Lost Borders


Program Note

Why Women Went West is a multi-media chamber opera in which two voices—I, Mary (soprano) and Mary by Herself, (recorded voice of soprano/spoken voice/electronics) tells the unfolding narrative of a sole woman protagonist and her journey west. With empathy, ritual, and passion the work traces Mary’s experiences from her youth in a Midwest small town in late 19th century to her pioneer days in California, and finally to her wild west days in New Mexico where she eventually confronts death and overcomes the challenges that have plagued her throughout her life. Why Women Went West explores controversies over human rights, water wars, early 20th-century feminist artist communities through the life of Mary Hunter Austin. Writer, feminist, conservationist, and defender of Native American and Spanish-American rights, Austin’s quest, trauma, and journey uncovered dark mysticism in the American Southwest. Resonating with concerns over marginalization of indigenous cultures, desecration of women, nature, and women’s escape from conventions through their artistic agency, this work reveals ongoing trauma of woman’s quest for autonomy. A complex, problematic story of coming to terms with one’s self as a woman in society, Why Women Went West chronicles Mary Austin’s escape from persecution to transformation of white woman’s privilege and passion for preservation of nature, history, and indigenous culture. Commissioned and funded in part by National Endowment for the Arts and Opera America Discovery Award for concert premiere Brightwork New Music, Stacey Fraser, soprano; HEX Ensemble (SSATTB) and by Operation Opera Festival with Four Corners Ensemble, Sacramento State University in 2023.

Lost Borders (2024) is a new work from the final Act of my opera, Why Women Went West which includes the setting of “Silent Friend of Many Distances” (Rilke) originally for baritone voice, choir and ensemble. Based upon Austin’s texts from her book Lost Borders, this work describes her life in California desert -and beyond in New Mexico- the harsh, arid lands form a stark backdrop to the challenges of people who lead life there. The mystical forces which plagued her, and lured her to go West in Act I— reappear with the Bass-Clarinet solo from Owl’s Breath, embedded within the recap of powerful opening ritual materials of the piano and percussion. These lands of lost borders in the deserts of the southwest, still resonate today where life and death, quest for self-reliance, determination for survival in the harshest of conditions is common and yet transcendent.-Pamela Madsen


“She called upon the Voice, and the Voice answered—Nothing. She was told to go away. And suddenly there was an answer, a terrifying answer, pushed off, deffered, delayed, an answer impossible to be repeated, an answer still impending. Which I might not live to see confirmed, but hands, suspended over this Country—Mary went away.” (Mary Hunter Austin).

Let’s have done with stranger faces, Let’s be quit of staring eyes. Let’s go back across the Mojave. Let’s go back across, where the hills of Inyo rise. Let’s go back across the Mojave.

(Muerto, Muerto). There’s a word we’ve lost we’ll never hear again. Earth, as their own. The earth glady receives the embrace of the sun. The Earth received. And we shall soon see the results of their Love! In the mindless clang of engines where they bray, the hearts of men. All seeds awake, All animal life. (Save me, O Lord, Save me, O Lord). (from Lost Borders by Mary Hunter Austin)

Silent friend of many distances,

Feel, how your breath enlarges.

All vertical space

Let your presence ring, you ring out like a bell

Ring into the night

What feeds upon your face

Grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.

What feeds upon your face grows mightly from the nourishment offered.

(Move through transformation out and in)

That you have suffered.

What is the deepest loss that you have suffered, that you have suffered?

If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasureable darkness

Be the power that rounds your senses in their magic ring.

The sense of their mysterious encounter

Whisper to the silent earth I’m . . .

And if the earth no longer knows your name,

Whisper to the silent earth I’m flowing.

To the flashing water say: I am. (Rainer Marie Rilke)

About Pamela Madsen

Pamela Madsen is a composer, sound artist, performer, and curator of new music. From her massive landscape inspired projects and intimate chamber music creations to her multi-media collaborations, and organization…