Tuolumne (“two ALL um knee” or, as some California locals say it, “two ALL ‘o me”), from the Native American language of Miwok, is a word of unclear meaning, but is often thought to describe the small group of indigenous people who lived in what is now known as Yosemite National Park. A number of places in the area have taken the appellation on, but for those who know the region, the mighty Tuolumne Meadows spring first to mind. One of the principal natural features of Yosemite, this large subalpine meadow (remember the one Bambi got so excited about? I’ve long thought it could be the very same) is further east of the well-travelled and better-known Yosemite Valley – and much higher at nearly 9,000 feet, near the “top of the park” and Tioga Pass (one of the few roads that crosses the Sierra Nevada for hundreds of miles). One could fairly call this place (not far from my family home a few hours north) my favorite part of the world, and they wouldn’t be overstating it.
It was also a favorite of the American photographer Ansel Adams (1902–84), whose work has occupied my imagination from my first exposure to his landscapes as a child, in books my mother had from her studies in photography. In 1938, Adams took a pack trip into the high wilds of Yosemite with the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and patrons and friends David McAlpin and Godfrey and Helen Rockefeller, and made 3 copies of an album of photographs intended as a memento. I chose two images from that album, Plate 4 – Untitled (Water over Rock) and Plate 22 – Merced Lake Country, both of which were taken very near the Tuolumne Meadows, and paired them with one of his most iconic images, a view of the eastern Sierra Nevada not far away. The 25-minute piece I wrote is a kind of response to the set of three black-and-white photographs (with each of the three movements corresponding to one image), a meditation on and celebration of both the place and the images. Since good ideas are rarely new ideas (let’s leave bad ideas out of it for now, although I believe the same goes for those), it occurs that one could think of Tuolumne as being somewhere in the neighborhood of Ma Vlast, Smetana’s ode to his homeland, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (but with plenty of caveats—read on), at least in terms of scope. Each photo is described below:
Untitled (Water over Rock): Upon first glance, the spacing of the fanned-out rivulets of water which are cast over a rock in a mountain creek seems nearly perfect, as if each finespun stream had been rationally measured. The scale is difficult to discern. The rock could be inches or feet across, and the elegant shape could even resemble a leaf over which the water flows in all directions, splashing brightly onto the hard creekbed and into the deep blackness of the pool below.
Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, 1944: The brutal terrain of the Eastern Sierra escarpment and Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous US) is in high contrast in this dawn shot. The snow-covered shards of rock appear both as sharp as teeth and as delicate as tissue paper, with the blinding white snow set in relief by the deep shadows of the range’s dramatic chutes and canyons. A few mists and thin clouds hover. A lower, gentler foothill in the middle ground just in front of the large mountains has not yet been exposed to the dawn light and lies dark and dormant. A patch of sun illuminates a meadow in the foreground of the image, where a single horse, made tiny in the grand scale of the view, grazes among a band of leaf-naked cottonwoods.
Merced Lake Country: The main object, a weather-battered pine tree, whose twisting trunk and figure seem to give the image a vertical thrust, occupies the foreground. Across a canyon the mountains behind consist of smooth, rounded granite features pocked by bands of hardy trees and other flora, a familiar sight in the high Sierra. Suggesting both a dancer’s grace and a desperate struggle against the punishing elements, the tree, with branches bare on one side, seems even to evoke a kind of humanity to me: intrepid, tragic, and utterly mysterious.
These photos move me, both as representational objects and abstract images. The rocks, trees, clouds and mountains; the precise, highly controlled play of light and dark. What we are shown, and how it is presented. Although the place is significant—and place has often held a special significance for me (in pieces like Wanderlust, premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra in 2009)—the three movements of Tuolumne are, in my view, best understood as emotional responses to these works of art. I intended neither to illuminate nor describe the photos in a deliberately programmatic or pictorial sense – not least due to the difficult translation from a spatial and visual medium to a temporal and aural one. Nor did I make an attempt at a companion set. The story of the music, with its twists and turns, peaks and valleys, and shifts of mood and character, may or may not mirror one’s experience of the images. That was by design from the very beginning. Tuolumne is built to stand on its own, but without these photos and without the work of Ansel Adams, it would not exist.
Musicians who know his work are quick to point out with pride that Adams trained seriously as a pianist while growing up in San Francisco, and was well into his twenties before he decided to pursue photography, then (in around 1930) still a relatively new medium, exclusively. It’s simple to imagine how he might have applied the rigors of his musical education to his processes and painstaking perfectionism with the camera and in the darkroom. Aides have described their surprise upon finding not one, but many negatives for his iconic shots. His rendering techniques, focused as they were, were yet still in service of expression, a process he called “visualization”: “As with all art, the photograph is not the duplication of visual reality. … The visualization of a photograph involves the intuitive search for meaning, shape, form, texture and the projection of the image-format on the subject,” he said in his autobiography. “The creative artist is constantly roving the worlds without, and creating new worlds within.”
In his work, a broad boldness flows effortlessly with his crisp austerity of tone in a way that strikes me as, well, distinctly American. As a young artist who often finds himself confounded by questions of national identity in my own work, I’ve taken comfort in the work of those, like Adams and Charles Ives, who seem to find their answers close to home. Whether they are the rocks and clouds of California, or the town squares and brass bands of New England, their answers are equally American (as answers to such a question are a simple “yes or “no”) and, for me, equally correct. I’m often reminded that when the New York patron Alice Tully commissioned French composer Olivier Messiaen for a new work to celebrate the American bicentennial in the early 1970s, he looked not to Philadelphia or Valley Forge (or New York for that matter), but to the rocks and wildlife of southern Utah and wrote Des Canyons aux Étoiles, one of his seminal works. He found the America he most wanted to describe, a license that (one who wrestles with such questions must often remind themselves) all artists are freely afforded.
The three movements of Tuolumne are ordered in a basic slow-fast-slow design, and much of the music is virtuosic, owing to the capacities of the magnificent ensemble for which it was written,, which I have been privileged to know more intimately as Daniel R. Lewis Composer Fellow. Many of the musicians are deployed as soloists, starting with flute in the opening bars and the horn soon after. I wrote for a large orchestra partially to explore the coloristic possibilities presented both among and within sections. To one flute, three are soon added in the opening moments, for example, and some 20 minutes later, the solo cello meanders and floats ever higher while the rest of the strings flutter quietly in accompaniment. While there are many powerful tutti moments in between, the piece starts and ends softly, intimate by design in my largest, most personal piece to date. Tuolumne is dedicated to Franz Welser-Möst, and to the members of The Cleveland Orchestra.
— Sean Shepherd
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.