The Gila: River, Mesa, and Mountain by Max Stoffregen
for piano quintet
“The Gila: River, Mesa and Mountain”, is a composition for string quartet and piano, inspired by my foot travels through Arizona and New Mexico along the Grand Enchantment Trail. It was created in collaboration with Friction Quartet to celebrate the beauty of the legendary “Gila Country”.
The “Gila Country”, as it is sometimes called, contains the headwaters of the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River; it is a place of vigorous water, endlessly unfolding mesas, and thickly forested mountains rich with wildlife, all contrasted dramatically against high-desert surroundings; it has been the home of many indigenous people, recently the Apache, whose legendary leader Geronimo was born near one of its tributaries; it is where some Americans like Aldo Leopold made first attempts at wild land conservation in the United States; today it is still a wild land, made all the more precious by the ceaseless human development which has occurred all around it. For all these reasons, and some unknowable ones, the Gila Country seems to hold a special place in the American Southwest, and certainly in my imagination.
The Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) traverses much of the watershed of the Gila River in Arizona, and the entire upper Gila River watershed in New Mexico, which is one of the last free-flowing waterways in the southwest. In a broad sense, the GET follows the Gila River from near its confluence with the Salt River near Phoenix, to its headwaters in the Black Range in Western New Mexico. The GET is one of few continuous foot paths that travels extensively through the Gila Country, and walking the length of the GET drew me into many of the definitive Gila Country landscapes; blessed waterways, vivid mesas, and secluded mountains.
Music is the language I use to share a vision of this land whose vitality had been so inspiring from afar, and in reality proved more challenging, delightful, and mysterious than I had imagined. With music, I can explore the contours and colors of this remembered land, and use my imagination to craft an expression that expresses it well and truly. It is a way of focusing my mind on the remembered earth.
For inspiration in both the form of my composition and its musical content, I have looked to some of the definitive features of the Gila Country landscape; Rivers, Mesas, and Mountains. These three features of the land are highly distinct, yet interconnected. With this in mind, I set my composition in one continuous movement, with 3 contiguous sections. The character of the music for each section is informed by the character of each region; Rivers and the often broad, pleasant valleys they flow through inspire fluid, sonorous music; a cascade of piano chords represents the inexorable descent of the Mesa wall, compelled towards the same goal as the River, and by the same forces. Mountains conjure a propulsive music that moves obliquely upward, confidently towards the promise of enlightenment and ephemeral joy that we let ourselves believe the high country will bear, knowing that this joy will be equaled with toil and hardship. An ever-present D sounding throughout the length of the composition represents the shared element that shapes the Gila Country – water. It is the element that sculpts Mesas, that is stewarded by the Mountains, that is focused by Rivers.
This is the second composition I’ve composed following a simple practice where listening precedes expression. I travel slowly by foot, and with each step taken the land is telling me an incomprehensibly small part of its story; if I am listening well, I may comprehend strands of that story through my feet, my eyes, my ears, my lungs, and my mind. There are many ways to converse with the land, and it is our pleasure – perhaps duty – to do so. My practice is only one of many. Ultimately, I hope that the mystery and vitality of the Gila Country manifests itself in yet another way, amplified through the dimension of sound.