Desert Oracle

ENS.2023.2 | 20′







Desert Oracle

Yucca Man—that strange, shambling creature sometimes glimpsed in the far reaches of Twentynine Palms. Area 51, Dreamland, Roswell, and the mysterious Phoenix Lights of March 13, 1997. The Zzyzx Mineral Spa, Boulevard of Dreams cut into the lonely desert. Solar Lodge of the Ordo Tempi Orientis, dedicated to the Satanic rituals of Alastair Crowley, and the boy in the box. The Amargosa Opera House and its ghosts. Weird late-nite crackling AM transmissions telling of things not of this Earth. Joshua Tree and Morongo Valley. Anza-Borrego and the devil in Amboy Crater. The voice of the desert.

Desert Oracle takes its title from the book of the same name by Ken Layne, subtitled “Strange True Tales from the American Southwest.” Reading these stories took me back to my Southern California childhood, when I often hiked, camped, and climbed in those lonely deserts and ghost towns with my Boy Scout troop, and I wanted to write a piece redolent of the odd, empty vistas I loved so much.

A kind of cubist evocation of the Southwestern desert, Desert Oracle comprises five untitled movements, a structural arch concealing a hidden narrative. At first, I thought of giving the movements titles from the book, only to realize each potential title could just as easily describe one movement as another. Each movement is relatively static, superficially more like the others than not, less developing in a direction than wandering about one particular place. Instead, like stones, the piece proceeds in discontinuous blocks of sound, juxtaposed harmonies and rhythmic shapes overlapping, interlocking, and succeeding one another in stubborn cycles like days or seasons—I was thinking of the late Harrison Birtwistle’s apt metaphor of musical variation as viewing the same objects in a landscape from different angles.

Each movement begins with a chord deliberately reminiscent of the famous pop! that begins Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a sonority I always associated with the desert, the spiky yet oddly hollow sound of succulent cacti. There are references, too, to the minimalism I first encountered on compact disc as a teenager during the road trips my family took to the national parks of the West—Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon. I remember in particular my first experience hearing Einstein on the Beach, Glass’s burbling organs, chanting voices, and squalling saxophones almost indistinguishable from the endless fields and scrub falling away from our minivan as we drove east across the Imperial Valley toward Arizona, music and terrain alike always the same and always subtly different, as the sun climbed to noon and back down again one memorable summer’s day toward the end of the twentieth century.

Desert Oracle, in five movements for a relatively large orchestra, was written in July 2023, and takes about twenty minutes to traverse the desert from first minor pop! to last major bang!!