Desert Transport

There are worse places to be in February than Phoenix and Miami. For example, pretty much anywhere north of either.

As it happened, I needed to be in both places at more or less the same time.

On a Tuesday, Arizona Music Festival lifted off with the premiere of Desert Transport, a orchestra work about flying over the Arizona desert in a helicopter. On Wednesday, I was standing in Miami with headphones around my neck, rehearsing DJ sets for a massive party of classical music and electronica at the New World Symphony’s brand-new concert hall designed by Frank Gehry.

All in a week’s work.

It was so wonderful to return to the Arizona Music Festival this year. As their composer-in-residence, I was blessed to hear Maestro Robert Moody conducted no fewer than three large electro-acoustic orchestral works of mine last year, with this year’s focus to be on a brand-new piece.

The festival orchestra is a musical A-Team of the country’s top first-chair players, from the Met Orchestra to the Chicago Symphony, and it proved so inspiring that I got busy on my commission for them as soon as last year’s festival was over.

And there was also the helicopter.

Thanks to a few phone calls by Jim Morrisey, the chairman of the board, I was given the opportunity to see the landscape from the beautiful interior of Bob Dengler’s helicopter. Inspiration was in no short supply: the colors alone could fuel an entire work: lifting off from Scottsdale airport, we watched the desert floor change from dark yellow to rust red to white (when we passed over some snowy peaks). The rich red formations of Sedona loomed outside our windows as we fluttered by. Indian cliff-dwellings, long abandoned, sat impossibly high in the sides of mountains.

When we landed, I turned to Robert. Okay, the desert landscape would receive due homage in next year’s piece — but so would the helicopter! Combining the timeless, expansive desert landscape with whirring, mechanistic music seemed an interesting challenge.

Well, it lifted off beautifully.

The piece opens on a desert helipad, with the tempo decisively accelerating like the rotors of the copter, and ultimately travels to the mystical space of Sedona and Montezuma’s Castle (the Indian cliff dwelling). The entire progression is from the mechanistic and industrial to the natural and spiritual. To root the piece properly, I poured over hours of field recordings of Indians local to the area, hoping to find some striking melody to include in the piece.

What I found was astonishing: a group of Pima Indians singing “Mountain By the Sea” in such an earthy, heartfelt manner that I decided not only to quote the melody, but to include the recording itself in the piece. Near the end of Desert Transport, when the music retreats into a mystical, ambient space, the field recording floats in from an offstage speaker. The message is that, ultimately, the soul of the Pimas will continue to permeate the Arizona desert long after the helicopters, cars, and cities disappear.

So, that was Monday and Tuesday. Miami beckoned…

(Tune in next month!)