St. Louis Symphony: Olivier Messiaen “Des Canyons aux étoiles…”

At the end of January, I had the opportunity to experience a unique performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall by the St. Louis Symphony of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars). The Symphony was led by David Robertson, a noted interpreter of Messiaen’s music, and the performance featured synchronized visuals by artist Deborah O’Grady.

 Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[ Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady. Courtesy of Cal Performances]

Des Canyons aux étoiles… was the product of a commission by Alice Tully (of Alice Tully Hall) in the early 1970s for the US Bicentennial. Messiaen was inspired by the images of the canyons of southern Utah, including Bryce and Zion, and spent several weeks there along with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, in 1972. He was quite taken with the visual landscape as well as the soundscape, particularly the sounds of the birds. He was able to write down and interpret the bird songs as pitches of the Western tonal system, and these melodies appear throughout the piece as a unifying element. The visual landscape is less literally interpreted, though one can hear the deep tones of resonant wind through narrow openings in canyon, and the more abstract sense of awe at the open landscapes. There is also a sense of anxiety, particularly in the first few movements, that comes from Messiaen’s distinctive harmonies.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, perform Friday, January 29 and Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.  (credit: Dilip Vishwanat)
[Photo by Dilip Vishwanat, courtesy of Cal Performances]

In addition to the full symphony, this piece features solos for piano and horn. In the original premier in 1974, the pianist was in fact Yvonne Loriod, who wore a dress featuring the color palette of Bryce Canyon. (I would love to see a photo of this!) For this performance in Berkeley, the solo pianist was Peter Henderson and the horn soloist was Roger Kaza. The piece also features a larger than usual percussion section, including features on xylorimba and glockenspiel, and a really cool wind machine that was unfortunately hard to see from our seats. But the real visuals were on screen in Debrah O’Grady’s photographs. While not on a click track or any forced tempo, they were clearly timed musically to elements on the piece, with a mixture of gradual fades and sharper transitions. The photos and stage were bathed in a continuously changing set of monochromatic lights, which added to the visuals of the performance.

Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady.]

To make the visuals for this piece, O’Grady retraced Messiaen’s 1972 trip, visiting Bryce, Zion and Cedar Breaks National Monument in April of 2014 and 2015. She noted that the parks have become much more crowded in April than they were back in 1972, which made her experience quite different. As such, the interactions of humans with the environment, both positive and negative, became part of her interpretation of the work. Nonetheless, the photos remained squarely focused on the natural landscape.

The American desert southwest is perhaps my favorite natural landscape, and one I enjoy visiting whenever I get a chance to (regular readers of this site have encountered my photographs). So the combining of that landscape with Messiaen’s influential musical style was a particularly special experience. I remained quite enrapt throughout the entire 90 minute performance, which did not have an intermission. And afterwards, I find myself both inspired to do more music and to get back out to the desert.

Reconnaissance Fly with Hay Fever and The Sibleys at The Palms

Today we look at the first of Reconnaissance Fly’s recent shows in the high desert of southern California near Joshua Tree. This show took place at The Palms in Wonder Valley, California. Wonder Valley is an odd place east of the town of Twentynine Palms. Wonder Valley is a community of sorts, but not really a town in its own right (indeed, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Wonder Valley is). But the Palms is a destination for locals and others and often features live music.

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The evening opened with The Sibleys, which featured Laura Sibley on guitar/vocals and James Sibley on drums. They also happen to be the owners and operators of The Palms.

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Their original songs could be described as energetic rock-and-roll, with fun lyrics – I think many of us went away remembering “Black Kawasaki, I feel lucky…” And Laura Sibleys strumming and solos pushed the music forward. They were definitely a favorite among the local crowd, some of whom could be seen dancing.

Next up was Hay Fever, featuring Emily Hay on flute and vocals with Wayne Peet on various keyboards, and Steuart Liebig on bass and effects.

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Hay Fever is an improvising group, with a continuous ever-changing stream of music that spans the entire set. There were many moments that would fit into a “space music” show, with drones and arpeggios, but also more intense sections with vocals and playing, and very sparse moments leading back into a thick fog of sound. Liebig’s bass playing added some particularly interesting textures to the rest of the group’s sound.

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Then it was time for us, Reconnaissance Fly, to take the stage.

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We did a set that featured several of our tracks from the album, as well as some of the newer songs. Particularly when we got to the funkier tunes like Itzirktna or the harder rock sounds heads and ears from the bar turned in our direction. It may not have been our tightest performance, but we had a lot of fun and presented with energy.

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Overall, it was quite an experience to play at The Palms, perhaps a bit surreal given the desert surroundings and activity around us. We certainly hope to come back again some time.

Fun with Highways: California 247 and 18

After a few cold weeks in the city, I am looking back fondly at my trip to the desert this past summer. Today we look at the final leg of that trip, leaving Joshua Tree on Highway 247. I had been curious about this highway which heads north from Yucca Valley at a junction with Highway 62 out into the desert hills. There is actually quite a bit of residential development near the start of highway, with a great many dusty side streets with a diverse collection of homes. I acquired one of my sculptures at the home of an artist there several years ago. But on this occasion, I kept going north. One of first reassurance markers was, appropriately enough, next to a joshua tree.

The narrow two-lane highway wound its way uphill between a rocky ledge to the west and a desert valley to the east, with occasional rocky outcroppings. A few of them had graffiti on them. Perhaps I should have taken a photo, but I feel differently about graffiti on natural objects than I do on walls. Eventually, the road turned from north to east-west and entered a wide, flat valley, with the classic “road in the middle of nowhere” appearance.

The day was pleasantly hot, probably in the low 90s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius), a far cry from the triple digit temperatures at the start of this trip. There was a moderate breeze at times, but not too much. So standing on the side of the road here was an opportunity to experience silence punctuated by the occasional passing vehicle. It is rare that I have the opportunity to hear moments with so little sound, but so much other sensual information in the texture and temperature of the air and the sparseness of the visual space.

Highway 247 then enters the town of Lucerne Valley on the edge of the Mojave desert. It does not have much in common with Lucerne in Switzerland. The lakes here are dry lake beds, but like the more famous Swiss town it is surrounded by mountain ranges. Here, 247 turns north towards Barstow, so I switched onto Highway 18 heading east out of town. This odd highway winds around the mountains and valleys of San Bernardino county through a variety of geographies. The section that I traveled started with crumbly red-brown rock formations up against the sparse commercial development of the town. After an empty section, the road entered the town of Apple Valley where the landscape turned all of a sudden into suburban development and the highway became a multilane expressway known as the “Happy Trails Highway”. The sharp contrast was a little jarring, but not unexpected given the history of development in the deserts north and east of Los Angeles. But this was stark industrial development as I had seen in New Topographics a couple of years earlier, it was just dull suburban sprawl. Upon entering Victorville, Highway 18 becomes a regular city street along with Business Loop 15.

From here, I was able pick up I-15 and ultimately wind my way north along more familiar highways back to San Francisco.