Monday, July 28, 2008

Geosong of the Week: High Country's "The Earthquake"

Even though I've only been playing bluegrass music for a little under a year, I have come to the understanding that it is never a bad idea, when writing a song, to kill off a character within said song, no matter how upbeat the actual music is. It's part of a sort of laughter-and-tears aesthetic that bluegrass shares with a lot of the Celtic music from which many tunes stem: perky fast music, casual wording, depressing substance.

Natural disasters are an obvious way to kill off characters, so I figured I would fire up Google in search of some earthquake bluegrass. And nearly immediately - perhaps because it is the title track of the album in question - High Country's "The Earthquake" turned up.

The lyrics are pretty much what I expected: a happy relationship is destroyed by the house falling on the girl. There is a good sense of the suddenness of the earthquake, though, since the singer keeps talking about how things were, but in the present tense - as if the quake hadn't happened - then juxtaposes the reality of the events against it by inserting a chorus. By the end of the song, the depth and severity of the situation has finally hit the singer, once his beloved has been buried. What I think is the best line of the song comes from this stanza:
"She's lyin' there alone at the mercy of nature, and I've never felt so helpless and small."
To have to put the body down in the earth, when the earth's own "misbehavior" is responsible for her death...that has to be a troublesome feeling. (Though, geek that I am, I couldn't hear this part without thinking to earlier in the verse, where he says she's buried at the foot of the mountain. "No!" I thought, "Don't put her there! Not on the fault scarp! No!")

I also really enjoy the music to this one. I listened to it a bunch of times and couldn't figure out the chords, which was both frustrating and exciting, since this one clearly deviates from the I-IV-V-I progression that's the backbone of so many songs in so many genres. The mystery chord turned out to be a flat III, and its presence made me inordinately happy. The melody that fits over these chords is also incredibly catchy. When I played this song for a friend of mine who happens to be an ethnomusicologist whose Master's thesis was on bluegrass, he immediately said it was a cool song, and I caught him humming it in the hallway a few days later. This song stands up on its own musically, with or without the earthquake factor. Excellent.

Remember last week, how I was saying that people in the mariachi band were threatening to make me sing "La falla de San Andrés"? Well, I still don't know if that's happening, but the bluegrass band I'm in (we're tentatively named Inland Wildfire) is definitely working on "The Earthquake," and yours truly is definitely the one singing it. Terrifying, yes? If we're ever in a position to record it, I most likely will inflict this one on my hapless readers...

But you should listen to the real version first. Here's High Country's Rhapsody page.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Where ATVs and Bruntons Meet

I haven't been to field camp, and I likely won't get to due to all of the academic catchup that comes with a major switch of fields this late in the game. I did get to take a field mapping course this past quarter, though, and I enjoyed almost every minute of it (I say almost, because the one day where it got up to 105 in the shade, and there wasn't any shade, was a bit intense). The professor outright asked me to take his class, never mind that I didn't have the prerequisite. The class involved ten days in the field, split between two different field areas in the Mojave Desert. Some of those trips were only for a single day - both areas were a nice hour and a half drive away from campus - but there were three full-weekend outings involved, which meant I still got some of the campfire conversation aspect of longer-term field camp.

Of the two field areas, I was particularly taken with the sedimentary-focused one. Mule Canyon is in the Calico Mountains, off the same freeway exit that takes you to Calico Ghost Town. The canyon exposes the bright greens, reds, yellows, and oranges of the Miocene Barstow Formation (though without the fossils, from what I understand), plus some younger caps of purple(!) extrusive volcanics. The name "Calico Mountains" explained itself right there. Mule Canyon ranks up among the most beautiful places I've ever visited, and I really enjoyed mapping it. To me, it was like a giant puzzle, only I had to walk on the pieces to match edges, rather than snapping everything together from one bird's eye view.

The colors of Mule Canyon. I really wish I'd taken a long panoramic shot of the whole place.

