Music is almost always about place for me, and this work was inspired by the most majestic place that I have ever been, Yellowstone National Park. Though not programmatic in a strict sense, its sounds and melodies reflect my time and experiences in the Park. Not all places speak to me musically, but none has ever spoken as definitively as Yellowstone.
I began the work in 1995 during the first of many visits to the Park. When I first arrived, I was so overwhelmed by what I was seeing that I associated no sound at all with the place, but after a while, I started to become aware of vague sounds and melodies. They were not clearly defined, but I understood their essence. They were made up of what I can only describe as animal cries and Indian chants, as one might expect, given Yellowstone’s inhabitants both past and present.
The conception of the piece occurred during that initial visit. It was a moment that I can only refer to as an epiphany. En route from Mammoth Hot Springs to Madison Junction, I passed through Goldengate Canyon onto Swan Lake Flats when suddenly before me loomed the most impressive sight that I have ever beheld, Electric Peak. It was nothing less than a religious experience, and at that moment, I knew that I would write this piece. I turned into a pullout and just sat there, stunned by the unfathomable beauty before me. While sitting there, I slowly became conscious of a pickup and a livestock trailer sitting in the next pullout, and a second plan began to form in my mind. I did not know exactly how, but I knew that I was going to ride a horse in the shadow of that mountain. (To understand my motivation, it might be helpful to know that I come from a long line of cowboys.)
I began the piece when I returned home, but little came to me. After making no progress for several months, I finally laid it aside and went to Kentucky to begin the course work for a doctorate. Two years would pass before I returned my full attention to the piece, and for more than a year, I did not even know that it was going to be for the violin. Originally, I had thought that it would be an orchestral tone poem. The violin had never entered my mind, and when it did, it happened in a rather ironic way.
At about this time, I had become completely enamored by Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recording of the Sibelius violin concerto. Though I had been a great fan of her recordings for more than a decade, this particular recording was in a league all its own. Coincidentally, one of my favorite places in Yellowstone, Dunraven Pass, is named for the same man as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s violin, Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the 4th Earl of Dunraven, and this set me to thinking. The violin was really the perfect instrument to explore the sounds that I associated with Yellowstone. It would be capable of expressing Yellowstone’s most serene beauty and, at the same time, its unforgiving viciousness. So I settled on the idea of writing a violin concerto.
As fate would have it, I got a one semester job teaching at Idaho State University in the fall of 1998, some two and a half hours from Yellowstone. I spent nearly every weekend in the Park, and slowly, the piece began to materialize. Before the semester was over, I managed to write a good portion of the first movement. I also secured a job for the following summer, giving guided horseback tours in Yellowstone. I returned to Missouri during the spring and broke a two year-old filly named Jitterbug, and at the end of April, Jitter and I set out for Yellowstone. For the next five months, we made our way through more than 1,200 miles of the 2.2 million acres that is Yellowstone.
This piece is the sum of my experiences in Yellowstone National Park. It represents my deepest and most intimate thoughts and feelings about that hallowed place. I don’t know whether I have successfully communicated those thoughts and feelings, but it is my sincere hope that I have given the listener a glimpse into what is surely the Garden of Eden without the tree.
This movement was inspired by a horseback ride that my riding partner, Amanda, and I took on a cold, rainy day in August 1999. It was drizzling when we began, but the rain quickly turned to snow as we reached higher elevation. We traveled a trail that crossed the northern boundary of the Park into the Gallatin National forest. Trails outside the Park aren’t nearly so well maintained as those within its borders, and consequently the trail that we should have taken to reenter the Park was obscured by fallen trees as we passed by. Before we realized that we had missed our trail, however, we crossed over a high pass that broke away under our horses’ feet. There was no turning back.
We rode on through the snow until eight o’clock that evening when we came upon the Buffalo patrol cabin. We were both relieved and dismayed: Relieved because we finally knew where we were, and dismayed because we knew how far we were from civilization. We immediately exploded with laughter when we saw the cabin because we had been there a few weeks before, and we had made the observation that if anyone ever needed to get in the cabin for shelter, it would just be too bad; the place is sealed up like Fort Knox, complete with bars and barbed wire. Needless to say, there was no staying there that night.
We traveled on through the night until we reached Slough Creek at about 2:30 AM. We were cold and wet and tired, and we found the ranger station empty. We both agreed that our ponies could go no further, so after unsaddling, we found a horse trailer in the parking lot and crawled in. It seemed fairly clean, but we were chilled to the bone, and there was little sleep to be had. When morning finally came, we realized that the trailer wasn’t quite as clean as we had thought. So with our dung stained clothes, we went off in search of a ride back to our vehicle.
I chose the name of this movement in honor of Anne-Sophie Mutter and her celebrated violin, the Lord Dunraven. It was inspired, however, by a moment during that ride that I shall never forget. It is an image that is forever ingrained in my mind. At some point during the night I looked up toward the heavens. The sky was rent in two, one half dark and foreboding and the other filled with a million stars as only the sky in the wilderness can be. Far to the south through a haze of snow, cars were streaming over Dunraven pass, their headlights fused together forming a serpentine light that was slithering down Mount Washburn. A full moon was rising in the east over Slough Creek, and there on the moon was the silhouette of Amanda, with snowflakes floating all about her.
During my first season in Yellowstone, I worked as a wrangler at the Mammoth Hot Springs horse corrals. I chose Mammoth because of its proximity to both Electric Peak and to North Yellowstone Stables, where I boarded Jitterbug. I wanted to be able to ride across Swan Lake Flats toward Electric Peak and explore the region as often as possible.
The principal obstacle between Mammoth and Swan Lake Flats is Terrace Mountain, a travertine terrace like those at Mammoth that was formed by hot springs about 63,000 years ago. Below Terrace Mountain is an area known as the Hoodoos which was formed by fragments of the mountain as it crumbled away during the area’s many earthquakes. It is a strange and mysterious place where one is consumed by the spirit of the American Indian. There is something inexplicably spiritual about being among those giant fragments of rock, almost as if one were standing in a primordial graveyard. I am always overwhelmed by a complete sense of insignificance when I am there.
On my way from Mammoth to Swan Lake Flats, I usually took the old Howard Eaton trail. As the trail passes out of the Hoodoos, the path narrows. To the left is a sheer drop off straight down for hundreds of feet to Goldengate Canyon, where cars look like ants scampering along the highway. The trail again widens at the summit. The first time that Jitter and I reached this point, I turned around to see where we had been, and I couldn’t breathe. To look out over the Hoodoos at Goldengate Canyon, Mount Everts and Bunsen Peak is to know God. I could never hope to capture the feeling in music, but hopefully I have given the listener a small impression of a horseback ride up through the Hoodoos to the top of creation.