a Place, a Piece, a Puzzle: vol. 8
P. After five or six days I stopped in at the park office. They hadn't heard from me since I arrived, and they were pondering sending a ranger up to Lost Horse to make sure I hadn't disappeared. The funny thing is, though, I had kind of disappeared. Something about the atmosphere of Joshua Tree had dissolved the blocks, burst the levees, purified my mind to the point where it was no longer separate from its environment. There was no more me; there was only the desert, and songs.
It was a four-day drive, by myself, from Austin to Joshua Tree. The first night I stopped at Balmorhea State Park, where I had a brief swim (just long enough to wash the East off) and lay down to sleep in my car, where through the back window I spotted the hugest shooting star I’ve ever seen. The second night I was at Chiricahua in southern Arizona, writing songs in the drizzle. The next day, after a hike, I drove across Arizona listening to David Sedaris. The fourth day, finally, I crossed the Colorado River and entered California.
My phone, as if on cue, freaked out. Vibrating uncontrollably, with strange garbled text on the screen. I still suspect that it was briefly possessed.
A few hours later I was by myself on the porch of the Lost Horse cabin in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. This would be my home for three weeks. No one would particularly check on me. I was left to my own devices.
A guitar, a banjo, and books, to be precise. I had no internet connection or cell phone service at the cabin. Both were a thirty-minute drive away, in town.
I was terrified. I had never subjected myself to such solitude. I’d lived alone in Austin, and it had been a trial. In Myers-Briggs personality typology, I am emphatically an extrovert. Interpersonal interaction charges my batteries.
It all changed when I started writing the songs. The first morning I sat on a rock outside and read a few chapters of a strange novel about circus freaks. And I started to play guitar. That night, in the immense darkness, I sat in that little cabin and scratched out some enigmatic verses about owls, a sideways Twin Peaks reference. I felt immensely gratified. I felt a deep connection to music and music-making that I’d lost while working on my master’s degree.
I hadn’t planned to write songs at Joshua Tree. But the songs were there, waiting. All I had to do was write them down.
I did see people during the residency. I drove into town to check my email and buy groceries. The closest town was Joshua Tree itself, which is the smallest but most inviting of the three communities placed along Highway 62. Yucca Valley is where I’d go for groceries. Twentynine Palms is where I stopped first, where the park offices were located. There are about 25,000 people in Twentynine Palms. Just outside town there is a Marine Corps base with a population of about 8,000. This colors the whole community immensely. The huge military presence projected against the desert-rat vibe of Joshua Tree creates a unique melange.
The composer Lou Harrison took to this area late in his life. He purchased land near the village of Joshua Tree and constructed a straw bale house there. It is a landmark in the world of straw construction, with its striking archway and vaulted interior hall. The house is small, and the hall acoustically stunning. Light shifts through the windows from the otherworldly desert landscape outside. Harrison had only a year to enjoy his desert retreat. He wrote his last composition there. He passed away in 2003.
I was lucky enough to receive a tour of the house from its current caretaker, Eva Soltes. A longtime associate of Harrison’s, Eva has dedicated years to the creation of a comprehensive documentary film about the composer’s life and work. She runs an artist residency program and concert series at the house. When I visited, the film was still unfinished. Eva played me some footage and told stories of her work with now-legendary composers like Harrison and Conlon Nancarrow.
It turns out that Fared Shafinury, a terrific Persian classical musician who I met at the Ham Jam described in volume seven, is playing a concert at the Harrison House in a few days.
Back at the Lost Horse cabin, mostly I sat on the porch and wrote songs. They were deep and strange, pulling from mostly-forgotten childhood memories, high school camping trips, nights spent sitting by little lakes and sleeping in misty fields.
One of the last nights in the park, I made a fire out there and watched the daylight come down in patches. A group of climbers about half a mile up the road were packing up their gear. I could hear scraps of their conversation echoing through the dry air.
There is a place in Joshua Tree called the “Heart of Rocks.”
The trees themselves, Yucca brevifolia, deserve special mention. They are unusual, Seuss-like, and everywhere in evidence up in the Mojave. They live at higher elevations; in the national park they thrive in Lost Horse Valley, but disappear when you descend to the lower Colorado Desert. The name was coined by Mormon travelers in the mid-nineteenth century. The trees reminded them of the Biblical Joshua, raising his hands to the heavens.
P. In Celtic spirituality there is the idea of “thin places.” Evidently heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in a thin place, they’re even closer. In these places the boundary between heaven and earth is translucent and the divine can be more easily apprehended.
It has been proposed by some string theorists that parallel universes exist right before our eyes, just micrometers away, but we can’t perceive them because they are shifted not across any of our familiar three dimensions, but across some other, much subtler dimension. They are just micrometers away, but micrometers in a direction we cannot see.
Music dramatizes time, makes us aware of the passing moment, makes us feel the seconds. Certain musical experiences might just shift us in one of those odd unseen directions, might lift the veil and create a thin place.
One night at the cabin in Joshua Tree, in the monolithic darkness, I sat listening to Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla.
There has been a revival of interest in Eastman since the first commercial recording of his music appeared in 2005, a long fifteen years after he died alone in Buffalo, New York. In the early eighties he was known as a vibrant, controversial, politically engaged composer and performer in the new music scenes surrounding New York City and SUNY-Buffalo. He disappeared from the music scene around 1983. He evidently struggled with drug and alcohol abuse during the late eighties. Little has been published about this dark period of his life and what brought it on.
Rumors of his death had circulated more than once before, and it took eight months for an obituary to appear in the Village Voice. That article by Kyle Gann marks perhaps the moment when Eastman ceased to be a man and began his new life as a figure of myth.
