The modernist pavilion at the center of California City’s central park. California City was one of the strangest towns I have visited.
A beautiful sunset in the Panamint Valley after a flash flood. The Panamint Valley is another deep valley just to the west of its more famous neighbor, Death Valley, in California. This watery desert sunset was also the subject of a recent CatSynth TV with original synthesizer soundtrack.
A perfectly framed road in the hills of Death Valley National Park.
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. 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.
[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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then it was time for us, Reconnaissance Fly, to take the stage.
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.
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.