How I Morphed My Little Native American Flute Song Morphed Into a Big Piece for Concert Pianist


To make my latest project, “The Way of Mountains and Desert”, I needed an invitation from a friend, some memories of time spent in special places, a few lines from some great living Indigenous poets, some 400 year old English keyboard music and a very deep breath.



The invitation came early this year when Paul Barnes asked me to compose a large scale (17-20 minute) solo piano piece for him to perform during the 2022-23 concert season. Much of my own music is a music of place (more about what that means and how it works for me another time). So I started thinking about places for this piece that might matter for both of us.


In addition to being a world class pianist, Paul is also a cantor in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is a long history in Orthodoxy of people heading into the mountains and deserts to find “union with God”, whatever that might mean for them. It turned out that Paul was soon going to be attending a retreat at an Orthodox monastery in the Sonoran desert. In my years as a musician on the road, I have made several visits to what is now usually called the “desert southwest”. Wherever I happen to be, I try to spend time outside if at all possible. It is important to express gratitude to all the beings who are sharing their space with you. And if you are attentive and fortunate, the place might even share a bit of its music with you. There are places in the desert southwest that I have connected with so strongly, I have sometimes considered moving there. So “mountains and deserts” as a place for our project seemed like a good fit.


I think of this region as the home of the Diné, Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, Hopi and many other wonderful Indigenous Peoples. Modern maps show the area as including parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, West Texas/Northern Mexico. Named deserts here include the Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan, Painted, and others.


As we talked more, it became clear to me that the Orthodox relationship with these places was quite different from the Indigenous. If there is a point of connection, it might be in the idea that Creation emerges from an impulse of love and beauty. If there is a guiding “idea” for the piece, that is probably it. Of course, Paul and I wanted this project to be about music and not “comparative religion”. I am not Indigenous to these desert regions, but I am Indig. So it seemed best to me that I try to make a music of place in my usual way.


Sometimes poetry and visual art works can set off sound images, rhythm patterns, even structural ideas in my mind. Several of my very favorite Indig writers are from this region and some of their work helped me connect more deeply with my remembered experiences. Here are a few passages that became part of the early sketches for “The Way of Mountains and Desert”

“To these circling mountains

we must speak with voices

in songs, rhythmic speeches, orations and prayers.

We must be prepared with repetition,

a singular undisturbed beat.

That is the way of mountains,

this is what they want to hear.”

Ofelia Zepeda / Where Clouds Are Formed, p30 / Univ. of Arizona Press

“The humming, buzzing, clicking

of water life,

the miracle of desert streams.”

Ofelia Zepeda / Where Clouds Are Formed, p43 / Univ. of Arizona Press

“… when loneliness

for myself has overcome me,

the mountain has occurred.

Now, I see it sharing its being with me,

praying.”

Simon J Ortiz / Woven Stone, p128 / Univ. of Arizona Press


“some see objects in the Earth, where I see lungs”

Tommy Pico / Nature Poem, p67 / Tin House Books

“out of love for this Earth

cottonwood

sandstone

and sky”

Leslie Marmon Silko / Storyteller, p63 / Penguin Books

To be honest, I am not a great fan of Euro-classical piano music. I hardly ever listen to music by Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, etc. In fact, my favorite keyboard music from that tradition is the really old stuff. Pre-piano stuff. Especially music by J S Bach and William Byrd. For “The Way of Mountains and Desert”, William Byrd’s pieces that he calls “Grounds” are important. More about Byrd’s Grounds and what they have to do with this project another time. But, no, it has nothing to do with coffee (although much coffee was consumed during the whole process).


Many of my memories from the desert regions involve flute playing. One of the most powerful is playing flute at the edge of a cliff and seeing Raven spiral up from below, riding a thermal. So maybe it is not surprising that even though this commission was to write a 20 minute piano piece, the first music for it arrived by way of the flute. You can hear parts of the flute song on this YouTube video - https://youtu.be/KdXYNjkdOns after July 16. It ended up providing much of the actual material for the piece.


There you have it. To make The Way of Mountains and Desert, I needed a commission from my friend Paul Barnes. Otherwise, I never would have decided to write a big piano piece. I needed memories of my experiences in special places to get sound images going in my mind. Some of my favorite Indigenous poets from those places provided additional inspiration as did some 400 year old European keyboard music. Then I had to take a deep breath and let my flutes help me get started.


As I write this, Paul has already given a preview performance of parts of the piece in Xanthi, Greece. He will be giving the first full performance in Houston, Texas later this month. We will be doing concerts together in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska towards the end of September. Paul will be performing “The Way of Mountains and Desert”. Together, we will perform another piece of mine, called “Beads”, for Native Flute and Piano. We will also be doing some version of some of my Lunas y Agua pieces, structured improvisational pieces that use graphic scores. At least one of these concerts will be Live Streamed by the regional PBS station, so check back for concert times, links, back stage stuff, a deeper look at the piece itself and more.


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