II. Above Clouds
III. Black Rattle
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba; timpani, 3 percussion (I=chimes/glockenspiel/bass drum/small slapstick/large slapstick/small woodblock; II=vibraphone/african rattle/bongos/crash cymbals/tambourine/small triangle/large woodblock; III=glockenspiel/xylophone/piccolo snare drum/suspended cymbal/medium triangle/metal wind chimes/medium woodblock/vibraslap), strings
Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)
Duration: 24 minutes
World Premiere: February 8, 2006 / The Lighthouse, Poole, United Kingdom / Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Marin Alsop
Ghost Ranch (2005) is inspired by the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1968). A rugged individualist who distanced herself from art critics and art historians, she lived for over forty years in her summer home known as Ghost Ranch, a desolate area 120 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s paintings of this period reflect the vast southwestern landscape, with its open sky, jagged canyons, and bone-parched earth. Her art, like my music, hovers between realism and abstraction. Ghost Ranch is a musical journey into a stark terrain of extremes and contrasts.
On her daily walks around Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe collected bleached animal bones scattered over the desert. She used these to create sculptures in her sparsely furnished adobe house, and depicted them as abstract objects in many of her paintings. In Summer Days (1936) and From the Faraway Nearby (1937), for example, animal skulls appear to float in a bright blue sky, and in Pelvis III (1944) O’Keeffe framed the vastness of the sky through the holes of a pelvis bone. In the first movement of Ghost Ranch, I recollect these bones with tapping, bone-like sounds: the string players tap their instruments col legno (using the wood of the bow) and play snap pizzicato (snapping the string against the fingerboard), punctuated by the dry polyrhythms of hollow woodblocks played by the percussion section. To evoke the distinct multiple layers of O’Keeffe’s paintings, I divide the orchestra into three separate ensembles, each with its own tempo and tone color. Sweeping melodic lines are played by the brass and the strings, recalling the open blue skies and epic panoramas of the southwestern terrain. Echoing O’Keeffe’s lifelong search to create “the feeling of infinity on the horizon line,” the coda of this movement increasingly moves toward one pitch, simultaneously played by the three ensembles in different tempos.
In O’Keeffe’s paintings, Sky Above Clouds I-IV (1962-5), white clouds are geometrically set against a bright blue background, creating an abstract yet recognizable form. To recreate the “near and far, both in time and space” of O’Keeffe’s masterpieces, I expand the listener’s sense of acoustic space by spatially re-arranging the horn section on the stage. It is possible to see as well as hear the sound of the solo horns, floating cloud-like over the rest of the orchestra. While I was composing this piece I also had some phrases in my ear that Anne Carson collected and put into a poem for me about swimming under a blue sky: “dazzle by…dazzle my…sometimes spinning …sometimes cursing…true finger knows…unlocked…light…big blue one…must be grand enough…blue can drift…us evaporating…”
Dressed in black, O’Keeffe would travel alone from Ghost Ranch in her Model T car to discover and paint new places. Often camping overnight, she was drawn to ominous landscapes such as the barren hills she called the “Black Place,” where she endured terrifying lightning storms, wild animals, and rattle snakes in order to make her strange but beautiful paintings. The third movement suggests danger, beginning with woodwinds playing ‘bell in air,’ barking like a pack of coyotes in the middle of the night. The lower strings and timpani pulsate with a menacing rhythm in 7/8 time, and a dark twisting melody is played by the English horn, bassoons and oboes, and later by the entire orchestra. Percussion instruments rattle, while the orchestra paints a bleak panorama. The slow, mysterious middle section evokes the feeling of walking slowly into blackness. In the last section, the opening serpentine melody (heard again in the bass clarinet and bassoon) is interrupted by dissonant brass echoes and ringing chimes. The movement concludes with a menacing rattle.
Ghost Ranch was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by its principal conductor, Marin Alsop, on February 8, 2006 in Poole, United Kingdom.