The Binding of the Years
© By Deirdre Gribbin
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On a rainy November night in 2009 I wandered into The British Museum and came upon an Aztec artefact of great beauty. A small stone casket with a stone lid was covered in bundles of carved reeds. It was so expertly crafted that you could almost feel the contour of the hands of the person who carved it. I wanted to touch it, feel the frozen reeds and have a contact with this otherworldly object from another time, place and culture. The gallery was empty, dark and silent save for the sound of muffled feet on the carpet in the corridor outside and I was drawn to the stone casket so strongly it was as if music was coming from it. I began to hear oboes and layers of reed sounds building and ‘The Binding of The Years’ was begun.
Ancient cultures, archaeology and ritual have been part of my life since childhood. I am drawn to cultural references of how time is perceived. For the Aztecs, time was circular. There was a great sense of pre-destiny. The manner of understanding the present and how it projects into the future was radically different to our modern experience. Gods and demi-gods played their part and for the Aztecs the renewal of fire and the symbolism of the sun were at the centre of ritual and daily life.
The ‘New Fire Ceremony’ marked the beginning of a new century for them. It symbolised a renewal of time, a rebirth of life, and of new fire. An inscription on a carved rock face in Southern Mexico known as the ‘Colalcalco stone’ reveals a pattern of dates, which had elsewhere been recorded as a ‘Calendar round’, a combination of day and month that will repeat every 52 years. The ‘Colalcalco stone’ coincides with the end of the 13th Buktun- Buktuns were roughly 394-year periods and 13 was a significant sacred number the Aztecs. The long count Aztec calendar was begun in 3114 BC and the 13th Buktun ends around December 21st 2012 when a new fire ceremony should mark this momentous passing of time and the beginning of a new Aztec century- extraordinarily enough, this year.
By a strange coincidence the end of 2012 when this new piece of mine is given life, marked the end of this over thousand year cycle and I had not known this when I heard those first sounds 3 years ago on that November evening in the museum. This is a very moving and deep thing to contemplate and is significant to me because each new big work, which I write marks the end of a period of thinking and creating. In its culmination that way of thinking is finished and a new beginning is waiting round the corner, which is both scary and exciting.
The title ‘The Binding of The Years’ refers to the gathering and binding of 52 reeds, which symbolised the old years. At dusk on the day of ‘The New Fire Ceremony’ a procession of fire priests dressed as gods walked silently to the mountain to a pyre of stacked firewood. In the town all embers were extinguished. Thousands gathered on rooftops. Children were masked lest they turn into mice. After sacrifice, fire was kindled and the bound reeds were used to light the pyre. Torches of reeds from the pyre flames were taken by runners to light the city with new light and the ceremony was complete.
For me the power of the ritual of lighting a flame from the first flame reminds me of Candlemas, of Easter, of Hanukah and Passover, and of the ‘peaceful’ candlelit processions in Belfast during the troubles in the 1970’s when communities of women from both sides of the religious divide who called themselves ‘The Peace People’ took to the streets with candles in silent processions of unity. I’m also affected by the power of the silent protests of the Arab Spring when thousands used candlelight from rooftops to unite and put a world focus on what was happening to them and of the passing on of the Olympic flame to London this year, seven years after the 7/7 bombings. The idea of passing light and rekindling a fire and welcoming a new sense of beginning and spirit is a hugely positive message and one, which has great meaning for our world today.
Binding of the Years, Programme Note
Movement 1 The New Fire Ceremony
Movement 2 Journey to The House of The Sun
Recording courtesy of Deirdre Gribbin, Finghin Collins, Alan Buribayev and Getty Images.