Capturing the Grand Canyon by Cello Strings,” an interview with WBUR Boston

The Grand Canyon National Park Artist-in-Residence Program (AiR) invites musicians and artists to live and work at the Canyon. Each year there are twelve artists chosen for the South Rim residency. Below is an excerpt from my notes written during my February 2011 residency. In the end, a blizzard closed the Park and the concert scheduled at the end of my stay was cancelled. Happily, I was invited to return the following October to finish my residency and play the concert. 

My time as Artist-in-Residence at Grand Canyon National Park was a wonderful adventure. One memorable afternoon I sat in the living room of the cozy apartment above the Verkamp Visitor Center and looked out on a snowstorm that had started earlier than predicted. The Canyon was completely hidden by horizontally blowing snow bursts. The only sounds were the howling wind and the New Age music playing in the visitor center. Speaking of the visitor center…every morning at 8am I was treated to recordings of various New Age artists or the ever-popular cowboy crooners (rollin’, rollin’, rollin’) and the occasional swearing-in of a junior ranger. With no insulation between the floors of the old building it was a pretty lively place. 

I spent most of each day studying the eleven pieces commissioned for this residency, taking periodic practice breaks to explore the Canyon. Its vastness seemed unreal from up on the South Rim. The stars were as bright as you might imagine, and when the wind wasn’t blowing it could be disconcertingly quiet. How remarkable to be on the edge of such an expanse and yet have so little sound!…the universal and personal all at once.  -RR

A Winter Storm at the Grand Canyon

The breathtakingly beautiful image on this page and the CD artwo, A Winter Storm at the Grand Canyon, is by renowned photographer, Adam Schallau. Adam was also an Artist-in-Residence (AiR) at Grand Canyon National Park. I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife, Sally at a celebration of GCNP in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to his own photography, Adam gives fascinating workshops in photography at Grand Canyon. Please visit his website for more information and to see his other remarkable images.


Notes about the Pieces

If you would like a score for any of the pieces listed below, do contact me. You can purchase the "Grand Canyon Project" recording at MSR Classics, by clicking the image above or visiting the Discography page!


Rio del Tizon

"How does one capture the grandeur of the Grand Canyon with one cello?" was the question in my mind when Rhonda asked me to write a piece for her Grand Canyon National Park residency concert. Very soon I realized that what amazes me the most about this spectacular place is how the Colorado River achieves the improbable with its quiet power of perseverance. Thus I wish to use my piece as a way to experience the Colorado River's journey in space, and in time. Rio del Tizon (Firebrand River) is an old Spanish name for the lower Colorado River, which differentiates it from the other rivers which are also named Colorado. I also love the image that this name invokes of Native Americans carrying firebrands for warmth, giving me a sense of how the river and the canyon existed long before they became tourist attractions.

Yu-Hui Chang (Brandeis University)

so near, so far

so near, so far was written for cellist Rhonda Rider to be played during her recent Grand Canyon Residency.  The piece is a musical representation of the Grand Canyon of my imagination- at once vast and spacious, yet quiet and intimate.  so near, so far is in 6 short movements.     

                                                    –Marti Epstein (The Boston Conservatory, Berklee College of Music)

My Grandmother's Ashes (and a Balloon)

Back in the late 80's my brother saw an alien spaceship near the airport with my grandmother.  This was just before he got the idea into his head that when our grandmother died he would rent a balloon and fly over the Grand Canyon to scatter her ashes.  My grandmother died many years later when she was ninety-nine and left her body to science.  With this lullaby, there is no balloon, no ashes, just the lilt of a memory wafting up and over the canyon rim

                                                                       –Howard Frazin (Longy School of Music)

The Great Unconformity

Cellist Rhonda Rider asked me to create a solo work for her to perform in the Grand Canyon at the Shrine of Ages; the work is dedicated to her. I wanted to create a work that was reflective of the power of the site and that addressed musically the puzzle of The Great Unconformity, a billion year gap in geological history where the lower layer of Vishnu schist rocks are more than 1.5 billion years old and the layer immediately above it is only 500 million years old, leaving a difference of 1 billion years that is not understood.  My work, a rumination on this concept, offers a multi-layered set of varied musical materials (repeated chords, glissandi, pizzicati, ricochet bowing, sweeping lyrical lines, etc.) that are juxtaposed one after the other linearly, creating a musical landscape that figuratively swoops down and through the Canyon, surveying the eons of rock formations.

Laura Kaminsky (Symphony Space, NYC)

Even the Stones Breathe

When Rhonda Rider invited me to compose the piece for her residency, I was immediately taken back to my experience of the Canyon and what I learned attending a junior ranger class with my daughters at the North Rim campground in 2004. We were taught the mnemonic, “Know The Canyon’s History, Study Rocks Made By Time” as an aid to remember the layers of the canyon: Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, etc. And for me, there is in the depth of sound and range of the cello, something akin to the rich layers and colors of rock in the Canyon. So in composing this piece, it became a kind of excavation, in which the cellist carves out ancient sounds. It is as though the cello is a dwelling place of sound and color, brought alive as the Canyon is by the elements that move it.