His music remained forgotten, scraps of handwritten scores packed away in attics and trunks, until around 1998, when composer Mary Jane Leach set out to find an arresting multiple-cello piece she remembered from a concert in 1980. This search culminated in the 2005 release of the three-disc set that has subsequently introduced most of us to Eastman’s music.
The three multiple-piano pieces, Gay Guerrilla, Evil Nigger, and Crazy Nigger, lit my ears on fire when I heard them for the first time in September 2008. The music is strong, expansive, uncompromising. Each piece begins from a unitary idea and expands steadily outward in every direction to create immense spheres as encompassing as they are fundamentally geometrically simple.
The titles, though not as viscerally shocking now as they were in 1980, raise questions. Eastman was a black, gay, politically outspoken composer during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and ‘80s. Obviously it was important to him to reclaim certain contested linguistic terms.
He once said that Gay Guerrilla was about glorifying gay strength and resistance. It begins with patient repeated notes, like the steady forward paces of a silent army, an army of the geographically and politically dispersed. The range shifts lower, the dynamic increases. Single notes give way to repeated octaves. The pianos pulse away and toward one another, at one moment dissipating, at another collecting into edifices of unanimous rhythmic force.
At the apex, one by one, in a multitude of keys, the pianos break the stream of physical resistance represented by the unified rhythmic motive and leap into grand statements of the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
It must be after the words of Gann’s obituary that everyone now refers to this moment as a reinterpretation of the hymn tune into a “powerful, wordless, gay manifesto.” It’s a clear suggestion, based on the title, Eastman’s words, and his political proclivities. But it’s also a dramatic enough musical moment that its power can exist free of any specific social referent.
Some associates blame Eastman’s frenetic and unreliable personality for the decline of his career and life. Others, including his brother, assertively place the blame upon a society systemically dedicated to the squelching of black genius.
It is only through the curatorial efforts of Gann, Leach, and others that we know Eastman’s music at all. Last year Jace Clayton, also known as DJ/rupture, released an album called The Julius Eastman Memory Depot. There is a complementary performance piece called, yet more poignantly, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner. Clayton envisioned an alternate universe in which Eastman is widely beloved, in which dozens of actors apply to impersonate him at special events. The music reinterprets Eastman’s, building from and around it, applying digital processes, stretching and twisting the original notes and structures.
“Reverence,” Clayton writes in the notes, “can be a form of forgetting.”
Many of Eastman’s scores were lost in the eighties when he was forcibly evicted from his New York City apartment. According to his mother, he wrote a symphony in his final years, but no one knows where it is.
P. One can lose a great deal of time on Wikipedia reading about Martian geography. It turns out that the planet’s northern hemisphere consists of relatively smooth plains, while the south features dramatic impact craters. One of these, the Hellas Planitia, resulted from an asteroid impact some four billion years ago. The crater is about 1,400 miles wide and 23,000 feet deep. Along Mars’ equator there is a canyon system, the Valles Marineris, that stretches over 2,500 miles from end to end. There is also a volcano, Olympus Mons, that stands fourteen miles high, about three times taller than Mount Everest.
Someplace in the northern hemisphere, in a transitional zone between the craters and the plains, sits a region that perhaps was coastal in some distant epoch, named Cydonia after an ancient Cretan city whose inhabitants were noted for their skill in archery.
NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft reached Martian orbit on June 19, 1976. The ship’s lander decoupled and headed for the surface the following day. It landed in an area called Chryse Planitia (Greek for “Golden Plain”). It is a flat area largely devoid of geological interest, chosen for its relative safety. The lander took a series of dramatic photographs. In the first color image, sent on June 21, the volcanic landscape and its deep reds are undeniably reminiscent of the American Southwest.
Popular imagination has seized, though, upon another Viking 1 photograph, a picture of Cydonia taken from orbit. It captures a prominent mesa, roughly a mile in length, that bears an incredible resemblance to a humanoid face.
The Viking program’s chief scientist quickly dismissed the resemblance as a “trick of light and shadow.” But thirty-five orbits later, another photograph of the same region, shot with a different sun angle, shows the same face.
The face was seized upon by theorists of extraterrestrial life. It was just as immediately seized upon by scientific skeptics, who found it a pure example of human credulity.
More recent orbiters have given us higher-resolution photography that effectively dispels the idea of the Face on Mars. A beautifully shaded picture from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shot just a few years ago, offers a much clearer look at the mesa’s contours. It is just a Martian hill. And yet once you’ve seen the face, it is difficult to look at this photograph without seeing its outline below the surface details.
There is a word, “pareidolia,” taken from Greek roots meaning “wrong image.” Pareidolias are random packages of information within which the observer sees an image deemed to be significant. Our predilection for seeing human features in geological formations are the most common example. The countless spottings throughout history of Jesus, Mary, and other religious figures in trees, clouds, and grilled cheese sandwiches would also fall under this category.
Pareidolia describes specifically groundless images or sounds perceived. The more general term is “apophenia,” the experience of seeing meaningful patterns in random data -- the identification of meaning where, purportedly, no meaning exists.
Where, exactly, is significance? And what is an example of a mesa that means nothing?
In the Navajo Nation nearly every prominent geological feature, and many of the ostensibly insignificant ones, has some sacredness to it. They all play some role in that culture’s long and complicated creation story, a progression of four worlds, a steady pulsation of balance and imbalance. At the dawn of the current human era, a deity named Monster Slayer trekked from Navajo Mountain east to Mount Taylor, doing battle as he went with the alien gods that were terrorizing life on earth. Their fallen corpses ossified to become the dramatic rock formations of Monument Valley in Arizona.
It would be ridiculous to posit a face or other significant feature in such a mesa. We don’t need to look for significance. It is already there.
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• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues