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 dry conceptualism or desiccated minimalism, the actual work is in fact profoundly beautiful: contemplative and immense and constantly changing.

A loose sequel to my equally lengthy Spiral Jetty, Lightning Field is a half-hour long epic for piano, bass and drums drawing from the language of jazz and rock. While its predecessor looked to metal bands like Orthrelm and Meshuggah, 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 listen this piece may seem to stand apart from the rest of my oeuvre, the musical ideas are actually pure Eric Shanfield—in fact several recur from earlier works. It is only the superficial style and context that differs. This musical material operates on strict vertical (harmonic) and horizontal (rhythmic) axes: while rhythmic phrases of varying lengths interlock in shifting combinations, these ideas take on a constantly changing harmonic field traversing 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 energetic, syncopated, and above all grooves. 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….