Capturing Mesa Verde’s magic in music

Sterling Procter doesn’t remember when he started spending summers in Durango playing with the Music in the Mountains Festival Orchestra. He does know that every year “the magic and mystery of the native culture and land” around Durango inspire him.

“I spend at least one day at Mesa Verde,” he explains in a phone conversation from his Dallas home.MESA VERDE MUSIC

He also recollects how over his time with the orchestra, he’s enjoyed composing fanfares that summon the audience back into the concert hall after intermission.

So Procter understands why in 2004, the then-president of the Music in the Mountains Board of Directors, Jim Foster, and Festival Artistic Director Mischa Semanitzky invited him to write a brass piece in celebration of Mesa Verde National Park’s 2006 Centennial, a piece to be performed this summer in the park.

What he doesn’t understand is quite how the 18-minute work, called “Mesa Verde Suite,” came to be. That’s an exciting mix of personal experience, and coincidence.

The personal experience began during Procter’s high-school years, when he played jazz guitar and French horn, and taught himself the flute. After college, he became a professional hornplayer, abandoning the other instruments. Then, one summer during Music in the Mountains, he found Native American flutes in the gift shop at Mesa Verde’s Far View Lodge.

“There were all these beautiful cedar and walnut and pine instruments made by a local man named David Nighteagle,” Procter recalls. He picked up a couple of flutes and played. Their sound caught his wife’s attention. She asked for a flute for her birthday. Procter bought her one, then learned to play it himself.

The following year, his wife led a tour group to Mesa Verde, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, and Aztec Ruins National Monument. Procter joined them with his flute. Someone asked him to play.

When he complied, he found a “wonderful expression. I was in all these sacred places. and I found that the earth, and the sky, and the rocks sort of joined me in the playing.” Soon after that experience, he met Nighteagle, and received the commission for “Mesa Verde Suite.”

“It was coincidental with my taking an interest in the Native American flute,” Procter says. “A couple of years earlier, I would not have included (the flute in the composition).”

More coincidence followed. Foster and Semanitzky originally requested a one-movement, 8-to-10-minute work. Procter “couldn’t make it happen.” Feeling stuck, he began reading Mesa Verde’s history for inspiration. Soon he found himself picturing the Wetherills, the ranchers who in 1888 came upon Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House while searching for lost cattle in what is today the park. Procter imagined himself doing that, and feeling awed by the 800-year-old ruins.

He also thought about the Ancestral Puebloans deciding to migrate into Mesa Verde, concluding they could live there, then abandoning their villages. Soon, he realized he needed more than one movement to express all he wanted to say about the park. “The whole architecture (of the piece) just opened up,” he says.

Scored for trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, two Native American flutes, and one Native American drum, “Mesa Verde Suite” has eight movements and four parts. Procter believes the brass depicts the idea that Mesa Verde is both the home of native peoples, and protected by the federal government. The native flutes and drum represent the cultures that lived and survived at Mesa Verde, then moved on.

For the three performances of “Mesa Verde Suite” planned this summer, Procter will play his horn and one flute. Nighteagle will play the other. Nighteagle’s friend, Mike Haffeman, will drum. Three members of the Music in the Mountains Festival Orchestra will complete the brass quartet.

“Mesa Verde Suite” begins with a prologue. Procter plays a tune he wrote for the Native American flute. Nighteagle and Haffeman improvise a response. The flutes and drum converse. Then a prearranged chord brings in the brass. Nighteagle and Haffeman continue to improvise. “It’s remarkable how instruments of all cultures can work together,” muses Procter. “The performances will be different each time.”

The rest of “Mesa Verde Suite, Part I” includes “Arrival of the Ancients,” “First Light,” and “Anthem.” Part II contains “Song to the Earth and Sky,” which Procter describes as a hymn, based on his recollection of sitting on a balcony at Far View Lodge, having a “deep, deep feeling of peace and tranquility.”

“Kiva Visions/Departure” makes up the third part of the suite, and expresses the thoughts of Pueblo elders as they chose to leave Mesa Verde. Part IV begins with “Wetherill Discovery,” and finishes with “Epilogue/Future Generations,” in which Procter pictures the next generation to enjoy the park.

When composing “Mesa Verde Suite,” Procter didn’t draw on any particular musical style. Rather, he let his emotions guide his writing.

“The music that came out is my feeling about the (park.) Hopefully that will communicate to the listener.” Procter, a Festival Orchestra Brass Quartet, Nighteagle, and Haffeman have recorded “Mesa Verde Suite.” CDs will be available at the Music in the Mountains Office, and at Mesa Verde National Park.

For more information, call Music in the Mountains at 970-385-6820.

From Arts & Entertainment, June 2006.