things evolved in my imagination. This is a major problem for temporal media like music or video or film or any art that unfolds over time. It's bad enough writing words as your mind gets ahead of what you're writing. But in music you may have many parallel streams of information getting ahead of how fast you can write. One thing that computers allow and part of why I got involved with them is that they let you work directly with sounds rather than just a symbolic notation for them. I started using computers to make music in 1973, before you could interact in real time with digitally synthesized sounds. Computers were too slow back then. This was considerably before the Apple II generation of computers.

I figured I'd try to automate anything I could about my own decision-making processes while composing to be freer to focus on the aspects of the process that could not be automated. For example, you can code an algorithm (a logical process) that describes how to get roughly an equal stereo balance between two audio channels. You can always go back and edit the result later, but you've delegated stereo balancing. So you can now focus on phrasing and pitches and other stuff that you can't automate as easily. Eventually I had the computer basically taking care of all of the notes, right up through four-part harmony. We began calling such computer programs "intelligent instruments", and my Mac program "Music Mouse" is an example.

I started working with computers at Bell Labs in the early 70s because I felt I needed to know more and was lucky enough to work in the lab of Max Mathews, the Director of Acoustic Research for Bell Telephone Labs. He's a wonderful and brilliant man. He characterized intelligent instruments as those with better than a one to one ratio between the performance information you put in and the sonic information that comes out. You do that by picking relatively small numbers of relatively powerful variables to control musical sound. In contrast, traditional composing involves decisions about zillions of weak variables: this note is the pitch A, the next C, the next one E. Instead, you might just stipulate that the next twenty notes will have pitches from an A minor chord and I don't care what order they are in. So now I have a cloud of music that covers the next twenty notes with this harmony and I can focus on a melody or rhythm or timbre...

B: What is the relationship between a traditional written score and the music on one of your CDs?

S: It's like the difference between a play and a novel. A play is a set of instructions that are meant to be realized, performed, by a group of people to be properly experienced. But a novel needs only your private mind and you imagine the voices, the dialogue and everything else. In the old days, before humans could record sound, the only way to record music was by writing down the set of instructions for others to play it, to turn it into sound. Now you can just record the sound itself for anyone to play back. The reason I still write music on paper is because of how wonderful it feels to play music yourself. I prefer to write pieces that are for one player at home, rather than concert virtuoso pieces for performance in front of an audience. Even though concerts are wonderful experiences, the big deal for me is that a lone individual can play music, whether on a CD player or a guitar, just for the experience of playing and hearing it.  I love to just sit down and read scores on an instrument. I can spend hours and hours doing this when I can find the time.
 I got into technology in part because I fell madly in love with it, but also it let me use cleverness and my intellect to make up for my lack of early classical training. It let me get to a point where I could put out recorded music and get jobs doing soundtracks within a relatively short amount of time. Initially I learned composing by writing music down on paper that I never got to hear. I began learning much faster when I could turn my pieces into sound using technology because of the immediate auditory feedback.

Another reason I went into electronic music was that I'd leaf through my records, looking for the thing I wanted to hear and it wouldn't be there. So I had to make it myself. I've always been a do-it-yourselfer, and some kinds of music were just easier to make one than to find. It's like going in the kitchen and cooking something rather than going to a restaurant. I really fell in love with sounds. Sounds are amazing.

Getting back to composing, there's another way to look at it, another one of these wonderful little dichotomies: additive versus subtractive. Traditional music is made by additive processes. You write a note, then another, and another, and then you put another voice against it. You add lots of little, tiny components that hopefully form into the gestalt of a large experience. Having worked with analog synthesizers before I went to computers, I tend more toward subtractive processes. I'll program a big, wild, full, rich texture with many different levels and then sculpt it down with filters and attenuators in order to be able to let it build up as a composition over time by bringing things back in and opening up the various audible apertures. It's more like a sculptor at work with a large block of marble finding the Michelangelo sculpture that's inside.

B: How has the technology changed since your work at Bell Labs?

