Ghost Ranch (2006) for orchestra was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its principal conductor, Marin Alsop, on February 8, 2006 in Poole, United Kingdom. Ghost Ranch is inspired by the life and paintings of the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1968). A rugged individualist who distanced herself from art critics and art historians, she lived for over forty years in her summer home known as Ghost Ranch, a desolate area 120 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s paintings of this period reflect the vast landscape, with its open sky, jagged canyons, and bone-parched earth. Her art, like my music, hovers between realism and abstraction. Ghost Ranch is a musical journey into a stark terrain of extremes and contrasts.
I. Bone. On her daily walks around Ghost Ranch, O’Keeffe collected bleached animal bones scattered over the desert. She used these to create sculptures in her sparsely furnished adobe house, and depicted them as abstract objects in many of her paintings. In Summer Days (1936) and Flying Backbone (1944), for example, animal skulls and bones appear to float in a bright blue sky, and in Pelvis III (1944) O’Keeffe framed the vastness of the sky through the holes of a pelvis bone. In the first movement of Ghost Ranch, I recollect these bones with tapping, bone-like sounds: the string players tap their instruments ‘col legno’ (using the wood of the bow) and play ‘snap pizzicato’ (snapping the string against the fingerboard), punctuated by the dry polyrhythms of hollow woodblocks played by the percussion section. To evoke the distinct multiple layers of O’Keeffe’s paintings, I occasionally divide the orchestra into three separate ensembles, each with its own tone color and tempo. The brass and the strings, recalling the open blue skies and epic panoramas of the Southwestern terrain, play sweeping melodic lines. Echoing O’Keeffe’s lifelong search to create “the feeling of infinity on the horizon line,” the coda of this movement increasingly moves toward one pitch, simultaneously played by the three ensembles in different tempos.
II. Above Clouds. In O’Keeffe’s paintings, Sky Above Clouds I-IV (1962-65), white clouds are geometrically set against a bright blue background, creating an abstract yet recognizable form. Recalling O’Keeffe’s description of “the near and far, both in time and space” in her work, I expand the listener’s sense of acoustic space. The horn section is spatially rearranged on the stage, so it is possible to see as well as hear the sound of the solo horns, floating cloud-like above the rest of the orchestra.
III. Black Rattle. Dressed in black, O’Keeffe would travel alone in her “Model T” car to discover and paint new places. Often camping overnight, she was drawn to ominous landscapes such as the barren hills that she called the “Black Place,” where she endured terrifying lightning storms, wild animals, and rattle snakes in order to make her strange but beautiful paintings. The third movement suggests danger, beginning with woodwinds playing ‘bell in air’, barking like a pack of coyotes in the middle of the night. The lower strings and timpani pulsate with a menacing rhythm in 7/8 time, and a dark twisting melody is played by the English horn, bassoons and oboes, and later by the entire orchestra. Percussion instruments rattle, while the orchestra paints a bleak panorama. The slow, mysterious middle section evokes the feeling of walking slowly into blackness. In the last section, the opening serpentine melody, heard again in the bass clarinet and bassoon, is interrupted by dissonant brass echoes and ringing chimes. The movement concludes with a menacing rattle.
- Michael Daugherty