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Across the Great Divide

This is a repost from my 2016 road trip blog, What the Road Tells Me. You can listen along with my paired music here.


I was not going to think about.

I didn’t think about it.

Until it happened.

Oh shit here it comes, better prepare.

John Adams’ “Grand Pianola Music” has always held a special place in my heart. For some reason, when I first heard “On the Dominant Divide” and learned of its origins, I imagined myself driving one of the long black limousines across the Continental Divide of our country. Precariously teetering between one tonality and the next, Adams accomplished with sound what I accomplished with a nearly century-old box of moving parts. According to the composer:

As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios.

And for me, the complete ecstasy of the tonality and piano writing in this piece has always rendered a specific image in my mind: Some day, I’m going to cross the great “dominant divide” in our country.

And the minute I knew where I was and what was happening, the reality of where I was really sank in.

I’m on the eastern seaboard. I am on the other side of the country. Every drop of water spilled in my vicinity will travel to an ocean I’ve never seen. Every river flows in the opposite direction, and every lake fills and spills backwards from what I know.

I’ve crossed the “Dominant Divide,” but instead of wavering between the tonality of Bb major and Eb major, I’ve solidified myself on this side of the country for the unknown future.

And that got me teary-eyed as I descended the mountains of Montana into this basin of unfamiliarity, John Adams blasting loud enough to make my ears bleed.

Just like that, I’m on the other side of the country from my best friends, from my family, and from everything familiar to me.

I couldn’t help but drive around for a few days until I could go back, and cross it again.

This time I took a picture.


August 2, 2016

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