S: Initially, vast new conceptual and acoustic vistas were opened by the new technology. Then, as it became more commercialized and product oriented, it became more and more conventional. Now it's ordinary for everybody to use computers to simulate a piece of paper, a tape recorder or a variety of additive processing models. Those models have been moved forward to some degree, hybridized with new techniques, but in general things have reverted to older methods. When I started doing this it was almost inevitable that just about everything would go wrong because everybody was doing everything for the first time. There were no software engineers making tools for artists. Artists were trying to learn the technology to make the tools they needed in order to realize visions that they had no way to create. When I began, the whole purpose of new tools was to work in new ways with new materials, not just labor saving or speed for old ways.

One of my worst periods creatively was after I'd been working at Bell Labs for seven years when they replaced the computers I'd been using with new ones not capable of the same things. Instead of having one computer all to yourself during your scheduled time on it so you could do real time audio, the new time-sharing system swapped itself back and forth between simultaneous users. All of the software I had written was obsolete and I was without tools. After a period of mostly writing unheard notes on paper again, I got an Apple II and I got into the personal computer revolution, a wonderful time. This period in the late 70s was exciting and fun, and involved a lot of idea sharing, but there was a period there where I just didn't have the tools I needed.

B: Looking around your studio, there's lots of electronic equipment but I'm struck by the number of stringed instruments.

S: I love stringed instruments. There's nothing like picking up an instrument and touching it and having it respond with sound.  I play just about every day, at least one or two different instruments. I really love them. It's like vitamins. But there was a major revolution that I was part of, bringing new technology to music. Initially there was a lot of resistance to electronic technology in music.  Back then, people said computers would completely dehumanize music. They had the science fiction image of computers from the fifties and early sixties, when computers had the connotation of belonging only to the government, and the military and being an oppressive force. (This was before personal computers.) Now this revolution is accomplished, and instead of having to explain why you are using electronic technology to do any kind of creative art, you would have to explain why you're not. The default now is that everyone uses computers in all the arts and in a way that frees me to go back to playing my guitar and banjo.

B: Can you say something about how you came to Shimer?

S: Probably one of the best things that ever happened to me was finding a little article in the Chicago Tribune that mentioned that you could go to Shimer without finishing high school. This was at a point when I was desperate to get away from home. I discovered that Shimer was a place where people were really into ideas and cared about things, not just the superficial things that people were into in high school. Back in the early, early sixties, things were very up-tight and girls were expected to be into makeup and clothes and to want to date varsity football players, get married and live happily ever after. In contrast, I was passionately into the arts and politics and philosophy and literature and read just all the time and was inventing and making things up and drawing and writing and playing guitar. I didn't fit in at my large public high school, so Shimer was great for me. It was the first time I felt that there was a place for me in the world, where I actually kind of belonged.

B: Did you play music at Shimer?

S: I played guitar and banjo a lot.

B: Did you play with others?

S: Not often. I always loved jamming with others but I seem constitutionally incapable of playing anything the same way twice. The improviser in me always wants to take off and run in my own direction. I almost never have the discipline to memorize a piece of music. I like to just read through a score then go on to read the next one or to improvise.

B: A totally different approach than preparation for a concert?

S: Yeah, a completely different mindset. I never wanted to rehearse. I'd always want to change a line or harmony or take off on some riff instead of perfecting something already decided, but I love playing with other people and I still do once in a while.

B: Was there a time when you did a lot of performances?

S: In the early seventies, when I first began officially studying music and got a lute. I ended up being an onstage lutenist for Jacobean revenge tragedies and Elizabethan plays. I even played classic guitar once in Alice Tully Hall. I also did lots of little gallery concerts in the "downtown" experimental music scene. But I always felt extremely nervous. I could never sleep the night before a concert. Composing was just much more "me" than performing. It was private.

B: You're originally from Chicago. How did you get to New York?

S: New York was as close to being half-way between Chicago and England as I could get without drowning in the Atlantic. Also, New York is just about the world's information capital, and the arts are informational media.  I really like being in a place where, if I'm doing an all-nighter, I can look out the window and there are all these other lights on and I know that lots of other people are awake too. When I got here from Oxford, the only jobs I could get were about "How fast can you type?" I thought, "This is ridiculous. Why don't I just give music a one year real try?" I did and by the end of the year, I had a job teaching music at a community college, was doing little soundtrack jobs and performing around the city.  I was actually earning a living doing music. It was kind of amazing.

