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In the summer of 2019 I spent three months travelling across America by car. Borrowing from John Steinbeck’s conceit in Travels with Charley, we took along our brown standard poodle and decided to avoid highways and interstates, driving along backroads and stopping in towns without famous names. My husband and I moved out of our house, put our belongings into storage, and travelled up towards the Canadian border from New Jersey. We stayed in a former coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, walked in Allegany State Park in northern New York, and visited Susan B. Anthony’s house in Rochester. We stood in awe above Niagara Falls. From northern Michigan we drove to Chicago and then Detroit before wending our way through wide flat states and then vast mountainous regions, through Yellowstone and Montana on our way to Oregon.
As we travelled I read about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and I began writing an orchestra piece commissioned by the Rochester Philharmonic in honour of the 200th anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s birth and the centenary of American women’s suffrage. The process of writing for full orchestra with the added undertaking of honouring an American of such cultural and historical significance was both daunting and exhilarating.
From Oregon, we drove down the California coast, stood under ancient redwoods, and looked out across the Pacific Ocean back towards New Zealand, the country where I grew up the daughter and granddaughter of proud feminist women, and the first country in the world to pass into law universal suffrage in 1893. From southern California, through Arizona and Texas, we drove along the border along which blue, wind-tattered flags whipped in the wind from the desert. The flags marked drums of drinking water on private land paid for and maintained by good Samaritans as aid for people crossing the impossibly hot, high mountains. We arrived in El Paso the day after the horrific shootings there.
We stayed in Montgomery and visited the profoundly moving memorial to victims of lynching. As we travelled back through West Virginia and the Shenandoah National Park I finished the first draft of All on Fire. We moved to Brooklyn and unpacked our boxes and settled ourselves and the dog back into a normal life. Being immigrants ourselves, we wanted to travel across America to better understand the vast, complicated country that we have come to call home. The title of my piece comes from a Susan B Anthony quote, who wrote, “How can you not be all on fire?... I shall explode if some of you young women don’t wake-up and raise your voice in protest…”. Travelling, I was confronted by the beauty and majesty of an America that remains a grand work in progress and why there are still so many reasons to be all on fire.
Commissioned by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra