Beyond the Four Hills

11 January 1989
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Mauldin was invited to contribute this autobiographical essay to "The Spirit That Wants Me: A New Mexico Anthology," 1991, edited by J Dianne Duff, Jill Kiefer and Michelle Miller, and published by Duff, Inc.  An invitation was sent to creative artists who were non-New Mexico natives and who were willing to share how taking up residence in New Mexico had influenced their creative output.

Mauldin was invited to contribute this autobiographical essay to "The Spirit That Wants Me: A New Mexico Anthology," 1991, edited by J Dianne Duff, Jill Kiefer and Michelle Miller, and published by Duff, Inc.  An invitation was sent to creative artists who were non-New Mexico natives and who were willing to share how taking up residence in New Mexico had influenced their creative output.

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When I was a child, my father--a Presbyterian minister in Dallas, Texas--brought our family to Ghost Ranch for week-long church-related seminars during summers in the fifties.  Though we traveled over much of the Western states, my strongest attachment to any place was what I felt at Abiquiu.  The color and space of the land seemed to surround me, go right through me and open up my mind and soul.  I composed short pieces on the old piano in the convocation hall at the ranch.  On returning home I marveled at the music's expansiveness and color.  I knew then that I had to live in a place like that.

After finishing a bachelor of music degree in Kansas, I moved to Boulder, Colorado to do some graduate work.  The Rockies were magnificent.  I marveled at the beauty but somehow felt it was a bit too perfect--and something was missing.  I wanted to be "at one" with the land and the people who had been there before.  I felt that would be possible someday, but it eluded me at the time.  There was unfinished business to do somewhere.  What was the business and where was it?  I had no idea, but I knew I had to move on; my unsettled state of mind was affecting my graduate work.  On January 1, 1971, I packed my earthly possessions--including a piano and a refrigerator--into a rented trailer and set out for Albuquerque--no job, no letter of recommendation, no plan.

A little after midnight, after tugging this oversized and overloaded trailer up Raton pass, I enjoyed--a little too much--the power of gravity on the other side.  The trailer began "fishtailing" badly--so much so that my gyrations took up several lanes, which, thanks to the late hour, were empty.  A lot goes through your mind when you're careening toward a sharp curve at 60 miles per hour.  I had heard that one shouldn't hit the brakes or fight the steering wheel, which now had a demonic mind of its own.  Between short prayers and the recognition that the curve--and cliff--was coming soon, I reasoned that my only choice was to accelerate in order to get the car again in control of the trailer.  It worked, but would I have time to slowly decelerate for the curve?  Only by taking the wrong side of the road for a few terrible moments.

Utterly exhausted, I was just about asleep in the motel room in Albuquerque when it seemed that the foundation of the building fell about six inches.  Again.  Then, that someone was there in the dark gently shaking the bed from side to side.  When I reached for the lamp cord above me, I found that it too was gently swinging.  They say that the first time you're in an earthquake you question your sanity.  I did, but I was too tired to think about it.  In the coffee shop the next morning I heard a pair of locals saying the quake measured 4 on the Richter scale.

The next day began with a week-long, freak cold-wave.  I moved into my apartment through deep snow and heard calls for help on the local television stations.  Each night's low temperatures were getting down to 15 and 18 degrees below zero.  The natural gas pipeline to one of the new parts of town was not large enough to supply the amount of gas needed.  The TV announcers asked those people who still had heat in their homes to house the many families without heat--their possessions covered with ice from burst pipes.

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I was beginning to think my move had been a terrible mistake.  Albuquerque seemed to be such an adverse place, or perhaps a pleasant place going through an adverse time.  That summer was exceptionally hot.  There were riots in the streets; buildings a few blocks from my apartment were fire-bombed.

I knew only one name in Albuquerque.  Carlton Allen was the minister of First Presbyterian Church. I knew he had been an old friend of the family and that my father had baptized Allen's sons.  I attended the church and sang in the choir where I met Goodsell Slocum, organist, and Floyd Vasquez, choir director.  Both were kind and hospitable and offered me many fine opportunities to participate in the musical life of the church and the city.

The Allens drove me out to the Jemez Mountains for the first time, the beginning of an eternal love affair for me.  The Jemez Mountains are still my most favorite place in the world.

