Bath museum uses Kennebec River to convey ‘Songs of Safe Passage’

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BATH — On the shores of the Maine Maritime Museum, as the Kennebec River rolls past on its way out to the sea, melodies sung by two women lilt through the air – but there’s no one around.

The voices are projected from four speakers – two on the river and the others on trees along the shore – which comprise “Songs of Safe Passage: Many Thousand Miles Behind Us Many Thousand Miles Before,” a unique exhibit created by Erin Colleen Johnson.

The installation will be up through Aug. 25.

Johnson, a Portland resident and visiting assistant professor in Bowdoin College’s Department of Visual Art, has woven together two haunting songs that alternate through the speakers, flowing together from their various positions out to the Kennebec, 10 miles from where it meets the ocean.

“Rolling Home” is a 19th century sea shanty sung by Maine performer and voice teacher Alison Lee Freeman. “Rajeen Ya Hawa,” a Lebanese tune about returning home after a long time away, is sung by student Salam Nassar, who performs in Bowdoin College’s Middle Eastern Ensemble and has worked with Johnson.

“We have a composition that we’ve constructed, and where that piece is coming from is always changing,” Johnson said.

The sound installation “uses local weather as seed data to produce a randomized arrangement of four separate tracks, which are split between four separate speakers surrounding the listener,” David Anderson, an assistant to Johnson, said in an email July 7. “This creates a unique listening experience every time the arrangement is played.”

“This is a piece that I’d been thinking about for a while,” Johnson said, explaining how she’d been “totally enraptured” by sea shanties after completing a voyage of her own, moving to Maine from Georgia.

“The sea shanties create a connection to Maine’s past, but rework them for present needs,” Johnson states on erincolleenjohnson.com.

She also pointed to a recent article from Thaer al-Nashef, a Syrian journalist, who described his experience traveling from Turkey to Greece, across the Mediterranian Sea, with Afghani and Syrian refugees.

During the trip, “almost unconsciously, everyone began singing Syrian folk songs together, helping to overcome the fear,” he wrote, according to a press release on the Safe Passages project.

Noting Maine’s growing community of Arabic-speaking people, Johnson added that the sound piece “asks the listener to consider these historically rich shanties in the context of current conversations around immigration and diversity in Maine. It simultaneously allows us to consider how popular music travels, creates connections, and dissipates like an ocean fog.”

Having visited Maine Maritime Museum’s 243 Washington St. campus in the past, Johnson said, “I could just envision it taking place here.”

She called the Bowdoin-funded project a team effort, crediting staff at both the college and the museum, as well as the singers, for bringing it to fruition.

Chris Hall, the museum’s curator of exhibits, said in an email July 8 that while the museum has never previously showcased a sound exhibit, “given the maritime nature of the project and that it needed an outside location near the shore, we decided to try Erin Johnson’s idea. Her theme of combining a traditional sailor’s chantey about homecoming with the Syrian song about finding safety after a journey was an interesting way of combining our historical maritime interest with the gripping present-day struggles of refugees committing to hazardous sea voyages.

“It is mesmerizing to sit by the Kennebec and hear the interweaving of the singers,” Hall added.

Johnson said she hopes one day to see such installations on waterfronts all around the country, with music from those areas.

“I love the idea that people are coming out from the museum to see the grounds, and … hear, suddenly, a bit of song,” she said. “And you want to approach this area and sit down on the bench, lay on the ground. And think about how on a literal level, you have these two … languages and songs melding and mixing, but also to start to think about their own relationships to these kinds of songs, and water, too.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Erin Colleen Johnson, who teaches visual and audio arts at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, has created a sound installation at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, where four speakers on the Kennebec River send out songs about safe passages on long, sometimes dangerous voyages.

Many Thousand Miles Behind Us Many Thousand Miles Before from Erin Colleen Johnson on Vimeo.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.