Lawrence Fodor: Chaco Canyon, 2015-2017, archival pigment print; courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), HP.2017.02

We view landscape painting as a common activity among artists, but the analogous enterprise in the world of music — we might call it “landscape composition” — seems unusual in comparison. On a basic level, it’s easy enough to know what a place sounds like. All you have to do is stop and listen. That is the point John Cage made in his (in)famous 4’33”, in which the performers do not play their instruments for the entire three movements of the composition, which lasts for the duration given in the title. It is often referred to as a piece of silence, but it is never that when programmed, the span instead being filled with the noises that happen to be audible in the performance space. In that spirit, any place, natural or otherwise, can be said to make its own music. In the realm of art music, however, composers usually impose their own voices on their landscape compositions. The resulting pieces may range from specific evocations of the sounds of a place to personal meditations inspired by those landscapes.

A number of standard works in the classical music canon serve as well-known specimens. Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome depicts four different arboreal landscapes in the Eternal City, the third of which, “The Pines of the Janiculum,” overlays a recording of a local nightingale. When George Gershwin was working on his tone poem An American in Paris, he laid out an array of French taxi horns in his hotel room in the city, intent on selecting one that combined authenticity with the orchestral sounds that would surround it. Both composers were impeccable in their musical mimesis. Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite doesn’t employ sound effects of that sort, but it does evoke them through orchestration — say, the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves, which are rendered by a percussionist striking coconut shells muffled in leather. A listener would easily recognize the sound as imitating hoof-falls, but only the work’s title reveals precisely where the hooves are falling. Similarly, Bedrich Smetana did a masterly job of suggesting a river building from calm headwaters into a surging dynamo, but if he had not named his piece The Moldau, a great many of the world’s music lovers might just as easily assume it was about the Tesuque Creek in monsoon season.

Chaco Canyon has inspired a handful of composers to process its intriguing landscape and structures into sounds. We assembled a selection of currently available CDs that, while not representing the repertoire exhaustively, suggest its breadth across compositional styles. The site’s mystical overtones have proved predictably magnetic to New Age musicians. The most specifically evocative of them may be the Chaco Canyon Suite by M. Thomas Sexton (2014, rereleased in 2016); it is available through CD Baby (, a label and music-distribution service for those who would self-publish. The suite opens with nature sounds — insects, I guess — and then tingling bell tones and sustained electronic chords, all by way of introduction to a Native American flute. The piece’s 12 movements involve different permutations thereof as they proceed through four different gradations of the light of dawn (gray, purple, red, yellow), various activities that might have occupied the people who lived in the canyon, and the day’s end, in “The Sun Turns North” and “Life Is New Again.” Sections of comparative vigor are provided by “Welcoming the Kachinas” (two flutes and percussion) and “The Dance” (which includes Native American vocals). I have no idea who M. Thomas Sexton is. The hard-copy CD provides no information apart from movement headings, and the online album notes say nothing about the composer.

Another entry in the New Age category is Chaco Canyon by Rusty Crutcher (1990, re-released 2016, also from CD Baby), from the Sacred Sites Series, consisting of eight tracks of woo-woo electronics, Indian fluting, the crunch of footsteps, and so on. If this sort of thing is your bag, you also have at your disposal the “Chaco Canyon” movement on an album titled Four Corners Suite (1990, rereleased 2008) by Scott Moulton, apparently on no label whatsoever but sold through Amazon. He plays the guitar, gently. I would have to classify all of these as rudimentary in their musical content, but if you or your massage clients enjoy them, it’s no skin off my nose.

