From a Desert
I spent much of the summer of 2018 in Santa Fe, NM, where I was conducting John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic. Every evening, to clear my mind after rehearsal, I would go for a run near the northern terminus of the Camino Real, a 1,600-mile trade route that extends from Santa Fe down to Mexico City. It’s no longer a trade route in our age of superhighways; in Santa Fe it’s a simple dirt trail that runs along a (usually-dry) riverbed.
The Southwestern landscape made a strong impact on me – the aridity, the quiet, the illusion of nothingness, punctuated by sudden bursts of life. The cloud formations over the nearby mountains were never the same twice, and manifested an unbelievable variety of colors, shapes, movements, attitudes. I saw lizards; funny little quail-like birds with brown plumage; huge, meandering beetles; skinny, nervous little rabbits; and the occasional hawk circling overhead. One day, a flabbergastingly huge double rainbow stood like an iron archway over my neighborhood. I stared at it for half an hour, through intermittent rainshowers, expecting every instant for it to disappear, to be proven an illusion; but it outlasted me.
Throughout this process, I was slowly, steadily writing a piece for solo cello which enacts some of the life processes I noticed in the Santa Fe landscape. There is a barrenness to this piece which is unusual for my music; there’s a sense that every note is surrounded by a huge silence. I especially wanted to explore the relationship between the ground and the sky; between the furtive, scurrying life on the ground, which is usually trying to be invisible, and the majestic loneliness of the birds of prey up above.
The cello is uniquely capable of embodying both worlds: the instrument’s low register is potent and rich, with a wide array of snarls, plucks, and drones; the very high register is ghostly and sweet. Throughout the piece, there is – not quite a dialogue, but a juxtaposition, and a wary mutual regard, between these two registers, these two worlds. It’s a piece for one player, but there are many voices in it.