Playing Desert Solitaire
by Linda Kohanov, CD Review
It's noon in Death Valley, CA. I slip an advance copy of DESERT SOLITAIRE into my portable CD player, which is hooked up to a surprisingly high-quality rental car stereo, and hope this red Mustang can take the heat that rises relentlessly in finely rippled waves, blurring the landscape into a sweltering dream of bare rock and slowly shifting sands. I usually don't go so far out of my way to audition a new disc, but the concept of this one intrigued me: Three acknowledged synthesizer masters had recorded their sonic impressions of an obsession they've shared for many years, the desert. Though I've never been in the southwest long enough to experience the real thing, I did fall in love with this uncompromising world vicariously through the work of nature writer Edward Abbey. His 1968 book Desert Solitaire inspired the title of this musical collaboration between Steve Roach, Michael Stearns, and Kevin Braheny.
But the project took on an additional level of poignancy when the author died unexpectedly last spring toward the end of the album's production. The musicians were just about to ask him to contribute some liner notes. So you can imagine why Abbey's words might take on a mythical quality as I apprehensively pass the marker signaling my entry into Death Valley National Monument. At least with Roach's rambling opening cut, "Flatlands," beating a sense of adventure over the din of the air conditioner, I don't feel entirely alone. "I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus," Abbey wrote in the first chapter of his classic book, "but also to confront, immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock that sustains us – I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock."
"Knowledge and Dust," one of Braheny's compositions, flows from my speakers as the road ascends through a twisting maze of treacherous peaks laced in hues of red, orange, gold, and even blue. An occasional cactus or Joshua tree adds a hint of green to this otherwise barren masterpiece of sculpted rock and mineral. No other signs of life are in sight, yet the music offers an eloquent reminder of hidden dangers and unseen gifts. "The Indians of the Southwest used the snake in a lot of their rituals and vision quests, " says Braheny, who went to the trouble of bringing a live rattler into his studio to get the right effect for this piece. "In a sense, that animal represents the process of growth through confronting fear. So everything is kind of swirling around in 'Knowledge and Dust' with the sound of the rattlesnake weaving in and out maybe it has even bitten you and there's this very intense energy of confrontation that depicts a perilous road to selfdiscovery. "
I'm thinking I should have worn thicker hiking boots as I round another massive sandstone cliff and descend into the most breathtaking of views: a seemingly endless valley of snow-white salt flats guarded by craggy steeps piercing the sky on all sides. I step out of my car at the bottom for a closer look. The wind is so hot it literally raises the hair on the back of my neck. Chills at 110 degrees. Abbey's words echo through my head: "June in the desert. The sun roars down from its track in space with a savage and holy light, a fantastic music in the mind. " Intoxicated, yet nervous, I return to the only shade around the car. But it chokes and convulses as if from some mechanical heat stroke when I turn the key. My stomach does the same. I have visions of wandering aimlessly through this expansive, deadly land looking for help. One more try and the engine jerks into motion.
Breathing a sigh of relief and taking a renewed interest in the scenery, I switch to a Roach and Stearn collaboration, "High Noon." "The feeling of this piece is that of entering right into the core of a mirage," stresses Roach, who describes the entire disc as a series of sound sculptures capturing the essence of the desert and emotions associated with it. "The textures we used were designed to be the equivalent of sonic heat waves. You're wandering around in a complete state of inflammation of the senses, breathing it in because it feels so incredible at that time of the day. But your imagination can certainly play tricks on you out there. It's this aspect that is so dangerously inviting." Roach says he relates a little too easily to the story of Everett Ruess, a young man legendary in these parts because he trekked through the Southwest over a four year period, eventually disappearing without a trace in the 1930s. "One begins to understand why Ruess kept going deeper and deeper into the canyon country, until one day he lost the thread of the labyrinth," Abbey observes toward the end of his book."
Even after years of intimate contact and search, this quality of strangeness in the desert remains undiminished. Transparent and intangible as sunlight, yet always and everywhere present, it lures a man on and on in a futile but fascinating quest for the great, unimaginable treasure which the desert seems to promise." The whole album is imbued with that same sense of yearning and mystery from the gently floating guitar loops that move like white wisps of hope across the sky on "Cloud of Promise," the ethereal reflections of "Spector," and the slowly evolving suspensions of "Canyon's Embrace," to the stark chords of "Empty Time" and the lonely coyote howls and haunting effects of "Labyrinth."
By six o'clock, it's cool enough to consider leaving the music and the car in search of my own solitary perspective on this enticing yet unforgiving land. After an hour of clumsily jaunting up and down windswept dunes, I'm amazed at how accurately the quiet intensity of this new Fortuna release mirrors aspects of the desert I've now experienced on so many levels. I can smell the heat rising from the sand and taste the heady dryness of the air. The sound of a fly whizzing by is deafening. Somehow, there's a fullness to the silence out here that makes it possible to understand why certain Indians still believe the rocks themselves breathe, even sing. "That's the whole idea behind 'Shiprock,"' Stearns says. "It's very simple, actually – low, deep earth tones that kind of roll through the speakers, and one very high frequency pitch that comes in halfway through. I originally used this as the second part of 'Labyrinth.' But people I'd play it for kept saying that this was like the sound you'd hear if you put your ear to a rock the inner sound of stone. That's when I knew it had to be a separate piece." I pick up a rugged chunk of quartz and hold my breath, listening. The sun is setting gloriously behind a distant mountain range, streaming through an imposing cloud formation like the pivotal scene from some big-budget biblical movie- thick, golden rays lighting up an adjacent red rock formation as if it were on fire. Overcome by a flurry of sensations and reflections conjured up in this potent wasteland, I blush with recognition of one of Abbey's most famous passages:
"Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman. An insane wish? Perhaps not – at least there's nothing else, no one human, to dispute possession with me."
I finally know what you mean, Ed. And as I drive away to the last strains of the title cut from DESERT SOLITAIRE, I'm convinced that Roach, Stearns, and Braheny do, too.