On a recent April weekend at Joshua Tree National Park, the desert weather displayed the wide range of moods and movements it is known for in springtime: a storm-borne wind howled through creosote and cold rain at sunrise on Friday morning then yielded to calm, 75 degree-sunshine Saturday afternoon offering up a gentle breeze that shifted and tickled itself through the massive granite boulders at Cap Rock, bringing along with it the scent of wildflowers and Joshua tree blossoms.
It was all the perfect accompaniment and backdrop to SoundCheckEarth, a site-specific immersive acoustic concert composed by innovative composer and music educator Kennedy Verrett specifically for the Cap Rock site, a stunning location situated in a natural valley in the heart of the Park.
Starting at 6:06 AM on April 22 and culminating at 6:06 PM on April 23, and in five distinct movements, music played by 17 local and visiting musicians tucked away in their own space among the rocks, mostly out of sight but within hearing range from each other emanated throughout the Cap Rock site as rock climbers, tourists and SoundCheckEarth attendees wandered along a ¼-mile circular interpretive path, stopping to listen, look and smile in wonderment.
One man was overheard comparing this experience to hearing concerts in European cathedrals.
At one point on Saturday afternoon, members of a large wedding party disembarked from a bus and wandered and wondered through this panoply of sound on their way to take celebratory photos, their laughter and joy mingling with the musical notes that included "a bassoon player sheltered by a Joshua Tree, percussionists perched on boulders, strings, woodwinds and brass resonating with the rocks," as described by SoundCheckEarth’s producer and director Eva Soltes, who is also producing a film about the event.
And it all came together, at Cap Rock, in five musical movements, each dedicated to one of the five elements earth, air, water, fire and the spirit, according to Verrett. His piece is based on the Japanese nature-inspired tanka poetry form: 17 musicians, one for each sound of the 17-syllable tanka structure. Verrett also borrowed inspiration from composer Lou Harrison, who championed the Japanese poetry forms as inspiration in his own musical composition.
In Movement One, "Gratitude," "The music is central, with an expansive feel that matches the landscape at Cap Rock," says Verrett. Movement Two, "The Earth Shaketh," is inspired by the tectonic plate movement that form the geologic features of Joshua Tree National Park. Movement Three, "Affirmations of the Spirit" is meant to be a lot like the Gratitude movement, especially, notes Verrett, as humanity has negotiated through the difficult pandemic era.
Movement Four, "Testify" takes inspiration from the church. "In my church, we have something called a Speak Meeting, where we gather and share stories and bear witness to each other’s experiences," Verrett says. "This gives us that ability to adapt, improvise and overcome whatever it is that we might be trying to overcome." Movement Five is the "Final Movement."
And there, suddenly appearing amidst the rocks and tuning in with a huge smile on his face as he leant in to listen intently during one of Saturday’s movements was Verrett himself, delighted by the momentous sounds of his musicians’ instruments calling and echoing to one another across the rocks.
Deeply at home in the midst of absorbing his stunning composition come to life, his passion for this music and the relationships he's created between music and landscape emanated from his entire presence as Soltes approached him and gave him a giant hug, the beauty of musical sounds, Joshua trees and giant rocks washing over them.
The overall impact of SoundCheckEarth was not unlike the experience of watching a colorful sand mandala be meticulously crafted, briefly displayed and then scattered to the wind: an ephemeral, but lasting impression of beauty and transformation in this particular place in the Mojave Desert that will endure in the memory of rock and wind and Joshua trees.
Inspired by the Mojave Desert landscape and drawn here by his deep interest in the musical compositions of Mojave Desert-affiliated musicians Harrison and Harry Partch, along with Julius Eastman, Verrett reached out to Soltes in early 2020.