Composer Phillip Bimstein conjures the ghosts, heroines and tensions of Southwest Utah and, with Red Rock Rondo, makes them sing.
Phillip Bimstein, where’s your pointed velvet hat?
This wizard-composer-activist was mayor of Springdale, Utah (pop. 457) in the 1990s, accomplishing, among other near-magic things, a collaborative transportation system with neighboring Zion National Park.
As leader of the musical ensemble Red Rock Rondo, now he’s created Zion Canyon Song Cycle, turning barn cats and the lives of motel maids into opera. We call that alchemy.
A Chicago native, trained in Los Angeles, Bimstein “took a hiking trip to southern Utah and never left.” He was enthralled by Zion, the mystical region within and around the national park. After more than a decade here, Bimstein birthed a musical story of this stark landscape and its tough, unpretentious inhabitants.
He immersed himself in local history and interviewed many of the old timers here, people he had come to know as friends. With a grant from the American Composer’s Forum’s Continental Harmony (2005), he created sixteen songs and worked out the arrangements with the strong group of musicians who make up Red Rock Rondo.
Zion Canyon Song cycle is unlike any musical composition we’ve ever heard. It’s an ambitious synthesis of art song and folk song, history and myth, boosterism and poetry. Some have called Bimstein’s music “alternative classical” or “chamber folk.” And if you like labels, these are close enough. Most of the music is made with old time string band instruments, but the instruments don’t just accompany the singing. They sing, too. Charlotte Bell’s oboe, in particular, supplies an unexpected “voice” throughout: strong, eerie, beautiful and plain all at once, like the desert wind.
Harold Carr plays the standup bass and “delivers” one song – actually Bimstein’s poem drawn from Logan Hebner’s ruminations on the region’s precious water. Kate MacLeod, on guitar and violin, sings many of the leads with a straightforward alto, bright and clear as the Utah sky. She and Flavia Cervino-Wood are switch-violinists, fiddling away on some tunes,
sounding more like classical chamber musicians on others. Hal Cannon brings his warm baritone voice and picking skills on guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Phillip himself sings tenor and plays guitar.
“It has been so interesting to see how Phillip uses his consensus building skills from politics to work towards an inclusive music,” writes Hal Cannon, who also directs the Western Folklife Center.
Cannon and Bimstein first met working on a segment for public radio about Bimstein’s musical piece ‘Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica.’ Cannon writes, “We were having lunch, when [Phillip] told me he was about to take his new composition to the family first to see if they approved before taking it further. I was stunned by this attitude, which in my experience was so different than the way many composers would treat their artistic creations.”
Cannon also admires how Bimstein handles old melodies and tales. “Having spent most of my life holding true to the old traditional music and its styling,” writes Cannon, “I realize that to keep continuity in rural places, particularly, there have to be new interpretations, new ways of telling the stories.”
Bimstein’s lyrics spring from local events and biographies. Some are anecdotes the composer has burnished into legend: “Back and Forth” remembers two girls who died accidentally in 1866, their ghosts reappearing in white dresses six decades later. Other songs memorialize episodes in local history; for example, “Rocks on Fire” recalls when the great tunnel at Zion was blasted in 1928, and two miners died.
One of the great curiosities of Zion Canyon Song Cycle is the freedom with which Bimstein combines simple joys with complex problems. In “Big Rock” (one of our favorites, maybe because there was a “Big Rock” in our childhood, too), Hal Cannon sounds like a five year old all grown up.
One winter day
I’ll climb on top
And sit in the sun on that big old rock.
When April comes
To melt the snow
I’ll jump back down to the shade below.
Before asking your preschool class to sing along, check out Bimstein’s tune. The chord progressions here are as fancy as the lyrics are elementary. And the combination is an odd delight.
In one of several song-portraits, Bimstein calls local artist Lynn Berryhill an “Edgewalker.” Takes one to know one: for most of Bimstein’s songs trace the contradictions and “edges” Zion residents have always had to confront. The sharpest of these – one every rural American will recognize – is the conflict between small communities’ desire to preserve their natural environment and traditional ties and their simultaneous striving for survival — requiring change.
This theme pervades the Zion Canyon Song Cycle. There’s Louise Excell’s lament for ‘hay colored leaves” – now that Springdale’s plentiful mulberry trees have been cleared to meet demand for new houses near Zion Park.
“Driving Back to Hurricane” speaks for all the bed makers, yard men, and waitresses who love this beautiful spot (and others like it) but can’t afford living close by anymore; they commute to work from 40 miles away.
And in one of the strongest songs of the collection “When President Harding Came to Zion,” we hear of 80-year-old Carnelia Gifford Crawford, who battled with her own sons over whether to sell their homestead and make way for the splendid new national park.
Carnelia’s story will make every Kentuckian think of Knott County’s Ollie “Widow” Combs, who lay down before the bulldozers that had come to stripmine her land. If one looks hard enough, far enough back, might every town have a Widow Combs or Carnelia?
Red Rock Rondo debuted the Zion Canyon Song Cycle in Rockville, Utah, nearly two years ago. The music is available on CD. Now the Western Folklife Center has produced a television program about the songs that will screen May 9, at Zion National Park. Under the faithful guidance of a first-rate musician and community organizer, the people of Zion helped to create and now possess a melodic monument to their community.
These songs deserve to reach beyond their birthplace. Would that they will. And would that every town – with its ghosts, big rocks, tensions and tragedies — could attract and keep an alchemist in residence.