Under my first New York apartment (for about forty six dollars a month - in the Lower East Side before it was the "East Village"), a group used to rehearse jazz in the basement. One of them told me that anyone could take courses at Julliard in their open extension division, and if you did well, they had to let you into the regular division classes. I went and started acing ear training and all that stuff because I already had a pretty good ear and I was taking four-part dictation by my second semester.  Eventually I got an MA in Composition. This was still pretty rare for women back then.

What this should show you is never to let anybody tell you that you can't do something you want to do. People can only tell you what's been done before but they can't tell you what's possible because what's possible includes the entire scope of everything that hasn't been done before. You can always be the exception. If you want to do something, go for it. Don't give up before you even start. Otherwise I would not have gone into music, which I love and have done all my adult life. Nonetheless, I still don't feel entirely comfortable saying "I am a composer" because it's got all of these horrible 19th century dead white men connotations. But in fact that's what I've done.

B: I know you've kept up with some Shimer people. Did you get to know Dan Sandin while you were a student?

S: Oh yeah, Dan and I were buddies at Shimer. At that point he was studying chemistry and I was doing social sciences. We never dreamed that he would go into video synthesis and I would compose electronic music. We've done a number of collaborations and will continue doing them. He's working on a new film right now and I'm planning to do the soundtrack. I did some sounds for a virtual reality environment that he did recently. Dan is wonderful. For anyone at Shimer reading this interview, don't worry too much about what you're going to do after Shimer. It'll happen, and it may not be anything you could predict because it may not be something that has been done before.

I would've loved to have seen him and others at the Reunion, but I was sick and under pressure with various projects. There's a lot of pressure. I mean, the creative life is like never having left school. You have to be very self-disciplined. There are always deadlines, long projects with many stages that you have to stay on top of. It's like having never-ending term papers to get done on time.

B: Is the pressure due to all the imaginative ideas, or is it supporting yourself and outside pressures?

S: Great question. There is certainly always internal pressure from new ideas and imagination, and the need to resist it in order to actually complete the works that seem most worth realizing. There is also a lot of outside pressure. Once you become known for something that's wanted, the world keeps coming back to you for more stuff like the stuff you've done in the past despite how much you want to go on and explore new things. You need to be better at saying "No" than I am. The works you've put out already are like perpetual children. They need follow-up care. There are always people coming to you wanting to do something for works created years ago. They need documentation and information, liner notes, program notes, pictures... They need you to listen to them play a score to be sure they're playing it the way you intended. There are often gigantic time lags between composing and performance or recording. Someone visited last week who plans to do my harpsichord piece on a CD, so I had to do a whole bunch of work on and about a piece that I hadn't thought about in a dozen years. This kind of thing obviously holds back new works. In fields that make more money, like my upstairs neighbor who is a very successful sculptor, or people whose music is more commercial than mine, you may be able to hire people to take care of a lot of this stuff, and in the old days publishers would take care of such work for composers. But at this point, and especially for experimental music, you have to take care of everything yourself. Trying to find the time for the creative work is always a problem. It's a toss up between finishing touches for old works versus going with new ideas. This is a perpetual conflict for me, and then of course life takes a lot of time.

B: One often talks about artistic movements or schools -the op artists, the pop artists and the abstract expressionists - is there a movement that you consider yourself a part of or is it something you even think about?

