Why Music Was a Better Life Choice Than Baking or The Way of Mountains and Desert, part 2


One of my favorite writers has said that her own work arises from “the compost heap” of everything she has read and experienced. I love that image for my music work, too.

Many Indigenous musicians live in at least two musical worlds. We continue to practice some form of music that is considered “traditional” by our People. But we are also into the same things everyone else is. Tanya Tagaq, for a well-known example, is adept at blending traditional Inuit throat singing with experimental electronica and hip-hop. I have Indigenous musician friends and colleagues who are classical pianists, jazz saxophonists, folk singers, avant-garde performance artists, metal guitar players, musical theater performers, modernist composers, country fiddlers. I could go on, but you get the idea. You name it, we do it. And we do it well.

When I perform publicly now, it is always on Native American Flutes. But I trained as a pianist and have played keyboards in just about every imaginable setting from rock bands to classical ensembles to musical theater to free improv groups. My university training was mostly in composition with an emphasis on music technologies. I also did research projects on Native American music and played in a Balinese gamelan for a couple years.

This kind of varied individual path is also not unusual. My dear friend Dawn Avery (Mohawk descent) began her musical journey as a classical pianist but her main performance instruments are now cello and voice. She studied composition with John Cage, among others. And she is a powerful singer of traditional women’s songs. This is just highlights from her extensive skill set.

The latest project to emerge from my particular compost heap is a 20 minute piece for solo piano titled “The Way of Mountains and Desert”. It was commissioned by my friend and colleague Paul Barnes, who is a world class concert pianist and also a cantor in the Eastern Orthodox Church. As I have discussed elsewhere, it is a music of place. The place is the desert regions of what is now known as the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It is the home of the Diné, the Tohono O’odham, the Yaqui and many other wonderful Indigenous Peoples.


This link is to a YouTube video which will post on July 30, 2022. It deals more in depth with “The Way of Mountains and Desert”as a music of place. You can also see my first Blog in this series here at my website. In this blog, I want to share some of the basic musical ideas and influences that shape the piece.

The Way of Mountains and Desert is in four parts that are intended to be played without a break between parts.

Part 1 - To Water

Part 2 - Songs of Gratitude for Desert Beings

Part 3 - Love Song for This Earth

Part 4 - To the Land

Parts 1 and 4 are fully written out in standard classical piano notation. They also have a constant steady pulse. You could imagine drums and/or shakers acting as time keepers. Parts 2 and 3 are less specific in their notation and structure. They invite the performer to make more decisions about pacing and shaping the piece. They can morph considerably from one performance to the next.

The first music to arrive for the piece came by way of my flutes and that flute song became the main source for melodic and harmonic ideas throughout all four parts. You can hear excerpts of it on the YouTube video linked above.

When I improvise on my flutes, I often alternate between sections that are strongly pulsed and sections that are without a strong pulse. Some of our traditional Cherokee songs work in a similar way. Many traditional musics around the planet do this.

Our traditional music that is strongly pulsed is wonderfully flexible in the way those pulses are organized. One musical phrase might last five beats and the next one might last seven. But all the phrases work well together. I think of this as balanced asymmetry and it is what I strive for in my own music. It feels organic to me, like walking through a forest. When this gets written down in Euro-Classical notation, the performer often needs to deal with unusual looking time signatures and with the time signature changing.


Here is a page from “Part 1 - To Water” that in the space of 17 measures has 9 time signature changes (For those who do not read music, the time signatures are the numbers that look like fractions). Fortunately, Paul Barnes is enormously good at this kind of thing.

Again, many musics on the planet take a similar approach. Medieval and Renaissance European counterpoint is also music that is pulsed, but not metered and so has beautifully varied phrase lengths. Modern Euro-Classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky made great use of the asymmetric rhythm patterns they heard in Eastern European village dance music. It’s not unusual to hear a North Indian raga musician announce that the evening’s tala is “a ten beat pattern divided 3+2+2+3”. Adventurous rock bands like Jethro Tull and Soundgarden are well known for using unusual time signatures in their music. Traditionally based musicians like Julie Fowlis will often maintain the asymmetric phrasing of their source material. Again, I could go on, but you get the idea and are also getting some sense of my preferred listening lists.

