Roadside Apparition (2020)

Roadside Apparition (2020)

     Roadside Apparition explores the iconic desert landscapes of Arizona through sound. Processed layers of electric guitar conjure memories of a forgotten time, of seemingly endless roads and the romanticized landscape of the American West. Field recordings and found-object percussion create a sense of space and mystery. Sonic mirages occur as seemingly solid sounds vaporize into clouds of echo and reverberation.

     Roadside Apparition was composed to accompany Laura Spaulding Best’s painting Refracted Oasis (2018, oil on found objects). The painting and recording were exhibited at the Scottsdale Center for The Performing Arts’ Center Space Gallery as part of their i hear what your seeing exhibition. The exhibition features the works of six Arizona visual artists and six composers and is currently available digitally through the Scottsdale Arts and Learning website

Composition Process

 My composition process began with meeting with the artist to discuss her inspiration for the piece. Some of the key themes were mirages, the mythical open roads of the Southwest (Jack Kerouac era Route 66), American Romanticism in Visual Art (Hudson Valley School) and the use of found objects as canvases. As sonic guideposts, a few composers and works came to mind, Ghost Town by Bill Frisell, John Luther Adams’ Become Desert, and Brian Eno’s Clear Desert Night

I selected a group of instruments that I thought would evoke the landscape portrayed in Refracted Oasis: electric guitar, lap steel guitar, steel-string acoustic guitar, and electric bass. Each of these instruments is played using traditional plucked techniques as well as with a violin bow, to create longer, evolving textures and harmonics. Refracted Oasis is painted on antique silver plates. Inspired by this use of readymade objects, I used decorative bells, a ceramic flower pot, and a copper bowl as percussion instruments give both color and rhythmic energy to the composition. In addition to the guitars and percussion, I utilized field recordings from the ASU Acoustic Ecology Lab’s Listenn Library to add texture and sense of place to the composition. The three recordings I used in the piece were recorded by Garth Paine in the Mojave, Death Valley, and Organ Pipe National Parks. 

 To create a bigger, more open sound I used scordatura, lowering the low E string to D on the bass and guitars, and using an Open D tuning on the Lap Steel. The main generative process in my composition of the piece was recording myself improvising on each of the instruments and then editing and processing those recordings. I created a graphic score to serve as a guide for texture, expression, and dynamics.

After completing the recording, I edited, processed and mixed the instruments. I focused on having some instrumental textures sound clear and in the foreground, like the top row of paintings in Refracted Oasis. Other sounds are distant and wavy, portraying the refracted bottom row of paintings.

Future Work

 The artist, Laura Spaulding Best, and I plan to collaborate in the near future. Our second project will use an inverted model: starting with music as the inspiration for the creation of a new painting.