S: I don't really think that way. I have friends who are composers and artists of all kinds. There was a period in the 70s when I was often grouped with the minimalists, though I didn't really consider myself one. Steve Reich and Terry Riley and many others are people I knew and was inspired by, and some of us still try to keep each other inspired. Terry Riley was often considered to have initially inspired both Phil Glass and Steve Reich, and Terry also got me my first CD contract. And then of course John Fahey, who was a friend, was a towering figure of the whole acoustic instrument revival and for what's now called "world music". It's really hard to say but today it's much more a case of individuals with whom I have musical or intellectual things in common than any kind of artistic movement. Earlier, in the 60s and 70s composed music was dominated by very bleak, dry, intellectual aesthetics like serialism, and we were all forced to write atonal music in music school. I was part of the "movement" to bring back tonality, motor rhythm, sensuality, and a sense of flow to music. It was a battle, as was bringing the use of computers into music and art. I have many colleagues who are allies and good friends from the era when there were just a handful of us trying to do each of these things and to bring other changes into being. But at this point there isn't anything that I'm part of other than a world full of many people like me who love music of many kinds and all the arts and sciences and ideas too, and who care about people, animals, the world.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, April 16, 2012

Graduation speech by Adrian Nelson (2011)

Good afternoon, everyone.

After wondering what kind of point or message this speech might have, I settled for a simple expectation – that everybody might hear me. Because that’s often been a frustration of mine, and so I’d like to spare you that, and my desire for you is no more than that you are able to hear me.

Oddly enough, I think my hearing disability has made me a better listener. In a school centered on spoken dialogue, I’ve had to work to hear and focus just a little harder than most, and this has made me pay more attention than I might have otherwise. I was never quite certain why they elected a hard-of-hearing person to take the notes of everything that is said at a Shimer Assembly, but my hearing loss has challenged me to listen. And that’s how I’ve experienced Shimer classes, and dialogue on a larger level – we need to listen as much as we need to speak.

So what have I heard here at Shimer? I can’t presume to speak for the experience of others. I can only speak fully to my own experience. But perhaps some part of my experience here will touch on your own Shimer experience. So much of what I’ve learned, and what’s changed me, has come from the mouths – or the words – of others. My first year at Shimer, someone told me that they couldn’t understand who I was. I don’t think I replied to them then, because I didn’t have an answer. It was the beginning of a process of ruthless self-examination throughout my time at Shimer. It left the question: “And who am I?” the one I asked myself after every text, or class, or conversation. And while Shimer is very good at getting you to ask questions, it usually remains silent on any definitive answer. I’ve only temporarily replied to myself: I change.

Change has, perhaps ironically enough, been the one consistency throughout my time here. Not just myself: the people I know change, Shimer changes, the world changes. And yet who I am now doesn’t seem too different from the person who went to bed last night. It’s only looking back throughout my time at Shimer, and especially at Shimer’s curriculum, that I can begin to have an idea of the changes that occurred. In a tutorial on Plato’s Republic I came across the concept of paideia, which, to take Heidegger’s translation of Plato, means “that which leads to turning the whole [person] around in [her or his] nature or essence.” What I took it to mean was a way of learning and examining oneself, turning around to look at one’s former position and, by comparison, see how one has changed, how one was, and what one has become. I take the books in the Shimer curriculum as anchors for my own paideia. When I look back at the books I have read, I can recall how I was, and how I am now. I can attach some of my changes to the ideas that they provided me, and the ways in which I drew them into my life.

The first book that arrested me was the Nagel and Newman book on Gödel’s Proof. We read this in Integrative Studies 2 as part of our study of the fundamentals of math and logic. Not to spoil it too much for those of you who haven’t read this thriller, but Gödel ends up proving that a mathematical system will remain fundamentally incomplete – it cannot prove itself with its own terms. From this comes the conclusion that all systems need axioms – unproven statements taken as true. I extended this into the realm of Shimer dialogue: all arguments have assumptions. Part of my task in discussion and reading became to search for the assumptions, my own as well as others’. From knowing the assumptions, I hoped, I could know what common ground – or not – that we, in dialogue, stood on.