We were the only geology class out there for the six days we spent in Mule Canyon, but there was no shortage of other people. Mule Canyon is a popular spot for RVers, offroaders, and shooting enthusiasts. Mapping there was never quiet: there was constant engine noise, spatters of gunfire all too close to the actual mapped area, and one RV that seemed to be in the same spot playing the same Britney Spears CD on repeat for several of our visits. It was also never without its share of idiocy, mostly not on the part of our class: the first day we were there, some visitor had the brilliant idea to shoot across the road, and there were all kinds of incidents of people attempting to drive vehicles up hills that were entirely too steep and sandy to really be wise. (We had fun with this one. One night, well after dark, we saw ATV lights running across what was clearly our measured section - a high and narrow measured section, no less - so the professor led a charge toward them with flashlights. They proceeded to leave.)

But the Britney Spears, the ricochets, and the jeeps cutting back and forth across beds I was trying to map did not even come close to making the experience of mapping at Mule Canyon a bad one. It's too fantastic and fascinating of a place for that. (We only mapped the predominantly-homoclinal section of it. There are crazy folds all around that are absolutely worth going back for.) If anything, I pity the recreational users of that land, too busy putting bulletholes and tire tracks into the landscape to realize its beauty.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Faultcats Strike(-Slip) Back!

I really need to clean the piles of papers and books off my apartment floor. It doesn't help, however, that my cats tend to pull books off the bookshelf for fun. Andreas has, in this case, chosen some entirely too appropriate literature to pull down and sit on:

Garlock caught wind of this, and objected that the field guide in question does not represent his namesake. He made sure to show Andreas and I exactly where it ought to go on that map:

(This picture is not posed. Yes, I dropped the rubber band on the book, but that's only because I was sitting near the book in order to get pictures of Andreas sitting on the book. Garlock pulled the rubber band to that particular position all by himself. Smart kitty!)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Geosong of the Week: Kevin Johansen's "La Falla de San Andrés"

Sorry for the long hiatus, guys! (Is two weeks a long hiatus?) I was on the east coast visiting people that I pretty much only get to see twice a year, and this was not conducive to much internet time. Which was, probably, a good thing, but I still missed mah intarwebz. And now I am back in California and have more time on my hands, but also more geology to talk about, so I will try to be less dead.

But I will start back in with a song.

I have a friend in England who delights in sending me very strange music. One of the all-time strangest she's sent me is a Finnish humppa-rock song about a town where cows say cuckoo and cuckoos give milk. She's also sent me songs in Hungarian, Estonian, German, and Latvian. When I moved to California, though, she said she had the perfect song for me, in Spanish and English. The song in question is by a guy called Kevin Johansen, and it's called "La Falla de San Andrés." (Yes, there are a lot of SAF songs on this playlist.)

Kevin Johansen is Argentinian-American, was born in Alaska, and moved to Buenos Aires at the age of 12, but the gap between birth and that move was spent in the San Francisco Bay area. This gave him more than enough time, apparently, to pick up some seismic lore and plant the seeds for this song. It is not, however, a serious song about earthquake damage or the emotional impact thereof. Johansen instead opted for a type of lyrics that, from what I read, resonates well with the geoblogosphere: puns.

Yes, this is a song that is an elaborate setup for a dreadful geoscience pun in two languages.

No fue mi culpa esta vez! Fue la Falla de San Andrés!
This time it wasn't my fault! It was San Andreas' Fault!

What's not to love?
(I suspect this also works in other Romance languages. But definitely not German or Russian.)

As if this wasn't gloriously goofy enough, the story that leads up to the singer placing the blame on the Fault is punctuated by sound effects. My favorite, hands down, is when the singer describes the Earth opening up, and there's a creaky door noise; the other sound effects are equally ridiculous, in the best possible way.

The music itself is bouncy and Latin - a little bit mariachi, a little bit cumbia. One of the other people in the mariachi band at school thinks we should adapt this to be entirely mariachi, so we can play it with me singing. Yikes! If that happens, I will probably hide from the recording, if there is one.

Kevin Johansen, however, used to have a free MP3 of this song on his website. It no longer seems to be there, which makes me sad, because now it is harder to inflict the song on people. It is, at least, still on his Rhapsody page.
And here are the complete lyrics.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Geosong of the Week: The work of Gustav Mahler

I'm going to diverge a little from the pop/rock basis of the Fault Poking Playlist this week. This is because today, 7 July, happens to be the 148th birthday of Gustav Mahler, who happens to be my favorite composer (and the subject of my music MA thesis). Mahler was a composer whose creative output happened almost exclusively in spectacular geologic settings, and those settings had a profound influence on his work.

