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How the West Has Won Playlist

October 17, 2013

Maybe the first musical images that come to us when we imagine the American West are cowboy songs and the film score of a favorite western. But composers, like other artists, have usually been blown away by the sheer awesomeness of the Western landscape, and it’s that sense of the sublime, the scale of the scenery and its forbidding magnificence, that they usually try to translate into music. This playlist is dedicated to that effect, which anybody who has ridden through that part of the country has felt.

  1. Creation Chant, R. Carlos Nakai, Navajo flute; from the album Canyon Trilogy.
    R. Carlos Nakai is probably the most important figure in the revival of the Native American cedar flute, an instrument you hear all the time, but might not recognize. He invented a notation tablature for it. But his artistic response to the natural environment demonstrates his greatness as a composer.
  2. Chinook, Meredith Monk and Robert Een, from Facing North.
    One of the most original composers alive is Meredith Monk, who uses her voice in the most expressive and unusual ways. Here she and co-performer Robert Een evoke the uncanny soundscape of the Alaskan tundra with just voice.
  3. "Painted Desert" from Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofè. Cincinnati Pops, cond. Erich Kunzel.
    Probably the most often-played description of the American West, this movement in the Grand Canyon Suite evokes the same sense of uncanny beauty that Meredith Monk was hearing — but with very different means.
  4. Mojave: Desert Part by Tangerine Dream.
    The influential German band Tangerine Dream originally put this track down in 1982, but it has been re-recorded many times. It refers, they say, to any desert, not specifically to the Mojave.
  5. "Main Theme" from High Plains Drifter soundtrack, by Dee Barton.
    Okay, we have to include one movie western in this playlist. Listen especially to the way the composer sets up the appearance of the theme.
  6. "Trinity" from Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams. St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor.
    John Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic makes much of the destructive natural forces that the scientists of the Trinity project are busy manipulating to create an atomic bomb, and the unsettling beauty of the desert, also created by titanic natural forces. In this selection, there’s a physical contrast between the two, like kinetic energy vs. potential energy.
  7. Prairie Journal by Aaron Copland. Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta, conductor
    Copland wrote this work for a premiere by a radio orchestra. The radio company invited listeners to come up with a title, and the winner was Prairie Journal; the listener was thinking of wagon trains rolling across the prairies.
  8. "Zion Park and the Celestial City" from From the Canyons to the Stars (Des canyons aux etoiles, 1974, by Olivier Messiaen). Paul Crossley, piano, London Sinfonietta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
    Talk about wild and uncanny! This amazing piece of sonic landscape portraiture was inspired by the canyonland parks in Utah, and written for celebration of the American bicentennial. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, connected the sublime landscapes to the contemplation of an eternal God.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.