Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday Reading

The Music of the Mountains — Composer Stephen Lias climbed Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park last summer, and wrote a sonata to tell the tale.

Anyone familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park knows the power and presence that Longs Peak holds over the entire area. No matter where you go, the peak always seems to show its unmistakable, angular profile above the surrounding peaks. It dominates the park, daring you to climb. It is not an arduous ascent, as fourteeners go, but it still gets the best of many—especially those who jump in too quickly without acclimating. Each year, thousands of people attempt it. Many turn back along the way, bested by altitude or intimidated by the catwalks, and one or two perish in the attempt.

None of my previous visits had provided sufficient time to tackle the peak, but this trip was different. I had been in the park for a week already and had taken progressive training hikes every couple of days—first the popular Loch Vale trail up to Timberline Falls (eight miles round trip with a 1,300-foot elevation gain), then the longer and less-traveled route past Lawn Lake to Crystal Lake (13 miles round trip with a 2,960-foot elevation gain). With these safely under my belt, I felt reasonably confident that I was ready for the 15 miles and 4,850-foot gain that Longs Peak would require.

Between these explorations, I rested and tried to compose music in my cabin. My plan was to write a sonata for trumpet and piano that focused on experiences and locations unique to Rocky Mountain National Park. I had brought along just enough technology to meet my needs: a portable keyboard and a laptop running some notation software. Although this was my fourth in a series of compositions focusing on national parks (following pieces about Big Bend, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon), my primary struggle was just what you might suspect. What does the experience of the park sound like? While mimicking the sounds of nature is one possibility, the results can sometimes trivialize the subject matter by sounding a bit “cartoony.” Vivaldi and Mendelssohn were able to get away with imitating bird sounds and donkeys braying, but they didn’t have to contend with the legacy of Tom and Jerry, the Roadrunner, and their ilk. Pieces like Carnival of the Animals and Peter and the Wolf are effective and popular but inevitably assumed to be children’s pieces, largely for this reason. An equally precarious approach is to recreate the disorganization and complexity of natural sounds in a way that comes across as random or experimental. This tends to alienate contemporary audiences, who are already distrustful of serious music by living composers. I’ve learned that today’s concert-goers tend to prefer their composers dead.

And yet, here I was, very much alive—alive in the way you feel only when you’re in the midst of one of your life-list trips. How could I make music speak about this feeling, this scenery, the drive that pushes us to test our boundaries and explore? As I wandered the park, I turned this issue over in my head. I tested the quality of the experience like deliberately tasting a new food. What were its elements? How might those elements become sounds?

I have climbed Longs Peak twice; once in 1964 when I was eleven and a camper at a summer camp, and again in 1980 when I was a counselor at the camp and led the hiking program for boys ages 11-12. I have never forgotten both hikes, and I can well believe that music is a part of the magic of the experience.

More below the fold.

Confidence Game — Leonard Pitts, Jr, on what it takes to execute people.

There are literally hundreds, of men and even a few women who have been exonerated and set free after being sentenced to death, life, 25, 60, even 400 years for awful things they did not do. I could make a longer list, but space is at a premium and there is more that needs saying here.

They killed Troy Davis Wednesday night.

He went to his death still proclaiming his innocence of the 1989 murder of a Savannah, Ga., police officer. Davis was convicted on “evidence” that boiled down to the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted.

But Spencer Lawton, who originally prosecuted the case, would not want you to worry your head about that. Hours before Davis was put to death, Lawton was quoted by CNN as saying he had no doubts about the case and was confident Davis was the killer. How much do you want to bet the prosecutors of Fain, Brewer, Krone or any of those hundreds of others would have said the same thing, expressed the same confidence? Without that confidence, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

Meaning the death penalty, a flimsy edifice erected on the shaky premise that we always get it right, that human systems always work as designed, that witnesses make no mistakes, that science is never fallible, that cops never lie, that lawyers are never incompetent.

You have to believe that. You have to make yourself believe it. Otherwise, how do you sleep at night?

So of course a prosecutor speaks confidence. What else is he going to speak? Truth? Truth is too big, too dangerous, too damning. Truth asks a simple question: In what field of endeavor have we always gotten it right? And you know the answer to that.

So truth is too pregnant for speaking. Better to avert your eyes and profess your confidence.

But one day, too late for Troy Davis, too late for too many, truth will out. Godspeed that day the cards come tumbling down.

Doonesbury — An honest man.