I recently came across a Music From Other Minds interview with composer Jim Fox about his album entitled Descansos, Past. The entire interview, which was conducted via email, can be read here.
Fox begins his written interview: “As mentioned in the CD’s single sentence of liner note, the piece was written “in memorium” for a friend, John Kuhlman, who took his own life in 1996.” I find it interesting that Fox chose to use only a single “in memorium” sentence for the liner notes. Liner notes are often extensive pieces that go into detail about the artist(s), composition(s), lyrics (if there are any), “thank you”s, etc… In terms of CDs, it is rare to come across a recording with such minimal explanation. However, if one is thinking of this piece as a memorial, it is not so unexpected. Shrines, also called descansos, are often dedicated with only a few words– the deceased’s name, birthday, date of death, and maybe a short personal message.
Fox goes on to explain his use of the term descansos in the title:
“”Descansos” are little roadside memorials that one commonly finds throughout the Southwest, marking the spot where someone died. They may be simple (just a cross or wreath) or ornate (a small shrine), and are a recognized form of Mexican-influenced folk art. The word itself means “rest,” and I have encountered two prevailing stories as to its roadside-memorial use. The first suggests that the idea arrived from Europe with the Conquistadors, who marked the death of one of their own with a small marker, usually a cross, referred to as a “descansos,” at the spot along the road where a person died–that individual’s final “resting place.” This story rings true to me. The second story seems a less-reasonable explanation: The markers originally marked the spots where pallbearers carrying a coffin to the graveyard would stop to “rest” during their journey. Tied to this story is another that relates the markers and pallbearers’ journey to the Catholic Church’s “Stations of the Cross” concept. In short, I believe the simple marker where a traveler (or anyone on a road or roadside) fell/died, dating from the time of the earliest European conquest of the Americas, is the most reasonable “descansos” history, and in agreement with present usage.
Perhaps I should point out here that in my use of “descansos” I dissociate the word from all particular religious meaning. I’m not a religious person in any sense whatsoever, but I find fascinating the ways that man has throughout history thought about and commemorated death, his own and those of his friends and enemies. And I feel a certain yet amorphous “resonance,” which I suspect most of us do, when strolling old cemeteries and battlefields and other places where death and life coincide directly. Perhaps this is tied to the simple sense that we’re all headed into inevitable oblivion, and for the moment we pause with that thought, we share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.”
One of the often controversial aspects of roadside shrines is the obvious use of religious objects and symbolism. In the debate over shrines and public vs. private space, allowing a religious symbol to stand on public land is a definite point of controversy. Fox seems to suggest that although descansos have a religious history, they are recognized–along the roadside–as more than just religious symbols. They are recognized as places of death. They are places where people may “share something with all who walk the earth and all who have walked the earth in the past.” It is this coming together of the living and the dead–this point of crossing boundaries–this liminal space, that make spontaneous shrines such complex entities. Therefore, I find it interesting, yet not surprising, that someone who does not consider himself a religious person should choose to use a musical descanso to commemorate a lost friend.
Although Fox’s piece of music is not typical, I believe it nonetheless should be considered a shrine, of sorts. It is for a particular person, was constructed specifically for that person (“in memorium”), and is meant to not only commemorate but to call attention to this death. It calls for a pause– to remember and to think and in this case, also to listen.