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Dolores River 1994 Classical Music

In Concert With Nature
By Jeff Rennicke, photography by Tom Bean
April, 1994 Backpacker magazine

The music of Beethoven and the canyon wren harmonize when you’re rafting down a river with a string quartet.

A ONE AND A TWO AND A… sunrise over the Dolores River deep in the slickrock country of southwestern Colorado. The first of the day’s light brushes the canyon rim with color. On the breeze this morning, just like every summer morning for hundreds of thousands of years, there is the sound of the river flowing, accompanied by a chorus of bird-song. But this morning there is something else, another sound so unexpected this far into the wilderness that it seems, like the wind whistling through the rocks, or perhaps a dream. Yet when the breeze stills and the birdsong suddenly ceases, there is no mistaking it: Beethoven’s “Quartet for Strings, Opus 18, #4 in C Minor.”

It is no dream, no trick of the desert wind. On a beach tucked beneath a huge overhang carved into the canyon wall, a string quartet is playing in the wilderness: Meredith Snow on viola; cellist Gloria Lum; and two violinists, Guido Lamell and Mitchell Newman, all members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Joining them is Nancy Laupheimer, a flutist with the Santa Fe Symphony.

The world of classical music may seem about as far removed from slickrock and cactus as anything imaginable. But spend enough time in the outdoors and you cannot help but be struck by the musical voices of wilderness—the bass notes of thunder rumbling in the distance, the staccato of a small stream, the crescendo of ocean waves. Natural sounds, some experts believe, may have inspired the first human attempts to create music. Bone whistles dating from Paleolithic times are thought to have been used to mimic birdsong. As early as 1650 the calls of a long list of songbirds had been transcribed into musical notation and have found their way into works by Grieg, Vivaldi, and Haydn.

Beethoven’s “Sixth Symphony” depicts the cycle of a thunderstorm. Contemporary musical Paul Winter has written scores around the songs of humpback whales, the calls of eagles, the howls of wolf packs, and recently recorded along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for an album.

“There is an undeniable musical quality about nature,” says Nancy, who has played in wild places for years. If music did spring from the voices of the earth, then what could be more natural than the sound of a cello resonating off a canyon wall? It is music returning to its roots.

FOR THE PAST NINE YEARS Dvorak Kayak and Rafting Expeditions, a Colorado-based outfitting company, has sponsored this annual “Classical Concert River Journey” to bring professional musicians and their instruments into some of the wildest places in the West. This year, the concert hall is the Dolores River, a small 230-mile waterway winding down from the high country of Colorado’s La Plata through a series of intimate slickrock canyons to meet the Colorado River just across the Utah border. The Dolores is a place where powder-blue herons roost in cottonwood trees and peregrine falcons slice the air like falling rocks. There are river otters and rapids named Snaggletooth, House Rock, and the Wall. One section flows through the Dolores River Wilderness Study Area. But even for all of this, something else makes the Dolores a perfect fiver for a classical-music journey: its deep, water-carved grottoes and narrow side-canyons, where the echo of a whisper seems to ring forever.

I join the trip near Slickrock Canyon, a few days down from the group’s starting point. Waiting atop a riverside boulder, I half expect to hear music, perhaps a bit of the “Quartet in A Major” by Mozart or a Vivaldi flute concerto wafting down the canyon on the breeze. But when it’s on the water, this trip resembles any other rafting excursion through these canyons—floppy hats, sunscreened noses, quick-drying shorts, five rafts, and a flotilla of inflatable canoes. The only thing that sets it apart is a huge white metal box strapped to the front of the lead raft.

“Logistically, the main difference with this trip is dealing with the instruments,” says head boatman Bill Dvorak. There is an estimated $31,00 worth of delicate, finely wrought instruments and a world of sand, wind, heat, rocks, and rapids. Yet the box, waterproof and heavily padded, keeps the instruments safe, clean, and dry. Although the box is kept on board through most of the rapids, the instruments are portaged around Snaggletooth, a rapid large enough to make many tone-deaf boaters hit the portage trail.