I survived by teaching two or three piano students, doing substitute teaching in bands and choruses, working in Admitting at Presbyterian Hospital, and manning the graveyard shift at a Central Avenue motel.  I had wanted to pursue graduate work at UNM, but I wasn't quite certain that I could (or should) stay in New Mexico.  I had to find out if my childhood memories had been embellished by time.  Was I imagining things or could this indeed be a great place to heal, to grow, to create?  I had come for the space, the light and the timelessness.  But why?  Was it just a great escape?  A prolonged vacation in the pleasant memories of childhood?

I wanted to meet other creative people in the area to see how they survived--physically AND spiritually.  I joined the local chapter of the Music Teachers National Association and was welcomed with open arms.  I met people like Paul Muench, a life-long friend until his untimely aircraft accident, who helped me establish my own piano studio and, more importantly, gave me the feeling that New Mexico WAS a very special place--a bit incongruous at times--but truly special.

John Donald Robb

I saw a program on the educational television station featuring original works by members of the New Mexico Composers Guild.  A phone number appeared on the screen.  I called the number and arranged to bring a tape of a performance of one of my pieces to one of the monthly meetings.  Again I was welcomed with open arms.

The "grand old man" of this group was John Donald Robb, the Dean Emeritus of the School of Fine Arts at UNM, a former New York attorney, and a student of Nadia Boulanger in Paris.  His appearance was stunning--a tall man, big-boned, with large, bushy eyebrows and a deep, authoritative voice.  Though at first I found his music a bit too Romantic for me, it seemed only natural as he was born in the last century.  Yet there was something bitter-sweet about his music, something that made it bear repetition.  Could it be the effect of having lived here, or was it just what he had brought with him?  Why had someone with his credentials stayed here?  Especially considering when he stayed here and where he had come from?

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The first piece I wrote here was a little piece for clarinet and piano called "Three Studies of Children", written for a recital given at the church by my fiancee, Bonnie Buchanan, whom I had met at school in Kansas.  Though the piece had no direct connection with New Mexico, I remember feeling incredibly free while writing it.  It was indeed like a vacation in paradise, and I was sharing it with Bonnie.

I was like the children in the piece I had written.  Yet children epitomize our human predicament--they feel everything more--both pleasure and pain.  As a child, I had always resented the notion (as in the books full of major-key little pieces for students) that children are always happy.  We adults figure they should be since we try very hard to take care of all their needs.  But one of those needs is to know that the world is not going to destroy itself tomorrow.  I was an adult who was still a child trying to see what the relationship of man was to his world--was it too late to say positive things in a serious, adult way--not just in the child-like way I had used in the little clarinet piece?

 I knew from my earliest days here that adversity played an important role in this paradise--that it was not to be ignored any more here than anywhere.  It was just that here, there was a timelessness that seemed to put the adversity almost immediately into perspective.  That timelessness was the time machine which first struck me with full force when I had my hands and bare feet in the hand and toe-holds at Enchanted Mesa, across from Acoma Pueblo.

Those were certainly busy years.  I earned a master's degree in composition from UNM, served as president of the Composers Guild and the Music Teachers Association, married Bonnie, bought a grand piano and a house (all on credit of course).  I found when I was too busy to leave town and explore the Jemez or the Pueblos that I got depressed.  Paul Muench would cheer me up by saying that no matter what happened to Albuquerque, it was still completely surrounded by New Mexico.

Floyd Vasquez asked Bonnie and me to give another clarinet and piano recital at the church. I wrote a new piece for the occasion, "Three New Mexico Landscapes".  After having heard a piece of Dean Robb's called "Scenes from a New Mexico Mountain Village", I decided that perhaps--even in this time of abstract and absolute music--there was something about this place that warranted its being celebrated in music.  It was something universal--not just a local novelty.

So began my incredible fascination with trying to capture in music the essence of the land and the people.  I didn't think of myself as a metaphysicist, a Romantic, or an opportunist, though I've been called all three.

The first movement of "Three New Mexico Landscapes" is entitled "Enchanted Mesa" and is a direct result of my time-machine experience there, which was really no more than feeling very much in touch with the land itself and the people who had lived and died there centuries before.  "In touch" in a very "present" way.  It was my first reference to the ancestors of today's Pueblos.  The other two movements hinted at the tugging forces of adversity and bliss: the second, "Sleeping Snow", was sophisticated "blues" with a touch of panic in the middle, and "Aspen Race" was mostly a return to the child-like celebration of a wonderfully colorful, stimulating environment.

