Colors, Contrasts, and the Spaces Inbetween

This originally appeared on on 7/31/18. 

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 open 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 nessled 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.


Looking 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” 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.

Composing in the Wilderness: On Distant Hills

This piece originally appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch on August, 27th, 2017 as part of series in which three Oregon composers recounted their Alaskan experiences from Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that three Oregonians happened to participate in this year’s workshop. In fact, I chose to participate in Composing in the Wilderness at the recommendation of three other Oregon composers that had been in years prior.

I’ll admit that I’m a pretty new to Oregon; I’ve only lived here a year. But one of the things I love about this state is the deep connection people have with the outdoors, our public lands, and the existence of wildernesses. Don’t get me wrong, Alaska is impressive no matter who you are, but from my view, as a new Oregonian, this trip gave me a lot of perspective on why people feel so connected to the wilderness. True wilderness, not something I experienced growing up on the east coast, where there are less protected areas.

People seek out wilderness for a variety of reasons. Being a musician, I’m always interested in how things sound. What I found most striking is the silence. Upon moving to Oregon, the first time I got out of the car near the McKenzie Pass, I was shocked at the quiet—and also realized how noisy daily life is.
I found the experience in Alaska to be similar. Although this wasn’t my first wilderness experience, it was my first time traveling to Alaska. But as we spent more time in the wilderness, the silence began to fade. Not because of outside noise like planes, cars, or even voices. But because the wilderness invites you to listen. The wilderness is alive with an entire system of plants and animals that all breathe and exist together. It isn’t a busy sound, like a city. Rather, it’s layered, yet intricate and subtle, and composed into perfect polyphony.

While we were composing our pieces, I was bothered that I didn’t have a specific inspiration in mind. There were almost too many inspiring things to write about, but I felt I wanted to try and capture the essence of my Alaskan experience. The piece I wrote, On Distant Hillswas mostly a reflection on the vastness of Denali, how small it makes me feel, and the innate desire I feel to climb every single mountain I see.

Read the original article here.

Capacities of Importance: Why I Serve

This piece originally appeared on February 18th, 2016 in the blog for ArtistCorps, an AmeriCorps program housed at UNC School of the Arts.

The question is often posed “Why do you choose to serve?” Naturally, there are many answers to this question that vary depending on the individual who answers it. Maybe this question is too broad to yield a direct answer. Perhaps, for those who serve, a better question is, “Why is service important to you?”

This question requires that one’s service be in something of importance to them. This is, after all, one reason that a person would choose to serve. If a person holds a genuine passion for something, it makes sense that this person would want to share it. However, this does not denote service, necessarily. One could share their gift in a capacity in which it has no effect. So, service must be in something that is of importance to the server, but it must also be important to the one who is being served. 

Being a musician, I love participating in almost anything related to my field, and there are endless outlets for my various musical pursuits. However, there are few better avenues for using my musical gifts than serving others. ArtistCorps and AmeriCorps give musicians like me opportunities to use our gifts in capacities of importance. We are gifted with witnessing children open up, and even become elated about music. Will all of these children become musicians? Of course not. Will all these children, because of this experience, fervently pursue music as an avocation? Of course not. Will our contributions to these children brighten their day and allow them the opportunity to have fun and experiment with something new? Yes; at least, that is my sincere hope. If I simply have a part in brightening someone’s day, I have succeeded in an important act of service.


Read the original article here.