My wife and I went on a wonder filled two-week vacation this past summer where we visited 16 National Parks in the states of Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Utah. I was struck by the parks beauty and enormity. Each park was new, different and built on multiple millennia of the building up and tearing down of rocks and the washing away of sediments by ice, wind, gravity and rain. Then large seas and rivers came and distributed the new sediments to be reused elsewhere. I saw many parallels that we musicians share with the natural evolution of our earthly landscape.
The Grand Canyon is where some of the oldest rocks were formed from volcanic upheaval some 3 billion years ago. And the plains of the Midwest are deposit after deposit of other newer layers stacked on top at various, huge intervals of time. Geologists call these 5 layers of time the Grand Staircase and from the mountain ridges at Bryce National Park you can look southwest and see 500 miles of these descending layers of time. Bryce’s sedimentary rock is 30 million years old and the Grand Canyon park has sedimentary rocks that are 2 billion years old.
The landscape has changed over time no doubt. It’s hard to imagine in this now dry, rocky, arid midwestern region that rainforests, whales, buffalo, trees, lakes and seas once marched over the space: each season probably coming and going thousands of times. Now all that’s left to mark them at this specific moment are the fossilized remnants buried in colorful layers of sedimentary rock, stacked up over 2 miles tall in some places.
Geology reminds me of life and of music. How did it all start clumping together and creating that first rock, mountain or plain a really, really long time ago? It is so interesting to me to take a moment to study and review time and the processes. Even as the earth and the rocks continue to morph, grow and change, humans seem so small in comparison. Maybe we can’t stop or affect change in this large process? Or maybe we are putting a dent in the climate and in the landscape right now? I’m certain we are bending its trajectory at the least, but in 10 million years what effect will we be able to see from this time?
As a civilization and as musicians, we continue to create and step up on the ideas (rocks) of mighty men like Pythagoras, Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Miles Davis, the Beatles, Kayne West and inventions like the harpsichord, organ, piano, electric pianos, the synthesizer, computer and VST. In addition, technological discoveries like the tuning fork, electricity, the vacuum tube, the radio, records, tapes, CDs, mp3s, streaming and intellectual upheaval like the stone age, bronze age, industrial age, computer age, and now ”new sediment” like the globalization of world markets cause us to forge ahead into new music, new possibilities and new realms. As things are always moving forward, just think back on those ancient rocks and ancient plains. I think about the hundreds of millions of years of volcanism, erosion by oceans, the Colorado river, tectonic plate movements, ground upheaval, rain, ice, the wind moving sand and debris, glaciation: all making an impact and changing the landscape with no real reason, no good or bad, just because certain underlying natural forces are causing change. Life and music are paralleling geology, and unknown mixtures are creating the next layer and the next change.
Sometimes music needs to move backwards and sideways like an oxbow river where the channel and river direction are constantly moving and being synthesized in a new direction, and new paths and shortcuts are made. This happens over and over, year after year, decade after decade until the system is more efficient or it is surpassed and replaced by a newer and more effective or efficient system. Maybe the whole geology of the entire region was changed in some large way and the river began to flow backwards.
Some of my musician friends are concerned that music is changing into something that we don’t recognize anymore, as it morphs further ahead and mixes with technology, the internet and new sounds and new ideas. It is still weaving the new with the old. The old rocks still exist, and they once were futuristic: melody, harmony, notation, type setting, music publishing, music merchandising, record companies, marketing, market share, MTV, Youtube, Spotify, Apple Music. But each new idea and invention came and added a fresh twist to create a newer rock with a new dimension, new sparkle, with a new direction that could reach father out and effect future ideas and change. If time stopped and we all only studied classical music, classical violin and only German music in 1750, think how far back we would have stopped our progression. All that’s been achieved since the great Viennese music of the mid 1700s would be non-existent.
I feel that music is that river, bending and bowing and recreating. Technology, the audiences, the market, our creativity and engineering efforts and many other social and economic forces are creating new elements like tides, wind and rock that are moving and depositing sediment in the form of musical ideas. And some ideas are moving and others are being set aside and stored for the future, burying themselves in part or in whole and coming back later to be discovered, decomposed, recomposed and recombined in some totally new and useful way. Unearthed like a lost tool or old fossil with rich discoveries buried within.
Where will it stop…it won’t. What can you do…go back and find a big, old rock to cling to and build upon it. Practice, create, study, watch, listen and continue to grow. We can’t stop time and we can’t stop change, but we can ride it like the wind! (I think I borrowed that from some lyricist…oh yeah thanks Christopher Cross.)