Mahler was essentially a "summer composer." From the age of 20 onward, he worked as a conductor for most of the year, taking the offseason months to do the bulk of his composition - the sketching short scores and drafts of works that he would flesh out and orchestrate during the rest of the year. Starting in the early 1890s, this summer work was done away from the bigger cities, nearly unfindable in the mountains.

The first summer home was in Steinbach am Attersee, in lower Austria. This is about an hour and a half outside of Salzburg; it is still small enough to not have its own train station. The Attersee is a large oblong Alpine lake and has the clearest blue water I have ever seen (I visited in the summer of 2005). Behind it rises the Höllengebirge, a sheer vertical limestone face, 1800 meters high. In his hut by the lake, Mahler composed a good dozen art songs, most of his Second Symphony, and all of his Third. When Mahler was visited in Steinbach by a friend, who asked him to give him a tour of the area, Mahler replied that he had composed it all into his Third Symphony, and that listening to that piece would be as good as getting a tour. The first movement of that symphony is meant to portray the rock that underlies the rest of the environment at Steinbach. Mahler described it as "lifeless, crystalline nature." The movement opens with a unison melody from ten french horns, majestic and solid as the mountain face (and, if you happen to be in the back of the viola section, sitting in front of all of those horns, like getting hit in the back of the head with a big chunk of said rock). Having seen the mountain myself, and having played the symphony, I think Mahler was absolutely right to say he'd captured the landscape in notes.
The Second Symphony, another Steinbach-era piece, has a different sort of geologic significance. Namely, its fifth movement includes a portrayal of an earthquake. In the storyline of the piece, this earthquake opens up the ground so all the senseless dead people can come out of the ground and gather together to be rejoined with their spirits and thereby fully resurrected. Mahler's earthquake is all percussion - rolls on the cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, and timpani, beginning pianissimo and crescendoing to fortissimo over the course of two measures, ending with a bang. To my ear, he got the rattling aspect just right, but at the same time, my experience with earthquakes tells me that even the small ones go BANGrattlerattlerattle rather than rattlerattlerattleBANG. The actual rupture, followed by the building response, not vice versa. My guess would be that Mahler never actually felt a quake (though news of the 1906 San Francisco one really upset him) - or is there a circumstance where the bang could come last?

The second summer home, occupied from 1900 to 1907, was at Maiernigg am Wörthersee, also in the Austrian Alps, not far from Klagenfurt. The setting here is similar to that at Steinbach: house and composition hut nestled in the woods between a wide Alpine lake and steep mountains. The only reason Mahler abandoned his first summer home was the fact that noise from other vacationers got on his nerves, so it makes sense that he would seek the same geologic setting without all the noise. Mahler composed another dozen songs here, as well as most of the Fourth Symphony, and the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies in their entirety. There is no concrete landscape scene for Maiernigg, like the Third provides for Steinbach, but there are still ample mountains and valleys in the verbal descriptions Mahler made of his works from this period. He even devised a very specific orchestrational device here - the low sound of offstage cowbells to represent looking out over the landscape from a high peak.

The third summer home was at Toblach, aka Dobbiaco, high (elevation of the valley in which the town lies: 4072 feet) in the Dolomites of Italy's Südtirol/Alto Adige region. Mahler moved there in 1908, after his young daughter's death in 1907 made the prospect of returning to Maiernigg too painful. Though there are lakes in the area, there isn't a single large one that characterizes the landscape like at Mahler's previous two summer homes. The mountains at Toblach, however, are perhaps more breathtaking than at Steinbach or Maiernigg - they are far higher, and consist more of points and spires and crags than continuous rock faces. Low clouds (of which there were plenty when I visited in 2005) may completely obscure even the lowest peaks in the area. Mahler did not speak so explicitly about working the specific landscape of Toblach into the music he wrote there (Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies), but he really didn't need to. The title "The Song of the Earth" says so very much, and the soundworld coupled with the text to the final movement paint a picture that can only be Toblach at night, if one has seen the place for comparison. That final movement, "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell") is a long and poignant farewell to life, which begins with the sun setting behind the mountains, and ends with praise of the Earth itself, which always renews itself in cycles. Perhaps those cycles are seasons, but for such an inhabitant of the mountains as Mahler, he would likely have been thrilled to know that mountains come and go in great cycles as well.