2023 Artist-in-Residence Musical Reflections
From July 23 - August 18, the 2023 Great Basin National Park Foundation - University of Nevada, Reno Artist in Residence Marko Bajzer camped near Wheeler Peak and began his research and exploration of the Park in crafting a new composition. Marko is a Croatian-American composer, visual artist, bassoonist, administrator, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.
Below Marko introduces us to the narrative of his new work inspired by his time as Artist-in-Residence.
In 1964, before the area now known as Great Basin National Park was a national park, a graduate student was studying the ancient bristlecone pines at the time in which it was known that bristlecone pines were among the oldest living things. The data from their tree rings was providing incredible data about the climate of North America going back thousands of years. The student’s increment borer (a device used to safely extract a sample of the tree-rings to count their age without directly hurting the tree) got stuck in a bristlecone in the Snake Range of eastern Nevada, and he wrote to the forest service to ask permission to cut the tree down, which was granted. Upon felling the tree and studying its rings, it was discovered that this tree was the oldest known tree at the time, dating to at least 4,862 years, and very likely older than 5,000 years old. This tree was named Prometheus, after the mythical titan who gave humans fire, due to the knowledge it provided us. After this incident, it became clear that the mountain needed more protection, and a movement started to establish a national park, which became Great Basin National Park in 1986.
The park consists of Nevada’s second tallest mountain (Wheeler Peak) and the surrounding spectacular alpine scenery, the intricately decorated Lehman Caves (which themselves were a national monument dating to 1922), and of course several groves of the gnarled and bizarre-looking ancient bristlecone pines, which have been weatherbeaten into twisted, tortured shapes by time and wind. Being several hours from the nearest metropolis, the park is also known for having some of the darkest night skies in the country. I was fortunate enough to be in the park at the peak of the Perseid meteor shower.
Narrative of the Piece
The working title of the piece I’m writing is What Have you Done to Me?: An Elegy for Prometheus, in Great Basin National Park. The narrative of the piece depicts an amalgamation of scenes from the park that are inspired by a number of my experiences during my residency (though which did not necessarily happen literally).
You wake up in the middle of the night and just before falling back to sleep you notice a strange light outside your tent. Your curiosity overcomes your tiredness and you unzip the tent to see a magnificent night sky, unlike any you’ve ever seen. A myriad stars twinkle like diamonds in the sky and meteors flit through the firmament in dazzling displays while the Milky Way hangs in the air like a frozen cloud. This is the night sky our ancestors saw for millenia, though which we rarely see today. A voice in your head whispers, beckoning you into the forest. Deeper and deeper into the woods you venture, until you’re wandering through a grove of the ancient bristlecone pines, whose twisted shapes loom bizarrely in the starlight. The voice continues to usher you deeper, though it’s muffled and can’t quite make out what it’s saying. Finally you arrive at a large stump, with a felled tree beside it, illuminated by the cold light of the newly rising moon; the stump of Prometheus. You can understand the voice clearly now, and it says, “What have you done to me?”. The words echo through your mind as you grieve and reflect on the destruction of this magnificent organism at the hands of even the most well-intentioned of humans. Though through its unwilling sacrifice it has provided us with significant scientific data as well as another wonderful gift, which is this national park.
There are three primary musical elements to the piece, with a few more subtle ones.
1. The Night Sky
The first is the musical depiction of the night sky, which will be done with harp and percussion, including crotales, triangles, glockenspiels, wind chimes, etc.
2. The Bristlecone Forest
The second musical element of the piece is the electronics which will be recordings I took of the bristlecones themselves. One can attach electrodes to plants and use a device to measure the changes in conductivity of the plant as it photosynthesizes, and moves water and nutrients. These changes in conductivity can be mapped onto a wave and then turned into a sound wave, producing pitches and rhythms. Recordings of this technique will be triggered at certain points as part of the piece. This piece would be the first time, to my knowledge, that this technique would be used in the context of a work symphony orchestra.
3. The Voice of the Prometheus
The third is the voice of the Prometheus. As you can see, the trees are bizarre looking, gnarled, and twisted. I thought, “which instrument that is at least sometimes in the orchestra has the most bizarre, esoteric, and inscrutable tone?” The instrument I came up with is the bass oboe, and its use is also a reference to one of the instrument’s most famous solos, which is in “Saturn: the Bringer of Old Age,” as part of The Planets by Gustav Holst. Having a solo bass oboe part does present some logistical intricacies, but this would be a first. I’m not aware of any orchestral work that features the bass oboe as a solo instrument with orchestra.
4. Native American Rhythms and/or Melodies
A number of powwows of the local American Indian tribes were happening during my residency and I was able to get some recordings from their music. As a nod to the people who have lived in this area for millenia, I plan to incorporate of this music in the fabric of the piece in subtle ways.
5. Cave Formations
In Lehman Caves, one of the primary features of the park, there is a room called the Music Room, named because it has a row of stalactites and cave draperies that in times past were played with mallets. Thus I plan on having a significant vibraphone part as a nod to the caves and their history, even though they aren’t particularly featured in the narrative of the piece.
I hope to have this piece performed in the 2024-2025 season by a major orchestra in Nevada. Details forthcoming.