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Peggy Pond Church

Thanks to Charles Brown, the local chapter of the Music Teachers Association had a reading plan called the Program of Professional Enrichment.  Those enrolled in POPE read five books a year, from the subjects of Philosophy, Psychology, Education, Music and Religion.  We gathered to discuss each book.  One of the books was "The House at Otowi Bridge" by Peggy Pond Church, published by the University of New Mexico Press.  I was smitten.  Here were two people, the author and Edith Warner--the woman who had lived in the house at Otowi bridge--who had eloquently captured in words the incredible feelings I had about this land.

I made selections from the book to use as a narration in a piece called "Enchanted Land: Suite for Narrator and Orchestra".  I wrote Peggy for her permission first, even though UNM Press held the copyright.

Peggy wrote me this letter in October of 1976 in response to my request:

I can't say how enchanted I am by the selections you have made from the HOUSE AT OTOWI BRIDGE. You seem to have selected passages that give what is to me the essence of the book, the land and Edith Warner's own outlook.  Now I can hardly wait to hear the music that goes with it.  Thank you so much.

That you should have the work start out with the phrase'...there are certain places in the earth where the great powers that move between earth and sky are much closer and more available than others...' seemed so fortuitous, because I had been thinking so often of those words the last three days.  Peter Miller and Earle, her husband and I took a picnic Saturday to the petroglyphs south of Galisteo in the great volcanic dike that runs from west to east.  The glyphs were marvelous, reminding me of a kind of zodiac.  After we'd done our tramping around we lay for half an hour or so on the tip of the dike, and were so aware of 'the powers that move between earth and sky' that I  intended to go to the book soon and look up the passage--and there it was at the beginning of your excerpts.

I really must thank you so much, and do let me know when the suite is to be performed.

Eagerly, Peggy Church

I kept a journal that year.  I wrote these things about the composition of "Enchanted Land":

July 17: "Now am out of sketches--am only one step ahead of the ink in each measure--must plan ahead some more."

September 13:"When I started the piece, I had no real overall plan for the movements, nor had I even chosen the text yet.  Was wondering if there would be an overall direction to the text and movements.  But all has worked out well on its own ("organically grown", if you wish)--the right spots in the text came to me at the right time, and an overall direction and plan seems to be working itself out before my eyes.  I almost feel guilty about it."

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I conducted members of the Albuquerque Youth Symphony in the first performance at First Presbyterian in May of 1979, but we had so little rehearsal time that the difficult second movement was omitted.  The first full performance was by the Chamber Orchestra of Albuquerque, under David Oberg, at a concert of my works presented in Keller Hall by Ghost Ranch in 1981.  Peggy was unable to attend but heard the concert on the radio, as it was broadcast live on KHFM.

Peggy wrote me, "I'm still dripping with tears on my way to bed after tonight's Enchanted Land.  The narration was superb and the music blended perfectly.  You made a poem of the book."

Others said there was too much going on simultaneously.  Some asked if I really believed, as do the Pueblos, that "when a man dies his spirit...comes with the clouds to rain upon the earth and make it fertile." There was some concern among the scientists about the fourth movement--the adversity movement--"If Our Hearts Are Right...". I felt the book had done a good job of pointing out some of the incongruity of this land with "How strange it seemed that the bomb (which I changed to 'that') which had created such waste and...suffering had been made on that plateau where the ancient people for so long invoked their gods in beauty." I could have stopped there, but the book had gone a step further, so I did too: "In the smallest atoms of dust the forces that hold the worlds together lay slumbering. Long ago men had learned to call them forth with prayer, with the prayer of dancing bodies, of soaring voices, making themselves one with the need of earth for rain."

I didn't seek involvement in a battle between science and metaphysics.  I see them as gravitational pulls that keep us balanced, like the adversity/bliss and the order/chaos forces.  All are a part of nature--the ultimate work of art.  Man's mind alternates between the apparently indifferent randomness of nature and the resonance he feels with its movement toward order, wholeness, divinity.

Chaco Canyon

Perhaps without realizing it, I began a long fascination with the Anasazi, especially the Chacoans, as a way of trying to find my own balance.  By "time-traveling" a thousand years to a civilization that appeared to be "at one" with the cosmos, perhaps I could find a way to be truly positive in my work.

Even before going to Chaco Canyon, I had written "Celebration of the Sun" in 1974, my master's thesis at UNM.  The movements were "The Fool", "The Orb Followers" and "The Recyclement".  Little did I know that musically and programmatically it truly would serve as the foundation of my work for the next decade.  "Petroglyph for Strings" had been written in 1978 after a time-travel experience at an unexcavated Anasazi ruin at San Juan Mesa in the Jemez Mountains; a friend took me there to look for an example of one ofthe "Supernova" glyphs.

