My composition Retrace for flute, violin, and cello commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968, and was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. It will receive four co-World Premiere performances during Fall 2018 in locations around the country—presented by Citywater and the Visions of the Wild Festival (9/23, Vallejo, CA), Michigan Technological University (10/4, Houghton, MI), Cascadia Composers (10/7, Portland, OR), and Juventas New Music Ensemble (11/3, Boston, MA), respectively—as part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide initiative I am directing for the Landscape Music Composers Network.
The Anza Trail stretches 1,200 miles, weaving through desert and city from Nogales, Arizona to San Francisco, California. It follows the path of the Anza Expedition of 1775-76, which traveled indigenous routes from modern-day Mexico through Arizona and California to settle the San Francisco Bay Area for Spain. A narrative mapped onto the land rather than a “trail” in the usual sense, the Anza Trail is an ongoing project of cultural and historical preservation through outreach, education, and recreation.
The Anza Expedition’s diverse group of 240 men, women, and children departed Horcasitas, Mexico, led by the Spanish military and Franciscan Missionaries, with the collaboration of indigenous guides, in pursuit of new beginnings in “Alta California.” The Anza Trail is a testament to the formative role that Native, Spanish, and Afro-Latino people played in shaping this region’s history and character, and acknowledges their many descendants today. The United States’ broadly under-acknowledged Hispanic and indigenous origins are vitally important to recognize—and never more so than in our present social and political climate.
The Anza Trail offers a lens through which to experience the delights and dissonances of modern California.
To prepare for writing Retrace, I took a road trip this summer, accompanied by my partner John, following a portion of the Anza Trail’s auto tour route. We traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping at parks, Missions, Presidios, museums, and sites where the Expedition made camp—from expansive beaches and mountains along the coast to gritty underpasses and city parks. The Anza Trail offers a lens through which to experience the delights and dissonances of modern California. It also led me to contemplate how a sense of place can be deepened through retracing the pathways of the past.
The music of Retrace reflects my personal impressions and emotional responses to following the Anza Trail’s narrative through the urban and rural landscapes of California. I sought to express a vivid presence of the past that emerged for me when this historical narrative was situated within firsthand experiences of physical spaces.
The first half of this piece alternates between evocations of the “past” (the historic expedition) and “present”: the contemporary California that the trail traverses. Four sections shift abruptly in mood, beginning with a meditation on the expedition’s hopeful struggle—embodied by a rising, lyrical theme, which hovers ambiguously between major and minor modes—then jumping into bright, rock-inflected music conjuring an afternoon hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, an ocean beach, or a drive on Highway 101. A triple-meter dance evokes the “fandango” of the Expedition’s peoples, jostling and journeying together in a collective search for prosperity.
Finally, past and present merge in the form of the National Trail’s 1,200 miles of stories threaded through the landscape. A somber, contrapuntal coda reflects reflects the serenity of Mission churches and gardens—then shifts to evoke the dark and conflicted legacy of colonialism, seen in the loss of Native lives, land, and cultures.
To my surprise, a poem also emerged through my compositional process. Each section of the music relates to a section of this text. While the music may stand alone, I’ve chosen to share my poem at performances of Retrace in hopes that it will enrich the listening experience.
—Nell Shaw Cohen