AS WE DRIFT ALONG a quiet section near McIntyre Canyon, the walls of the canyon begin to tighten and tower over the river like a band shell. Without a word, Nancy takes a wooden flute out of a box. She crawls up onto the bow of the raft and sitting cross-legged, presses the flute to her lips. For a while, she sits motionless and silent, as if the breeze is filling her lungs with its music. Then, still in her life jacket with her river hat pulled low across her eyes, she begins to play. It is soft song, building and waning, with moments as sweet as the riverside clover. It is “The Drum Song,” written in collaboration with her husband, Vishu Magee. The sound of the flute in the canyon is as natural as the wind. As she plays, I think of the strange and beautiful figures painted on hidden rock walls throughout the canyons of the Southwest. They are human figures, sometimes bent over, sometimes dancing, always playing the flute. Called “Kokopelli” by archaeologists, the figures are said to be depictions of a wandering minstrel who led the Anasazi through this maze of canyons while filling the grottoes with music.

No one paddles while she plays. The boats drift as easily as the echoes floating through the canyon. With a long, drawn-out note that rings off the canyon wall, she finishes the song, then sits silent for a time before beginning again. This time she improvises, playing a duet with her own echo. “I feel the power of the landscape most directly when I improvise,” she told me earlier. “When I am improvising I am affected by everything around me, all the sounds of the river, the wind, the echoes, even the land’s history. Sometimes I can feel it coming up through the earth. I know it sounds corny, but the notes seem to carry different emotions from what I play in the city.” I think of those notes bouncing off unnamed side canyon to be caught in the tangles like the down of cottonwood trees, like seeds. It seems you could come back to these same canyons years from now and pick the notes like wildflowers. Downstream there is the rumble of a small rapid and the flute is put away, the last notes lost in the growing music of the whitewater.

EXCEPT FOR THE RUSH of the whitewater, this is a leisurely trip—eight days on the river to cover a distance usually done in five. The extra days allow for practice sessions after breakfast, impromptu recitals at a wall covered with pictographs or up a side canyon where the echoes are especially sweet. It is a relaxed, easy atmosphere, a world away from the formal world of concert halls and auditions. Guido even takes time away from his violin to play a song on the saw, “Lara’s Theme”, with notes that are too soft to be coming from a tool found in a hardware store. “It is just the way music should be,” says Mitchell, who has played on trips down the Rogue and Klamath rivers. “You just sit in the sand and make music.”

Four evening concerts are scheduled during the eight days, including a formal concert near the conclusion of the trip. The first of these since I joined the rafting ensemble is scheduled at a camp near mile 65, where a along overhang tosses echoes all the way to the river. But just as the instruments are brought out, a sudden wind kicks up, swirling sand and tearing sheet music from the stands. One of the tents blows across the beach like a tumbleweed. Guido tries to continue. “Someone stake that tent down,” he says, “and I will play some Bach.” But the wind is too strong and the concert is postponed. Instead, we sit behind some boulders, talking and examining the instruments. For many of us, it’s the first chance we’ve had to hold an instrument of such quality. They are beautiful, polished smooth as river stones and the color of slickrock, gracefully cut and surprisingly light. Anicka, Bill Dvorak’s 12-year-old daughter, is cradling the cello as if it were a dance partner. Meredith is teaching one of the boatmen to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the viola. “Play it more by feel than by sight, “ she says, “just like rowing a boat.”

After a dinner of blackened salmon and wine, the wind stills and the concert begins: a Bach trio, the second movement of a Schubert quartet, a contemporary piece entitled “Voyage”, and even a waltz, the “Serenade for Strings” by Tchaikovsky that has us waltzing in the sand. By the light of a Coleman lantern suspended from a tripod of oars, the quartet plays in to the night. The stars overhead are as sharp and clear as the high notes.

