Lightning Field

ENS.2013.9 | 32′
for Bearthoven
Piano, Bass, Drums


Lightning Field

Performed by Bearthoven: Karl Larson (piano), Pat Swoboda (bass), Matt Evans (drums)

The Lightning Field is a 1977 artwork by Walter De Maria (1935-2013) located in the desert of New Mexico. Encompassing 400 steel poles arranged in a rectangular grid measuring one mile by one kilometer, it is one of the most famous works of the so-called Earthworks or Land Art movement exemplified by artists like De Maria and Robert Smithson. While its design might suggest a dry conceptualism or desiccated minimalism, the actual work is in fact profoundly beautiful: contemplative, immense, and constantly changing.

My composition Lightning Field is a half-hour epic for piano, bass and drums drawing from the language of jazz and rock. Though fully notated and through-composed, this work for jazz piano trio was inspired by the complex interlocking sound of groups like The Bad Plus, Dawn of Midi, and Nik Bärtsch’s ensembles, and attempts to take on some of the monumental qualities of a large earthwork.

Although at first glance this piece may seem to stand apart from my more “classical” compositions, it really only differs superficially. The musical material operates on strict vertical (harmonic) and horizontal (rhythmic) axes: while rhythmic phrases of varying lengths interlock in shifting combinations, these ideas traverse a constantly changing harmonic field in an all- interval (but not serial) landscape. Both rhythmic and harmonic materials permute and vary according to a strict structural scheme; like its namesake, Lightning Field describes an enormous symmetrical rectangle.

This music is continuously syncopated and energetic. However, like the individual stainless steel poles that comprise The Lightning Field, the discrete modules that make up this composition jump and limp and coruscate and break down in the depredations of a severe desert landscape. But every so often a storm comes in over the mountains, and lightning dances across the gleaming array….