Michael Mauldin is a New Mexico composer who has written pieces for many of the state’s musical ensembles including, in our own city, Serenata of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble. In addition to his home base in Albuquerque, he maintains a more secluded studio and artists’ retreat near Cuba. He has produced many works that relate to places in New Mexico, including Three New Mexico Landscapes for clarinet and piano (1975); Enchanted Land: Suite for Narrator and Orchestra (1976); and Fajada Butte: An Epiphany (1982, named for a spot in Chaco Canyon). Interested listeners might want to sample his Three Dances From Chaco Canyon, which is included in a two-CD set titled Masterworks of the New Era, Vol. 10 (on the ERM Media label). Although its title might suggest otherwise, the collection is not a New Age album but rather a gathering of orchestral pieces by bona fide art music composers. Mauldin’s Three Dances, which together occupy about 17 minutes, was premiered (the liner notes inform us) on the summer solstice of 1981. The composer wrote of visiting Chaco Canyon: “The effect was overwhelming. The Anasazis’ accomplishments radiated from this desolate mecca — beautiful cities and masonry, intricate artwork, straight ‘paved’ roads, a successful and far-flung trade network, and an obvious fascination with religion and the cosmos.” The piece is an appealing work of modernism, a descendant of such monuments of exotic primitivism as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Milhaud’s The Creation of the World. The first and third movements are fast, and both make considerable use of mixed two-versus-three rhythmic motifs. Although this is a tonally grounded composition, some of its melodies have a free-ranging, 12-tone flavor. The central dance is slow and pensive, very Rite-like indeed with its grace-noted contours. The finale is particularly vigorous, whipping up a good deal of energy, rather reminiscent of Silvestre Revueltas’s orchestral works inspired by the ancient cultures of old Mexico. Robert Ian Winstin conducts the Kiev Philharmonic, which you would not mistake for one of the great orchestras of the world. The strings especially are pushed to the edge of their abilities in many ways, but the piece shines through effectively all the same.

One might also take in Mauldin’s Voices From Chaco: Concertino for Piano and Woodwind Quintet, which in 1980 earned him top prize in the Music Teachers National Association Composer-of-the-Year Competition. The first of his Chaco pieces, it figures on an all-Mauldin CD titled Enchantment (again, through CD Baby) that also includes, among other pieces, his Four Zuni-Mountain Miniatures for Chamber Ensemble and his Santa Fe Magic for narrator and orchestra, the latter being a setting of a text by Santa Fe author Peggy Pond Church (and, in this recording delivered by her daughter, Kathleen). Mauldin himself is the adept pianist in Voices From Chaco, offering a nuanced interpretation that is not always matched to the same degree by his wind-playing colleagues; but, again, the reading does its job and the piece is worth knowing. If the Three Dances seems  sometimes overly dense in its orchestration, this chamber work benefits from its relative transparency. Mauldin conveys a sense of mystery, which is quite apropos for a subject that invites much speculation and about which absolute certainty is often evasive. The second of the three movements is particularly evocative in this regard, a “Tombeau” that by its nature is introspective. The finale, “Fete and Offertory,” works up to a frenzy with a biting, bitonal edge. As with the Three Dances, Voices From Chaco paints sonic pictures based on imagined scenes, a Romantic notion, perhaps, though one that is here realized with a thoroughly 20th-century vocabulary.

A different approach informs The Chaco Wilderness, a 10-minute work of three movements composed in 2005 by Barbara Monk Feldman. It was released in 2015 by New World Records in an elegantly crafted reading by The DownTown Ensemble, consisting of a number of new-music notables: Margaret Lancaster (flute), Daniel Goode (clarinet), Larry Polansky (guitar and mandolin), Joseph Kubera (piano), and Chris Nappi (vibraphone). The composer lived in Santa Fe from 2000 to 2012 and is especially remembered in these parts for overseeing the Time Shards concert series at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. She was a pupil, then wife, then widow of the composer Morton Feldman, and her own compositions show some of the same characteristics that his do. These include drawing inspiration from visual artworks, delving into possible parallels between musical and visual rhythm, and a spare musical vocabulary based on a sort of pointillism in which notes are few and far between, usually very quiet, and distributed almost like dabs from a very fine paintbrush.

The Chaco Wilderness is inspired by real-life landscapes rather than artworks, but the titles of its three movements underscore the painterly connection: “a letter of green,” “a sentence of blue,” “a poem of white.” This is music of texture rather than of traditional melody. Notes stand more as individual events than as parts of phrases, and one senses that the contrast and overlap of tone-colors is more the meat of the matter than anything you would consider a tune or a chord. In this sense, it is a style that traces its ancestry back to Schoenberg’s Klangfarbenmelodie (translated as “sound-color melody”), in which the notes of a melodic line are distributed among different instruments rather than entrusted to one alone. Listeners may hold their breath through this meditative composition, so insistent is the stillness it imposes. That does not imply that it lacks energy. In fact, the third movement (which runs just a minute and a half) opens with sounds that are downright bustling compared with the rest, but there is a sense of calm evanescence all the same. It may be that this music is depictive to some extent, suggesting the play of light on the geology and structures of Chaco Canyon. But, when all is said and done, The Chaco Wilderness seems more like a distillation of an experience, a reflection less of the place itself than of the composer’s emotional response to being there.