Duration: 8 minutes
Instrumentation: solo piano
This work was composed for pianist Nicholas Phillips and the American Vernacular CD project.
My extended family is part of that great 19th century diaspora of European immigrants to the western United States. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were scattered from the thirsty red rock country of eastern Utah in the shadow of the Rockies, all the way to the California coast. Foremost in my memories of summer vacations are long road trips from my Southern California home to visit relatives--either to the Bay Area of Northern California, or hundreds of miles across the Great Basin to Utah. These experiences impressed upon my memory that the world--at least the world as I knew it--was one of endless topographical expanse: from ocean, to desert, to mountains, and back again. Mine was a country of majestic emptiness bounded at either end by the sea or--as my ancestors knew them--the ‘everlasting hills.’
Owing to the concept of the American Vernacular project, some depiction of ocean and mountains was inevitable for me. The work opens with a slowly accelerating cycle of ascending fifths that suggest an expansive gesture reminiscent of the ocean. The interval choice here is significant as its inherent symmetry evokes an ambiguous, arbitrary starting point and progression. After a couple of these ‘swells,’ a simple melody emerges over an insistent pedal tone. The melody recurs in several key points throughout the work--sometimes plaintively suggesting the vastness of the sea, and at other times in a long, driving crescendo that summons the soaring shadow of looming peaks across the desert horizon. The principal drama of the work is the interplay between these two extremes, and how the melody remains salient despite its surrounding, shifting, landscape. If traditional ‘psalmody’ denotes musical worship based upon the Psalms of David, Occidental Psalmody connotes my reverence for the sweeping swath of the American West--not embodied in cowboy songs or Native American lore--but as I recall it across the spiritual contours of cellular memory.
Concert Premiere: October 25, 2013 at Southwestern University, Georgetown, TX