One of the most important musical elements first developed in "Celebration of the Sun"--and used in just about every work since then--is a synthetic tetrachord (or man-made four-note scale) consisting of the intervals of a half-step, whole-step and a half-step.  I had become fascinated with the effect of the scale in its use in Ravel's "Spanish Rhapsody".  I didn't know at the time of its use in such disparate musics as Bach, Copland, Indian ragas and Native American music.

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When used as I had, connecting one of these scales on the tonic note with one on the dominant note by means of a raised fourth-degree (f-sharp in the key of C), the synthetic scale seemed to suggest almost all of the colors of the seven old "church modes" at once, giving a sound that seemed both old and new, tonal yet dissonant, full of the rich colors, the incongruity, the timelessness of the land, its past, its people.  To the untrained ear it may simply sound "chromatic", some say, "Eastern".  But I'm a firm believer in musical gesture reflecting our physical experience.  I think, for example, that the "gravitational pull" of the half-step from the "Leading tone" up to the "tonic" in the major scale is the main reason why Ionian mode (the major scale) won the contest (ending about the time of the death of Bach) and became the favorite scale, the norm.

Everything has gravity.  Perhaps our fascination with mountains has something to do with our faint perception of their gravitational and magnetic fields.  Our main sensation, of course, is of our pull toward the earth, the largest body near us.  A pull that is relatively small, however, when compared to the distant but more powerfull pull of the much larger sun.  Though I didn't think of it consciously when I first used it, I feel that the tetrachord reflects, with its half-step pull on either side, the sense of "the great powers that move between earth and sky".

In 1980 a work was commissioned by the New Mexico Music Teachers Association and the Music Teachers National Association.  I had taught music all year at Sandia Preparatory School and had no time or energy to compose.  When school let out, I decided I had better get to work on the piece.  I wasn't having much luck.  In June Bonnie took our two-year-old son Kendall with her on a two-week trip to visit relatives.  For some reason, even though I had been to many other Anasazi sights, I had never been to Chaco Canyon.  With no one's schedule to worry about but my own, I drove out to Chaco and stayed several days.

The effect was overwhelming.  The Anasazi's great accomplishments radiated from this desolate Mecca--beautiful cities and masonry, intricate artwork, straight, paved roads, a successful and far-flung trade network, and an obvious fascination with religion and the cosmos.  The place held more magic for me than I could imagine feeling at the pyramids or Rome, partly because it was part of my own continent.  I had quoted my close friend, Bob Seufert, on the record jacket of "Petroglyph...": "But I too am a Native-born American and claim as my birthright the meaning of this continent.  Only when I understand it in my bones, and understand it much further back then the arrival of Columbus, can I hope to be no longer a European transplant on these shores but an American."

My fellow composers and I have said at times that we lament the periods when we aren't writing music, as if that were wasted time.  We really do know better.  Nothing is wasted.  As if in a reaction to not having written all year, I returned home from Chaco and wrote feverishly for days, finishing the first movement and sketching the others.  The piece won a national contest, sponsored by Music Teachers National Association, for which they named me Composer of the Year.  Though I had worked hard and used a lot of craft, I somehow felt I didn't fully deserve the honor.

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I remembered someone's declaration that what had made Beethoven so great was his ability to remain calm and calculating while under the fire of imagination.  I had been calculating, if not calm, and had certainly felt the "fire".  But, like Tchaikovsky, I lamented the fact that I couldn't fully understand the "fire" and therefore worried about its return--or the lack of it.

In the next few years, I returned to Chaco many times and wrote a number of pieces inspired by the "fire" that I felt there.  Sometimes the feelings were very positive and sometimes, black.  Seeing things through the eyes of the Anasazi had indeed allowed me to say positive things in my work, but instead of eliminating the negative things, my time-travel at Chaco heightened the awareness of both good and evil.  I felt as a child feels.

"Voices from Chaco" the MTNA-commissioned work, had three movements, entitled: "Invocation and Response", "Tombeau", "Fete and Offertory."  The first used a theme which I had previously sketched and dubbed the "silent spring" motive.  I felt that it expressed the tragic tone of a people who had passed into oblivion because of their overuse or misuse of the land, despite their love for it. Though we may never be anthropologically certain of the reasons for Chaco's abandonment, I felt that Chaco held many valuable lessons for our civilization.

