July 20, 2015

Mt. Messiaen

Yesterday, I drove down highway 143 in search of Mt. Messiaen. Somewhere between Brian Head Ski Resort and the town of Parowan is a cluster of sandstone cliffs that were named for the French composer after he completed “Des Canyons Aux Etoiles,” a work composed for America’s bicentennial and inspired by the sights and sounds of Cedar Breaks, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. 

Google gave me a basic map, and my Utah Recreational Road Atlas showed a trail in the vicinity. I knew there’d be a plaque, and had seen a few pictures of the area online, so though I expected to have to keep my eyes peeled for a quick turn off, I thought it’d be reasonably marked and noticeable.

This was not the case.

Fortunately, the sandstone formation itself is fairly recognizable from the road, but I almost drove past the small unmarked trail that winds up from the highway to the base of the ledges. Once on the trail, I wandered up around and through the towering pillars and ridges I thought for sure must be Mt. Messiaen, but I needed to find the plaque that could confirm my guess.

Though I discovered lots of strange and lovely patterns in the sandstone...

...and a few creatures willing to pose for photos...

...the plaque eluded me entirely.

I called Rob for directions and he read off some information that had been posted online by a previous visitor. The plaque was supposedly on the southeast side of a small boulder hiding in a grove of trees about 40 yards up the trail. I searched and searched—went WAY past 40 yards just in case the previous visitor’s measurements had been off. I wandered around shelves of sculpted sandstone through dense knots of trees…maybe it had become overgrown since its installment 30-some-odd years ago…maybe it had been stolen, or vandalized beyond recognition. I drove up the road a few miles to see if I’d taken the wrong trail, but came back again after it was clear the first trail was the most likely option.

I kept searching for over 2 hours.

And then wandered back to my car resigned to the fact that I’d just have to keep using someone else’s plaque photo in my presentations.

But then, of course, there it was. Hiding a little ways off the trail was a flat-ish slab about the size of an average gravestone surrounded by grass and brush—very unassuming. I only noticed it because the way it was propped up seemed a little more than what nature would've managed.




AUGUST 5, 1978

Today it seems so unlikely, but simply awesome, that an arts committee in a small out-of-the-way rural town would, of its own volition, choose to honor the work of a modern “classical” composer in such a tangible way. For the average listener Des Canyons is a challenging piece to appreciate. When I talk about it in my programs here, I include a lot of setup—a lot of explanation and illustration—in order to prime people’s ears for the startling harmonies and non-traditional rhythms that Messiaen used to portray the red rocks, bird songs, and vast star-scapes he experienced in southern Utah. But with the right set-up (particularly in my rim walk, where I have more time to go into detail), I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive reactions people have to the piece.

These experiences remind me of when I was taking my first serious music theory courses and was introduced to difficult modern pieces by George Crumb, Elliot Carter, and others. If I’d heard them on my own—out-of-the-blue with no set up—there’s no question I’d have wrinkled my nose in disgust and scoffed, “Who could ever call this noisy crap MUSIC?!” But I was fortunate to have some truly wonderful theory teachers who invited me into the music—put it into context, helped me learn what to listen for, and allowed me to have a first experience with modern music that was as magical as the first time I heard Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Debussy’s La Mer.

Standing there at the base of Mt. Messiaen I was suddenly grateful the plaque had been so hard to find. As I’d wandered the area I’d been able to enjoy the sculpted rock with its fantastical shapes and swirls of color. I recognized bird songs that Messiaen had used in Des Canyons—white-throated swifts nesting high up in the sandstone eaves, a clark’s nutcracker ratcheting away in the distance, and the warbling trills of the hermit thrush echoing through the trees. I don’t know if Messiaen was ever able to visit this spot, but I think he would’ve liked it.