ON THE RIVER, both the guides and the musicians are learning. “It’s like a cultural exchange, “says Wally, a boatman from New Zealand. “You teach us music, we teach you river running.” Meredith is getting lessons in rowing. Gloria, who is camping for the first time in her life, is paddling an inflatable canoe. “We spent much of our childhoods in windowless practice rooms learning music,” she says, “Being out here in the open is a wonderful experience.”

It is an experience that Meredith, who recently camped for the first time on a river trip through the Grand Canyon, feels is helpful to a musician. “I was definitely a hothouse flower,” she says. “Suddenly I was in a raft, sleeping on the ground, hiking up side canyons. It made me realize that I was a competent person outside of my musical skills. Once I rafted the Grand Canyon I felt I could do anything. That kind of self-confidence cannot help but be beneficial to my music.”

With music around the campfire, music while floating on the rafts, talk of music on hikes, it is inevitable that you find yourself listening for the music in nature—how the birdcalls sound like flutes, how the sweep of the river has the qualities of a string section. So many of the emotions we experience in wilderness are, as the hardened river rat Edward Abbey said, “closer to music than to words.”

The highlight of the journey is the formal recital at an immense amphitheater overhanging a campsite at mile 74. The musicians want everything to be perfect. Beneath the sandstone overhang, Guido walks back and forth, clapping. He claps hard once and listens, then takes a step and claps again. Each time, he cocks his head slightly. Checking for just the right echo, his eyes squint in concentration as if listening for something he alone hears. “Here,” he says finally, and jams a music stand in to the sand to claim the spot. The stage is set.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Bill announces after all the preparations are complete and the caviar and smoked salmon have been served, “it is my honor and privilege to introduce to you this evening, the Dead Lettuce Quartet!” The musicians make a grand entrance from down grotto left. Since this is a “semiformal” occasion, they are dressed in concert black, sort of. Mitchell wears a black tuxedo with tails, a matching sequined bow tie, cummerbund, a pair of fish-motif boxer shorts and tennis shoes below. Meredith wears a sheer black evening dress with a swimming suit beneath and an L.A. Dodgers baseball cap. Beneath her gown, Gloria’s shins are black and blue from an unexpected swim she took when her canoe tipped over. They bow to acknowledge the applause and take their places.

For all the fun, the musicians are serious and intent. “We are perfectionists,” Meredith told me earlier. “We have to be to reach this level of professionalism. So it doesn’t matter where or when we play, we want to do our best, in Carnegie Hall or here. This is certainly a more informal atmosphere but we still take the music seriously.” It is hard to picture Mitchell in Carnegie Hall wearing his fish shorts, but the music is impeccable—Mozart’s “Quartet in C Minor” followed by a modern piece by composer Gordon Jacobs entitled “Four Fancies.” Afterward, Nancy does a flute solo on a piece called “Syrinx” by Claude Debussy. There is a concerto by Vivaldi, and some more Beethoven. Between each song, there’s the sound of the river flowing.

By the grand finale, “The American Quartet,” by Anton Dvorak, the sun has tinted the canyon walls orange. Bill, a fifth cousin to the famous composer, holds Anicka on his lap. They close their eyes and gently sway to the music. It would be an odd sight for someone who just stumbled into this grotto—a string quartet playing beneath a cliff, an audience full of sunburned faces and bare feet sitting in Crazy Creek chairs and sprawled in the sand. But after a week of listening to the canyon echo with the sounds of Ravel, Handel, and Quantz, it’s as natural as wind through the trees. If canyons could sing, I think to myself, it would sound like this.

The performance ends with a note that seems to linger as long as the desert sunset. In the applause that follows, the musicians rise, bow formally, then break into laughter. The instruments are put away, a campfire is started, and the bedrolls are laid out. Long after the echo of the last note has drifted out of the grotto, a canyon wren somewhere in the cliffs is singing, or perhaps still singing along.

For more information on the Classic Concert River Journey, contact: Bill Dvorak’s Kayak and Rafting Expeditions, 17921 U.S. Highway 285, Nathrop, CO 81236; (800)-824-3795.