"Three Dances from Chaco Canyon" shocked audiences with its wild reliving of ancient ceremonies.  Some missed the great tenderness of the second dance.  "Bird at the Great Kiva" told a tale of great hardship and incomparable bliss.

Once I heard a park ranger at the canyon say that the Chacoans were actually "losers" since they had to abandon their homes, probably because of the 40-year drought in the 1200's, something they might not have had to do if only they had built their "big apple" a little to the Northwest in the San Juan River Valley.  Perhaps he was right; perhaps their grand experiment--which had succeeded wonderfully for over 300 years--was doomed by a fundamental lack of judgement.  Our great experiment in this country, however, was only a little over 200 years old.  For some geographical reason, might North America later be shown to be a poor place for the democratic experiment?  Would we become "losers" in time?  I decided that neither we nor the Chacoans were losers for those reasons.  That would be a little like saying we are all losers because our bodies eventually die.

In 1982, not long after the discovery of the ingenious "Sun-Dagger"--the sun-shrine and solstice-marker on top of Fajada Butte--I was commissioned to write a work for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra by Yoshimi Takeda, the conductor and music director at that time.  The result was "Fajada Butte: An Epiphany", a symphonic movement that was premiered by the NMSO in 1983 and performed in Kennedy Center by the National Repertory Orchestra in 1985 for the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The discovery of the Sun-Dagger on Fajada Butte, though the marker was undoubtedly used by high priests to predict the Solstices and Equinoxes for very practical reasons, was like an epiphany to me.  Random House Dictionary says that an epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something usually initiated by some simple, homely or commonplace experience." As with many ancient peoples, the Anasazi didn't believe in accidents.  Fortune or misfortune was tied with natural or human events.  Every act--watering a corn plant--was a sacred act.  Though those in authority needed to demonstrate the power of their "magical" ability to predict the movements of heavenly bodies--especially as faith in their magic must have waned during the long dry period--the use of these solstice markers represented more to me than clever theatrics.

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Due to my (our) old habit of separating sacred and secular, I had long regarded the Butte with mild indifference.  Though it made an initial aesthetic impact that was striking, I soon turned my attention, as we have been trained to do in our very effective scientific tradition, to studying the masonry, petroglyphs, artifacts.

But the Sun-Dagger was a sudden reminder of the Chacoan's fundamental, child-like belief in the movement of the cosmos toward order, wholeness, divinity.  I wrote this for the program at the premiere of "Fajada Butte": "More than just an observatory, the butte must have been regarded as a temple, perhaps for the 'meeting' of earth and sky.  For 300 years, this was the 'center' for a people who truly celebrated life and light, and who found themselves in vibrant harmony with their cosmos.  The Anasazi vanished.  The vibrant harmony remains."

That was not to say, of course, that the vibrant harmony was always consonant.  I had many strange, dissonant experiences and sensations at Chaco, as did my friends who worked there.  Photographer Don Heath, who used my music in his dissolve-slide shows about Chaco, said that, at first, it seemed almost as if the spirits there were hostile to him, but that, in time, they had seemed to accept his presence benevolently.

Though one of my closest friends, fellow composer George Willink, is married to a Navajo, I had not heard until I went to Mesa Verde this year for the premiere of my "Fanfare for the Anasazi", that the Navajos fear Chaco because they feel there are forces there that may be dangerous.  The Navajo myth of the Great Gambler, an illegitimate child of the sun, who cunningly controlled his subjects and even the powers of nature, includes the warning that he may have returned to the Four Corners region, even though he had once been defeated and sent to Orion.

Earth Spirit

Though my fascination with and admiration of the Anasazi is not over, Lois Blackburn pointed out in her College Music Society presentation "Chaco Resolution--The Music of Michael Mauldin" that my "Chaco period" is.  As she so perceptively noted, a change occurred in compositions from 1984 on, certainly in the nature of the programmatic titles.  The first of these was "Three Songs of the Green Earth", a sonata for horn and piano written for my friend Joel Scott.  It was the first piece written after a brief but deep personal crisis.  Charles Maldonado, also a good friend, wrote in the ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL: "Keenly attuned to the land's essence and able to tap its unlimited inspirational resources, Mauldin has written a work of reverence and mystery that signifies a step in an exciting new direction."

That new direction is for me simply that I do not now need to see things through the eyes of the Anasazi.  I am unafraid to experience and share both the good and evil, the order and the chaos myself.  My unfinished business was to learn for myself that the past, present and future are one.  I had come for the space, the light and the timelessness.  I had found myself.