following the trail

tensleep
Highway 16 in the Cloud Peak Wilderness

Point at Genesis all you like, but I don’t believe God created Wyoming for humans to live in. It is marvelous handiwork nonetheless! Aesthetically, from the comfort of a car with a full tank of gas, especially if it has heated seats and a good sound system, there’s no better road trip than across Highway 16 on the Cloud Peak Highway and through the Wind River Range.

Oregon Trail
the Oregon Trail just south of Casper, WY

The actual Oregon Trail is somewhat south of that route, through a broad river valley created by the North Platte and the Sweetwater, crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. It’s an ancient Native American route between east and west, created by water, as all the best routes are, and it’s certainly more practical than the route Lewis and Clark took in the early 19th century!

southpasscity
South Pass City on 3 April 2016

Willow Creek is the the little stream that feeds the Gold Rush town of South Pass City. If this creek started six miles further west, that water would end up in the Colorado River heading southwest to grow lettuce in the Imperial Valley and water lawns in Los Angeles. If it were further north, it would eventually join the Columbia River and flow past Portland to the Pacific.

Willow Creek in South Pass City
Willow Creek in South Pass City

Instead, it joins the Sweetwater River, and then the North Platte at Alcova, WY, the Platte itself at Brady, NE, the Missouri at Nebraska City, the Mississippi at St. Louis, and then flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Sitting by the side of the creek this weekend, I imagined I could feel the gravitational pull towards the east and the south. This water is urging me to New Orleans, and I have to fight to imagine heading up and over the Continental Divide out to the West.

When I paddled through the Chain of Rocks six years ago, a real but vanishingly small percentage of the water I was flowing with came from Willow Creek in South Pass City.

That is a miraculous thing.

Willow Creek downstream flow
Willow Creek downstream flow

The scale of Wyoming is not human scale. England, that green and pleasant land, is human scale. Even Vermont is human scale, by comparison with Wyoming. Vermont is brutal in winter, certainly you can die of exposure or whatever, but there’s a sense that you as an individual human being can somehow find shelter, build a little nest in a ravine somewhere to protect yourself from the wind and snow and wild beasts. I do not feel that way in Wyoming. It is quite clear that I could die out here very easily. It is very beautiful, but it is not a green and pleasant land.

near Atlantic City, WY
near Atlantic City, WY

Perhaps when the buffalo were here, it felt different? Then there was a plentiful source of food, clothing, and even shelter just from that one animal, and small bands of humans could survive and even thrive by living on the wealth that the buffalo created for them.

But now the buffalo are gone. And the overriding feeling I am left with as an individual traveling alone in this landscape is exposure and vulnerability. Those feelings lead to awe, I have to say, when I think of a half million immigrants struggling across this landscape in wagons and handcarts. There’s something both terrible and thrilling about the ferocious fragility of human ambition: what were the desperate dreams of the people who embarked on this journey, what was so unbearable about the places and the situations they were escaping from?

The Oregon Trail at South Pass, WY
the Oregon Trail at South Pass, WY

Building the Bird Mound premieres Thursday

On Thursday 18 April, the Voices of Ascension under the direction of Dennis Keene will be premiering a new commission for chorus and organ called Building the Bird Mound. Click the photo for tickets and more information:

Building the Bird Mound was inspired by a visit I made to Poverty Point, a pre-historic mound complex in Northeast Louisiana, while traveling down the length of the Mississippi River by kayak and bicycle in the fall of 2009. Poverty Point, which was built sometime between 3500 and 1500 B.C. is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. When I stood in the center of the mound that November afternoon, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place. I knew then that I wanted to write a piece of music about this place and the people who built it, and Building the Bird Mound is the result of that afternoon’s inspiration.

floating through february

Even though we just finished up one series of concerts, there are more upcoming projects here in New York that continue the flow…

On 17 February, the Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble with Vicky Chow on piano and Ana Milosavljevic on violin will be performing a show we’re calling Songs from the River and Elsewhere on the Avant Music Festival, which is going to be a wonderful series of concerts, highly recommended.

We’ve already begun rehearsing the repertoire for the 17 February concert, and it’s really fascinating to be embedding RiverProject songs in and among songs from A Book of Days. While the journey down the river definitely changed me and my work, there are some themes that thread their way through all the pieces, and hearing them performed by these excellent musicians is really great.

Also upcoming (on 2 March) is a performance of The Sirens, or Pleasure, my Cagean (Cageish?) collaboration with Yvan Greenberg, by the duo Two Sides Sounding. come check out the bicycle roulette wheel doing its thing, you never know which crackerjack prizes it’ll choose!

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Along with these performances, I’m starting work on Pump Music, a big new piece for violin, trombone quartet, and location recordings of hand pumps found in campsites along the Mississippi River, a Meet the Composer commission that will premiere later in the spring on the Tribeca New Music Festival. Stay tuned for news about date and venue, which should be firmed up very soon!

rivers on the lower east side

What a fun way to start the year! a series of RiverProject concerts at Abrons Arts Center, each one so different from the next, with an array of wonderful musicians, from Loadbang and the Guidonian Hand the first night, to Newspeak and Will Lang the next, and then the last night with Taylor Levine, Malcolm J. Merriweather, and special guest Ron Blessinger, who paddled all the way from Portland, OR to get here… and of course Mary Rowell with me every night, that’s a central part of the whole experience! I feel so lucky to work with all these wonderful musicians, who also happen to be excellent humans, which really makes it great!

Here are a few links to interviews and press about the festival; over the next few days and weeks we’ll be posting some live recordings and more fun stuff.

Amanda McBlane’s interview in Time Out

Olivia Giovetti’s RiverProject radio show on Q2

Kurt Gottschalk’s radio show/interview on WFMU

Stacey Anderson’s NYTimes pop/rock listing

Steve Smith’s NYTimes classical listing