The latent living quality of rocks, which I have always felt, is to me very much like music. Music is another magical element of the ecosystem that needs air to exist and breathe. And I found the expression of this for the title of the piece “Even the Stones Breathe” from Frank Waters’ description of the Grand Canyon in his book Colorado: “Everything is alive, dynamic with constant change. Even the stones breathe; water is electric, the air is luminous.”

John Kennedy (Spoleto Festival USA)

a focus further within

My work is inspired by cloud imagery and the qualities of light and time of day. I am fascinated by the layers that result by the differing rates of speed at which these clouds move. I find compelling the speed with which clouds move; splitting off and recombining with one another; reforming and sometimes dissipating entirely.  This, I think, is an operative analogy to the approach I take in my work.  

a focus further within was commissioned by 'cellist Rhonda Rider as part of her Grand Canyon Project, and is a further elaboration of ideas originally explore in my quintet entitled a focused expanse of evolving experience, which was inspired by some very beautiful pictures of the Grand Canyon in a book about it. One notable photograph was one in which the wide and periodic expanses of the canyon recede into a diffuse and distant horizon of orange-blue sky.

I like to imagine distinct worlds within clouds as they define distance which greatly fuels my imagination. In particular and most recently pieces like a focus further within attempt to address this.

–Jeffrey Mumford (Lorain County Community College)


Of the themes suggested for a piece for Rhonda's Grand Canyon project, I was most attracted to water. The piece proceeds pictorially, from rivulets high in the mountains that glint in the sun and gradually descend into the torrents of the Colorado River. Thus the piece begins with glinty sounds, becomes lower and quicker, and ends back in the glistening music. "Luccicare" is the Italian verb for glint or shimmer, and I like the way it sounds when you say it out loud.

David Rakowski (Brandeis University)

The Silence at Yuma Point

Yuma Point is one of the legendary places in Grand Canyon, a camping spot with a stupendous prospect of buttes and rock layers down to the Colorado. Part of its legend is that it's a difficult and sometimes scary trek to get to it. In May 2010 a friend and I camped at Yuma Point. Soon after we arrived I noticed, for a few seconds, a windless silence unusual in an exposed spot afflicted all day long by the ghastly roar of tourist helicopters. Those few seconds of silence, intimate rather than expansive, and a request from Rhonda Rider, are the sources of The Silence at Yuma Point.

The first part is headed Music of Nature. Its whispers and flurries are laid over silence, which is a steady and palpable presence in the piece. Its first-heard and leading motif is an evocation of the Canyon Wren, whose song is one of the most beautiful in the Southwest. For the second half of the piece I recalled something Beethoven jotted on a sketch of the Pastoral Symphony: "Visit to the country. Effect on the soul." So the climactic section of the piece is headed Joyful Song. Finally the music sinks into sleep, presided over by the Canyon Wren. 

The piece is also a gesture of hope toward a time when one can again hear the sounds of nature, instead of helicopters at Yuma Point. 

The Silence at Yuma point was written for Rhonda Rider and is dedicated to the memory of composer and Boston Conservatory teacher Dana Brayton, who was my friend and hiking, skiing, and biking partner for twenty years. Dana: Every time I round a bend in the woods I still imagine you there waiting for me. I could never keep up with you, but you always waited. 

Jan Swafford (The Boston Conservatory)

Near and Far

'Near and Far' is really a very unambiguous title. Writing this piece I was thinking of how staggeringly different the canyon looks from on the ground and from up above, on the rim. And so speedy, itchy material (close up) is gradually hugely elongated, with all of the detail subsumed in plain lines, as the focus is pulled farther and farther back.

                                                                                                    –Andy Vores (The Boston Conservatory)


When I was approached by Rhonda Rider to compose a solo cello work inspired by the Grand Canyon, I was interested in addressing the oral tradition so paramount in Native American culture. I chose a version of the Navajo story “Born for the Sun,” which depicts the conception and birth of Nayenezgani (“Monster Slayer”) and his alter ego twin Tobadzhistshini (“Born for Water”). What struck me about this tale was not merely its heavily ritualistic component, but its depiction of the emotional scope experienced by the mother-to-be, the White Bead Girl.

The tale begins as the girl longs for a mate, describing how, each afternoon for four days, she would visit the spring, lying under the ledge and letting spring water drip over her body. Then, after entreating her foster mother four times, she was permitted to go down to the f

oot of the mesa and gather seeds despite the fear of the monsters lurking about. Here she was visited by a Holy Being, in the form of a young man on a dazzling white horse, who instructed her to prepare a meal and wait for him at nightfall. Four nights she waited, after which she first felt the stirrings of a life within her. She gave birth to the twins five days later.

The story seemed to me all about the tension between waiting versus yearning, and control versus lack of control (or, in the case of set class use, breaking free). The musical language vacillates accordingly and with varying degrees of abruptness, culminating at its most Romantic in “Passions I and II.”

                                                                                        –Dalit Hadass Warshaw (The Boston Conservatory)