Cher mademoiselle, you can name anything in Utah after me, even a tiny pebble in Bryce Canyon, and I will be deeply honored.
--Olivier Messiaen...in response to Julie Whitaker, whose efforts eventually led to the re-naming of Parowan Canyon's White Ledges "Mount Messiaen."When Messiaen was initially approached in 1971 by musical philanthropist Alice Tully to write a new piece to commemorate America's bicentennial, he refused the commission because he so thoroughly disliked American cities. Perhaps Tully expected his reaction, or just wasn't inclined to accept defeat easily, but in either case, she had one trick up her sleeve that caught the celebrated French composer unaware: photos of southern Utah.
Messiaen was widely known to be a synesthete (seeing colors in correspondence with sound, and visa versa), so it isn't hard to imagine how visions of the painted desert might have appealed to him. Sufficiently inspired, Messiaen made a special trip to Utah in 1972, and was struck by the light, colors, sounds, and otherworldly landforms he encountered in Zion, Cedar Breaks, and especially Bryce Canyon. His experiences led to the premier, two years later, of Des canyons aux étoiles (from the Canyons to the Stars) which, in the composer's own words, serves as "an act of praise and contemplation" that "contains all the colors of the rainbow."After the 2003 release of a new recording of Des Canyons, a BBC reviewer wrote:
Messiaen's music links the land itself, the canyons of Utah--whose colourful layers reach back in geological time--with the stars sparkling in the clear-blue desert sky, their light emanating from long ago and far away. A sense of colour then, natural majesty, a palette of every shade of red and rich orange-brown; a timeless quality that reaches far back in time and human history...also a direct analogy with the American flag: the stars in the night sky and the geological stripes of the canyons.
--Andrew McGreggorThe piece's central movement, Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange ("Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks"), is bracketed on either side by dramatic and haunting celestial strains: Appel interstellaire ("Interstellar Call"), and Les ressucités et le chant de l'étoile Aldebaran ("The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran"). That celestial wonders feature so prominently in Messiaen's tone poem seems especially appropriate. Today, Bryce Canyon is internationally known for its unparalleled views of the starry night sky, and the park's "Dark Rangers" are on the forefront of promoting and protecting natural darkness as an important natural resource.
It was primarily for the starry sky that Patrick and I headed down to Bryce that afternoon...or so we hoped. He was scheduled to give a presentation about space exploration at the park's lodge, while I'd planned to set up a telescope in the visitor center's parking lot immediately afterward and assist in showing interested visitors the deep-sky wonders that appear so beautifully from Bryce's dark-sky high-altitude vantage. He'd even taken the trouble to rearrange his schedule with the park in order to accommodate my visit...in part because I'd also been hoping to speak to a Dark Ranger about my own aspirations to join the force someday.
We travelled along a back route west of the Oquirrhs (including a portion of highway 6, the aptly named "loneliest road in America") in order to avoid construction delays on I-15. I'd never been through this part of the state before, and found myself entranced by the sparse open plains. Wind whipped up sand and dust, sending its pale billows streaming through sage and over the road. Storm clouds roiled above, and the occasional crack of lightening flashed in the distance. It all made for dramatic views of the landscape (I regret not taking any pictures)...but didn't bode well for our star party that evening.
Along the way, we enjoyed pleasant company and conversation, stopped twice for snacks and stretches, and still arrived at Bryce well enough in advance to take in the view along the canyon's rim. The sky remained mostly overcast, but the setting sun easily found holes substantial enough to blaze through across the geological splendor arrayed before us.
And even in the shade it was easy to marvel at the range of color that seemed to melt over the layered topography like spilled paint...an inspiration for Messiaen's synaesthesia?
At one point, I noticed our shadows projected onto a ledge in the foreground and snapped this picture...one of my favorite of the trip. A good friend is a wonderful thing...and one who enables experiences like this is even better.
From my sketchbook journal:
From the pleasant ways in which time flies though beautiful country and easy friendship, I find myself at the canyon rim watching the last golden rays of a cloudy afternoon dance across the piqued landscape. A game of perspective. It spotlights some distant chorus of color...dims...and radiates again in fluid counterpoint. It steps back now to cast an audience in profile: a pair together in trusted solitude, foundations mingled atop ruddy talus slopes that float over a depth of reaching hoodoos. Just enough of what is right, and honest, and innocent, and sustaining, collides in that moment to awaken a prayer of gratitude and quench the fevered longing that has of late been my habit of being. I say nothing of this to my companion, but hope some equal measure has filled him also.
Parallels stand. Look. Breathe. And continue walking.
|Good clean Bryce Canyon mud!|
The stars didn't ever make it out that evening...at least not above the Park. Patrick's presentation was as entertaining and inspiring as I remember. Stories of exploration and discovery held the audience in rapt attention. But the star party was cancelled.
Along the return trip, somewhere south of Nephi, I looked up through the car window to discover a sky awash with stars...the Milky Way's familiar clouds eagerly gleaming through a gaping patch of clear.
I hoped to return soon...