Searching for that common ground of understanding led me through the logical realm and out again, emerging into fiction with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This came up in Humanities 2 during our study of fiction and drama, and again in a tutorial of American women writers. Hurston’s is a beautiful novel that follows the journey of Janie Crawford’s self-discovery through her marriages, her homes and the joys and disasters which befall her. This was the book that started my thinking about fiction as a vehicle for meaning; as much philosophy could be contained in a narrative as in a treatise or essay. There were so many layers to Hurston’s book: the story itself and the beauty of the prose first and foremost; then the themes and ideas, the metaphors that broke on me with astonishing clarity because they seemed so right. In the middle of the book Janie likens human beings’ search for love with mud-balls tumbling into one other, deaf and dumb mud-covered shards that were broken by jealous angels from the original shining human being. I could understand that. I could understand the fumbling way in which we try to reach out to each other, so many times missing or colliding too hard, but sometimes seeing the spark in each other. With Hurston I could find meaning in story, life revealed without carefully reasoned systems or logic. I began to see how much the search for meaning in the world played a role in each text that we read. No matter the subject or the author, it seemed to me that each writer tried to fill the world with meaning, to have it make a little more sense than it did before. Perhaps this, I thought, was part of human nature. Perhaps I could understand others this way.

Up until this point, I’d had a fairly strong – if perhaps naïve – faith in the general goodness of human nature. This was abruptly shattered as I entered my third year and took an elective in Feminist Theories. I was shaken out of ignorance and complacency to the realities of sexism, racism, and so many other -isms of hatred in the world. That these systems existed and were continued by human beings seemed unfathomable, and yet I could not deny their reality. While I was picking up the pieces of my former worldview, I came across Judith Butler, whose essays in Undoing Gender offered me a new place to start. In one essay, she talks about grief and desire, and how we as human beings can never be fully autonomous of one another. She says: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.” It hit me then that no matter how I begin to define myself, there is a part of me that is defined by others, just as I also shape other people by my reactions or interactions with them. When we love or we grieve for another, we lose control, we are beside ourselves; it is a fundamental dispossession of self, but also the beginnings of change. We might hurt each other terribly, or we might know and feel each other on the deepest level, and work to create a world that all of us can live in. I began to see, stemming from the earlier search for meaning, the possibility of human creative power. My fundamental assumptions began to shift; a faith in general goodness turned into a faith in human creativity and meaning. I had to acknowledge our terrible capacity for evil action, but also our drive to transform the world into one more meaningful and livable for all of us.

The necessity of balancing the light and dark sides of human nature was driven home when I came to study Carl Jung for an Oxford tutorial during my last year. Jung’s psychology focuses on acknowledging the shadow sides of our nature, the parts we’d rather deny and leave buried in our closets, and bringing it into balance with the rest of our consciousness. That brought new perspectives on the forces I’d been struggling with the past year. Jung, too, is a great believer in human creative power, acknowledging in his autobiography that, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Human consciousness takes us beyond simply existing and imbues the world with meaning – through dreams and symbols, through myths and stories, through being able to turn around and look at oneself and ask: “Who am I?” Jung is able to take a great deal of different cultures and traditions and synthesize them into his overall psychological theories and practice. While some might argue – fairly – that this takes cultural symbols out of their context, that act of synthesis is one I have practiced at Shimer. We read so many different, and often disparate, texts and authors that it is up to us to draw them (or not) into a unity for ourselves. For me, the unifying thread tying everything I’ve read together has been a human search for meaning, or, as Wallace Stevens puts it, a “blessed rage for order… the maker’s rage to order the words of the sea.” While I don’t wish to take authors and their texts out of their contexts, part of their meaning for me does come from how I am able to integrate them into my own being and life.

Without Shimer, none of this process would have happened. Without a doubt, I am who I am right now thanks to Shimer, and the thousands of opportunities it has given me and opened up for me. Through the books that we read, the dialogue with which we learn, and the governance in which we participate, Shimer has given me a sense of my own potential, my own ability to know and understand, and my place in the world. My journey until now has been largely one of ideas and words, and now comes the time to attach them to reality. This year a great multitude of paths rolled themselves out at my feet, and I stand at a crossroads; what remains is my choice.

In the end, I think my goal has been to be able to connect with people – to listen and hear them, to understand them, maybe even understand them as they understand themselves, as much as this is possible. At Shimer I have had the medium of a shared curriculum to facilitate this. Now out in the world I will work with other mediums and other understandings, whether that is religion or food or politics. But what Shimer has given me is the understanding that such connections are possible.

