The Petrified Forest National Park Artist-in-Residence Program (AiR) invites musicians, writers and artists to live and work in the Park. Each year there are fourteen artists chosen for the residency. Below is an excerpt from my notes written during my stay in October 2015.
So, what exactly am I doing as an Artist-in-Residence (AiR) at Petrified Forest National Park? One applies to be an AiR with a project. The projects must be in some way related to the Park. My project was to ask ten exceptional composers to write short pieces for solo cello inspired by some aspect of the area. The highly versatile sound of the cello is a wonderful medium for this project, singing at times like a human voice and at others like an ancient instrument from another world. I am sure the pieces will be as evocative, moving, and extraordinary as the Park itself.
The works I’ve received have been inspired by geology, history, sense of space, silence, native bird songs and Dine (Navajo) songs.
One of the difficulties of this particular project is the timeline. Decisions are made about the AiRs in winter and the residencies start the following spring. For the composers I wanted to work with, it’s an impossible, or near impossible, deadline as they are usually working a year ahead. My solution was to schedule a concert of the premieres for February 2016 in Boston, and to work on whatever sketches the composers sent me during the residency in October. Of course people work at different speeds and I’m happy to say that I had one complete piece and several close to completion by late in the month.
The National Parks residency is not just about a project. It is meant to be a time to renew and experiment in a natural setting away from the usual distractions of job, internet, cell phone, etc. I spent two weeks living at the Park.
My home was a small historic casita across from the Painted Desert Inn, a Fred Harvey establishment that is now a museum and visitor center. I have to admit that the first night I couldn’t sleep and time during the first day stretched out as spaciously as the landscape. Sound travels in mysterious ways in the Park. The silence at night was was both wondrous and unnerving for this urban dweller. My only companions were small salamanders, a mouse, a white tailed squirrel, crows and, one moon lit evening, owls.
A concert was scheduled at La Posada, an historic inn in Winslow, Arizona. The program was informal and unusual as I played after a Navajo flutist and a champion hoop dancer who effortlessly manipulated hoops into many intricate formations without ever losing a step. I started with a movement of Bach and continued with works by John Kennedy, Yu-Hui Chang, John McDonald and Jan Swafford. The audience was very open to all the unexpected sounds and the contemporary look of the carbon fiber cello.
I spent each day in the Park studying pieces as well as playing short concerts at the visitor centers and scenic viewpoints. The variety of landscape in the Park is truly amazing. Huge fallen petrified trees dot the landscape, around every turn are stunning petroglyphs and ancient ruins, there is the expanse of the Painted Desert and the otherworldly landscape of the Typees and Blue Mesa. It is an extraordinary place. -RR