I drafted the Rock Etudes while Andrew and I were on a six night backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. My idea for the piece was to create a set of etudes based on the color classification of the geological formations in the park. Before departing, I created a pitch set for each rock color using the Munsell system, a color categorization system adopted for soil research in the 1930s that was developed by Professor Albert H. Munsell.
A particular flute and guitar technique was also assigned to each basic color in the system giving a timbral sound palate for each composite color. The end result is that each etude exists in its own little world, first as a result of the derived pitch set and second from the specific techniques used for the flute and guitar. Much like Béla Bartók’s Microkosmos, the self imposed limitations here provide an opportunity to focus on each technique and pitch set to bring about a pedagogical exploration for composer and performer.
Canyonlands National Park itself inspired much of the motivic material for the etudes. There are twenty-five rock colors in all, and the six are presented here were drafted with pencil and paper while backpacking. Bird calls, the echo off canyon walls, insects, wind, and planned silences all capture a sense of “natural” time, as opposed to the more mechanized sense of time in our urban life. The music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu has had an impressionable influence here, especially his work for alto flute and guitar, Toward the Sea.