Thank you.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Valedictory address by Winona Branch (1871)

Winona Branch Sawyer was one of the ten members of Shimer's graduating class of 1871. She served as one of the first members of the new Board of Trustees of the Frances Shimer Academy in 1896. 

Mrs. Sawyer's speech to the class of 1895 has previously been published on this blog.  Here we present the speech she gave as valedictorian at her own graduation, on June 13, 1871.  The preceding year had seen the breaking of the partnership between Frances Shimer and Cindarella Gregory, as well as the death of Margaretta Ophelia Mason, principal of the music department. 

"Life is a yearning, hungering, reaching toward the Infinite;" and to this day, have we been looking for the first whisperings of the answer to the vague questionings of our hearts.

Do we hear an answer?

Comes there to us a still, small voice, like an echo from another world, telling of the joys and the sorrows of time? Is there an invisible presence which draws aside the veil that hides the future? No; to mortal sense, that veil will never rise; to mortal ear, no voice will ever whisper of the great "to be."

Our clearer vision may detect — or, imagine it detects — more dangerous rocks or mad whirlpools, than childhood's unsuspecting eye could perceive; but we have no more power or skill to steer our barks between the Scyllas and Caribdes of life, than when we first embarked. Only the wisdom of a God above, can bring us safely to a haven of eternal rest.

Real, earnest life is for us just opening. Before us rises our life-work, towering mountain high. We do not purpose to go around, or over, but to mine patiently through it. What is this work?

It is to gain knowledge, correct error in ourselves, and to assist others in gaining the same end; sowing, beside all waters, seeds of love and happiness.

It is often truly said that "knowledge is power;" but, higher, purer, better than all; more constant in its influence, more lasting in its sway, is the power of character — that power which emanates from a pure and lofty mind. To form this character, is our aim and life-work. As the sculptor traces a meaning on the fair marble, and leaves it there forever; so would we carve upon our lives, as grand and pure an ideal — a rare embodiment of earth's and heaven's best graces.

To waning, dreading hearts, Time brings the present moments. Never before have our minds been so tossed and torn with conflicting emotions. Oh! That we could stand face to face with the future, and read the uttermost meaning of its desolation, or fathom the fullness of its joy.

The fond regrets, and vague presentiments of evil, which throng us, are not wholly delusive; they are, indeed, shadows and echoes ; but they are shadows from the Valley of Shadows, which is the only certainty life brings; they are echoes of farewells, which must be said at last.

Kind Friends: We thank you for the interest you have taken in our welfare, and which you manifest by your presence today. From this point our paths widely diverge; but may there be another, better, and more complete reunion, after we have passed through the "deep, dark valley," and rest in the "sweet by and by."

With trembling feet have we approached this day, and a shadow of parting has been ever present, brooding over all. 'Mid present joys, our hearts will give some bitter notes; yet Hope is not dead; we only look with dimmer eyes, and through the hazy mist of recent grief. Still, when we think of what life might have been, we have but "fed on roses, and gathered only the lilies of life,"

The song of woe is, after all, an earthly song, ending with the sad refrain, " Adieu, adieu, forever-more;" and, echoing back the words, we say "Fare-well."

Dear Schoolmates: Through all these happy, uneventful days, we have been journeying hand in hand, always toward this point where our hands must be unclasped. Our acquaintance has been friendly, though not always intimate. In some instances, it has been the friendship of weeks, and months, and years; but, however short the period, each moment has been a golden link in the chain of friendship.

Our hearts' prayer for you is, that, as you advance farther and farther into the great "To be," it may indeed prove a bright and unclouded future. Though clouds mingle with the sunshine, and thorns be interspersed with life's flowers, may you have an unshaken trust in the good All-Father. Aye, 'tis ever
"Better to weave in the web of life
A bright and golden filling,
And to do God's will with a ready heart,
And hands that are swift and willing;
Than to snap the delicate, minute threads
Of our curious life asunder,
And then blame Heaven for the tangled ends,
And sit, and grieve, and wonder."
Have you ever stood in "Nature's temple," when the light blue lines along the horizon told of the early dawn, and listened to the song of birds, one unbroken gush of melody ? You could not separate each song, yet each sweet songster had his individual note; so, dear teachers, in our minds are blended your instructions. We cannot point to each truth and say, "You taught me that;" yet instruction was given, word by word, and line by line, all uniting to form the firmer mind.