When I was beginning to learn Native American Flute, a wise and experienced Ojibwe flute player told me that we are not to try and force our flute to do what we want. Instead, we try to connect with the beauty all around us and listen for what our flute wants to share. Improvisation and flexibility are a vital part of what we do. Even if I am playing a song I have played a hundred times before, it will be different today than yesterday and will be different again tomorrow. Because of this, I wanted to try and build flexibility into “The Way of Mountains and Desert” and provide an opportunity for Paul to interact creatively with the piece.

At one time, improvisation was considered a necessary skill for Euro-Classical musicians too. But in the last hundred years or so, classical musicians have largely become reciters of received, fully notated compositions. Paul, though, is an experienced musician outside the Euro-Classical tradition (remember he is an Orthodox Cantor) and is both willing and able to make use of his creativity.


“Part 3 - Love Song for This Earth” is basically a version of the original flute song adapted to piano. If offers the player a great deal of flexibility about the pacing of the main melodic line, making it easier to shape the piece differently from one performance to the next.



This is a page from Part 3. There is no time signature. Each whole (open) note in the left hand part represents about two seconds of time. The filled in notes in the right hand part are shaped within that time according to spacing. Notes that are closer together on the page are closer together in time. But all of that is approximate. No stop watches are involved.

“Part 2 - Songs of Gratitude for Desert Beings” offers the performer even more creative input. This is from the performance notes attached to the score.

“Part 2 is a set of 11 brief “Songs of Gratitude for Desert Beings”. Four of the songs have multiple versions (“Options”) so that in total, there are 17 songs. They range in length from just a few seconds (“Dust Devils, Option 1”) to more than two minutes (“Song for Turtle”). The total playing time for all 17 songs is @13-14 minutes.


For an individual performance of The Way of Mountains and Desert, you may choose any combination of “Songs of Gratitude” so that Part 2 is @4-7 minutes in length. Multiple Options of the same song may be used, but no individual song should be repeated. Songs may be played in any order except that if “Song for Turtle” is chosen, it should conclude the movement, because “it’s turtles all the way down”. Transitions between songs may include silence, piano resonance or may be attacca at your discretion. A complete list of songs with approximate timings is included at the end of these notes.”


The individual songs use a variety of notations ranging from standard Euro-Classical score to a graphic score that guides a structured improvisation.



Here is the score of “Song for Turtle” and some performance notes for the song.


“Song for Turtle” should be 2 - 2.5 minutes in duration and is to be freely realized or improvised from the given materials. The melodic fragments towards the top are samples. Feel free to make your own versions using the given pitches. Fragments may be used in isolation or may be repeated and/or combined to make more extended melodies. The bass staff fragments at the bottom may be used to make a sound bed of resonance. Any of them may be repeated as desired.

The damper pedal should remain down throughout the song. There is no hurry. Allow time between events to simply enjoy the piano resonance. The seven point Cherokee star indicates that events can happen in any order. The spiral is an ancient water symbol. If you wish, the Turtle image and Water Spiral may guide your interpretation of the song. They may even suggest appropriate new material that you can add to the song. Within the guided soundworld, make the song your own.”


I often hear musicians refer to their printed scores and charts as “the music”. As in, “hand me the music and we’ll play it.” But the score is not the music. It is a recipe for recreating the music. Some scores, like some recipes, are less explicit than others. When I was a little kid, I loved my Grannie’s sugar cookies. They were soft and full of nutmeg. I wanted to try and make some. I asked her for the recipe. She said it wasn’t written down. I asked her if she would write it down for me. When she did, it said thinks like “add some flour”. When I asked her how much flour to add, she said, “oh, until it feels right”. The score of “Song for Turtle” is that kind of recipe.


As for my cookie ambitions, unfortunately I never quite got it to feel right. My sugar cookies are never as good as Grannie’s were. Music was a better life choice for me than baking.

Preview performances of The Way of mountains and Desert were in Xanthi, Greece and Houston, Texas. The official concert premiers will take place in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska in late September, 2022. Check back for more concert info.


Photo "brown mountains and blue sky" by Andrew Ruiz at Unsplash

All score excerpts from The Way of Mountains and Desert by Ron Warren, 2022


Click this link to hear "The Between Time", a track Dawn Avery and I made for my album Dancing the Full Moon, which received a Native American Music Award nomination for "Best World Music Album"


Click this link to visit Paul Barnes' website - paulbarnes.net

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