Colors, Contrasts, and the Spaces Inbetween

Video: “Snow Caps” from High Desert Panoramas by Brent Lawrence

Editor’s Note: Composer Brent Lawrence writes his first essay for about finding inspiration in the high desert of eastern Oregon.

Although I live in Oregon now, I am not from Oregon. My blood runs from the cool mountain streams of Appalachia, where crystalline brook-babbles froth over the stones of mountains older than I can comprehend. It is in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia, and the rolling hills of the North Carolina Piedmont, where I made my old friends. The ragged, old, and wise mountains that cradled me in my, even more youthful, youth. It is no surprise then that I was taken (and still am) by the grandeur of the Cascades as my Red Mazda whisked through the mountain highways flanked by peaks adorned with snow. For many, and to me, the forest is a magical place, especially here in Oregon. Where one can lose themselves in the clear pools of mountain brooks, the silence perpetuated by unspeaking firs, or the occasional whisper of the wind. But to me, many of Oregon’s mysteries lie in the east.

Nearly two-thirds of this state, east of the Cascade range, is covered by the sprawling high desert. The land is flat, with exposed dirt, and the flora here are hardy in a different way. Skies opens up as if attempting to stretch the veil of the Earth and steal a glimpse of heavenly bodies above. Indeed, it is easy to only appreciate this land for its ruggedness; a reputation it more than deserves. But perhaps something deeper lies within this landscape. This is what I thought as the mysteries of eastern Oregon swept me into the high desert. Until this point in my life, the deserts of the American West had remained in an abstract realm of cultural fable. In fact, my eyes had never laid upon these flora and exposed dirt, except for images streaming across my television or a glimpse from an airplane. So when I came across the high desert in my transcontinental journey, I was struck by the vastness—and the emptiness. Much of this land is unspoiled, unoccupied, wild, and more vast than I can comprehend.

I stand atop a ridge to the east of Baker City, at the National Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Baker, as it is called locally, has nestled itself between the Blue Mountain’s Elkhorn range and the Wallowas. I look out across the valley’s expanse, across the sagebrush and farm-fields. Perhaps some think of this view as dull, sullen, or anemic. But look closer. I compel you: look past the swaths of brown, beige, and gray. Focus your eyes on a rock, any rock, and see where its particulates glisten in the morning sun. Look for the lichen, which lives on the rock, and explodes with color in the forenoon brilliance. Maybe now, as you look past the rock, you see the accent of a western wallflower, its bright yellow tufts of color contrasting with the brown, beige, and gray, or the surrounding sagebrush and rocks.

Look past the rock, the lichen, and the western wallflower. Past the sagebrush and the brown, beige, and the gray. Cast your eyes across the farm-fields, where a few houses stand. Look for a ridge, far-away. You can see the sagebrush and rocks and the swaths of brownish hues that color the ground. These contrasts define the space. For you don’t simply see the texture of the trees, but the space between them. Where sagebrush and rocks are separated by the swathes of brown. The expanse feels visceral. It stretches out before the horizon, as you cast your eyes across the entire landscape, the farm-fields, and up the far-away ridge. In the morning sun, you can see the snow atop the mountains—it is not quite summer. It glistens in the light, and although it sometimes burns your eyes, you dare not look away. Feel the cool, spring, morning wind as it blows in your face and whips past your ears. It is quiet here. Save for the occasional sound of a farmer or rancher’s vehicle as they go about daily business. And as the sagebrush wobbles in the morning wind, you can hear the faintest of peeps. A ground squirrel calling out to ask why, exactly, you have come here.

When recounting my visits to the eastern part of the state, people are often inquisitive. Almost as if these areas on the map might as well be blank. But that is exactly what compels me to visit these places: the vastness of the land. There’s an urge to simply show up and see what’s there and be present with that space. To soak it all in and let my mind wander. Everywhere, I find, has a story to tell once we wander into it. And this is exactly why I find it inspiring. Eastern Oregon is teeming with life, sounds, and colors that compel me to compose about it. Attempting to bring these elements into my music is a challenge I enjoy. Trying to translate these landscapes, and how they speak to their onlookers, into music.

Can my passion for the high desert be chalked up to novelty? Perhaps. I am still young, and not as well traveled as others. However, discovering the vastness of this land has given me more appreciation for my native mountains. Now, when I return Appalachia, and look upon these mountains—the ones older than I can comprehend and home to crystalline babbling streams—I feel a sense of nostalgia and belonging. I don’t feel as if I’m venturing into the mysterious unknown, but that I’ve returned to visit an old friend.

* * *

Snow Caps” (above) for flute, clarinet, marimba, violin, cello is the first work in a cycle titled High Desert Panoramas, music written for and inspired by the high desert. My hope is to capture the sense of place I feel in these areas. The piece opens with jagged, rapidly changing, meters that the melody is forced to climb over. These obstacles never truly go away, but subside in the middle of the piece where the motives are contrasted between difference timbres, like the color contrast between the high desert’s plants, soil, rocks, lichen, and snow capped mountains. Upon the return of the melody, the meter adopts more stability. There are still some surprises in the music (and the landscape) but what was once simply novel is now looked upon with fondness and appreciation of intricacy.

Brent Lawrence is a composer and guitarist currently working on a PhD in music composition at the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Landscape Music Composers Network.

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