Often shall we recall the times, when
"We glanced from theme to theme;
Discoursed the books to love or hate;
Or touched the wonders of the mind,
Or drank from music's chalice deep."
Heart influence flows from hidden fountains, that are never dry. Yea, ever will we cherish the looks we cannot see; the words we ne'er shall hear again.

Farewells have already been said: from your number, one is missing, one seat is vacant; and on yonder hill-side, the grass is growing pleasantly above the form of the absent one. We are vainly told that "loss is common to the race," and, "though friends depart, still other friends remain," it makes our own none the loss bitter. The passing word has burned its characters into the heart too deeply to be effaced.

Sister Graduates: This day marks an important event in the history of our lives. Though many have occupied this place before us, the song that to-day rises from our lips is, to its, as new and fresh as to the first ; 'tis like the song of redemption, new to all hearts that learn it for themselves.

As you, in after years, cast a retrospective glance down the arcade of the past, and behold its arches hung with the garlands of the "Bygone," may the remembrance of this day form a beautiful wreath to decorate the picture of thy school memories.

There are so many worlds in this one world; so much to do; so little done! The path we each must tread is overgrown with weeds; these must be destroyed, and in their stead sown seeds, that will yield their harvest in another world.

The little cares that cast their petty shadows o'er our way, are those by which our lives are chiefly proved. We must not expect to find happiness Elysian; that cannot be; Providence hath ordained that sinful man should never find unmingled joy. Shadows and sunshine must intermingle; thorns lurk beneath the flowers; but clear will be the eternal landscape, and no shadow can last in that bright dawn beyond the tomb.

Our earnest wish is that we each may
"Run our measured arcs, and lead
The closing cycle rich in good;
And when our hearts are full of din,
And Doubt beside the portal waits,
May we not listen at the gates,
But join the heavenly choir within."
Dear Classmates: Still another tie remains unsevered; for together have we toiled; together trod, sometimes with weary feet, the rough, yet chosen way. 'Tis hard to sever these links of friendship, — but, stay! is it necessary that every tie should be broken, every fond remembrance plunged beneath the dark waters of Lethe ? No; each heart joins in this response, and, though duty calls to varied scenes, we will not say, " Forever, fare-thee-well," but "We shall meet again."

Companion of four years:
"The path by which we twain did go,
Which led by tracts that pleased us
Though four sweet years arose and fell,
From flower to flower, from snow to snow,"
and we with singing cheered the way, — yet, dost thou not remember the hours when we each severally have gone down the dark declivity where sits the " Shadow feared by men?" have almost felt the death damp on our brows, as loved ones crossed to the other shore? Then, weary and alone, turned back to take life's burden. Do we remember? Is it necessary to probe a bleeding wound to know that it exists? Is it any marvel that we should lay aside life's burdens? Oh! 'tis joy to think that "somewhere in the waste, the Shadow sits and waits for us."

As the brilliant sun is sometimes hidden by clouds, and the earth is not always bathed in a golden flood, so, loved Principal, has been your path. Sorrow and joy, adversity and prosperity, have alternately cast their light and shade over your lifeway. Yet, behind the clouds was the sun shining.

Not mine the sweetness or the skill, to strike the notes of this our "cygnian" strain. I cannot command all the strings, and minors find a place in every chord. Is it the haze of grief, that makes former sadness seem so great? or, that "the past will always win a glory from its being far?"

When you lay aside your wornout — or, it may be, suddenly rent — garment of life, may it prove but the exchange of the laborer's vestment for the conqueror's robe; the crown of thorns for the diadem of unfading laurels!
 "Henceforth, wherever we may roam,
Your blessing, like a line of light,
Is on the waters day and night,
And like a beacon guides us home."
The broken links lie scattered around us; we touch them once more lovingly; — Friends, Schoolmates, Teachers, Classmates, Principals: a long, a last, fare—well.

Labels: , ,