Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rock Formations at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes in many shapes and sizes, can arrive at any hour of the day, and needs no invitation apart from a receptive mind and a willingness to create. It can show up at a museum, in a forest, by a river, at your workplace, or in bed while you sleep at night. It can nag away at your insides until you feel sick and restless, compelling you to find a way to express it meaningfully. And when you do, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

I’ve been reminded of this since I started composing in September of last year. When I first considered following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Mozart, however, I was absolutely terrified. “Who am I to think I have the skills to create music that could ever live up to the standard they set?” This thought crossed my mind many times, and I still grapple with it from time to time. It turns out, though, that all I really needed to overcome my initial hesitation was an experience of profound inspiration.

That experience came to me when I first visited Occoneechee Mountain in the summer of 2015. Seeing the rock formations there — many of which were formed hundreds of millions of years ago when central North Carolina was much more volcanically active — planted a seed in my mind that ultimately took a year to bear fruit. But bear fruit it did.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to share the rock formations themselves to give you a sense of how incredible they are and how easily they could fill anyone with a sense of profound inspiration. (For the record, I was unable to find official names for any of these rock formations in my research for this article. So, in the absence of official names, I’ve come up with my own unofficial names, which are hopefully amusing and memorable.)

Elephant Rock is a tor (a free-standing rock formation that juts directly out of the surrounding terrain) that sits on the northwestern edge of the Mountain Loop Trail before the trail reaches the Eno River. Like many of the other rock formations near the mountain, it appears seemingly out of nowhere, towering fifteen feet over the trail and exerting a magnetic pull on anyone with an ounce of curiosity. The weight of the rock is so massive it can almost be felt simply by looking at it. Staring into the grey and green textures along its flanks, it wasn’t hard for me to understand how similar sites were used by our ancestors as places of worship.

Gumdrop Rock is another tor that can be found a little further along the Mountain Loop Trail. It’s not as imposing or grandiose as Elephant Rock, but it has its own kind of quiet sublimity. Standing roughly eight feet tall and ten feet wide, it makes even some professional athletes look dainty by comparison. Nonetheless it’s one of the smaller rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain and may be overlooked because of it.

Original prints from this blog are now available for purchase on a limited basis for collectors and enthusiasts.

Sentinel Rock is a promontory (an abutment of land bordered on two sides by water which has progressively eroded it over time) that may also be overlooked by the casual hiker but for very different reasons. This rock formation is reasonably well hidden from sight on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain and takes a little looking in order to find. There are trails that lead to it, but they’re not terribly obvious, and they lead through some scruffy undergrowth that smacks and whacks at every inch of your person on the way. After a bit of manhandling from the plants, however, this forty-foot marvel is a sight for sore eyes and easily the most breathtaking of the many notable rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain. To sweeten the deal, there’s even a mountain stream to the side that gurgles gently down the imposing rock face.

Overhang Rock is a crag (a nearly vertical body of rock formed by erosion and weathering over time) that overlooks the Eno River on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain. It directly borders the Mountain Loop Trail and may leave you in fear for your life the first time you pass by it. While my photo shows that the rock face isn’t quite vertical, when you’re underneath it you may think otherwise. Staring thirty feet up the side of a cliff that probably weighs more than twenty tons is nothing if not an intensely humbling experience, which is only accentuated by the twenty-foot drop down to the Eno River on the opposite side.

Reverential Rock is a boulder on the north side of the mountain which may have been formed in the landslide of 2001, when more than five thousand tons of debris crashed down the side of the quarry at Occoneechee Mountain. At the very least, it has many more edges and irregularities on its surface than many other nearby rock formations, which would seem to indicate a much more recent deposition. In any case, it’s become something of a shrine for hikers who wish to express their creativity by making small stacks of rocks called cairns, which abound at the quarry. Looking at the attention to detail in these small structures, it’s easy to see I’m not the only person who’s found inspiration in these majestic rock formations.

Despite the fact that these rocks inspired me from the first moment I laid eyes on them, it took me fourteen months before I picked up a pen and wrote my first musical composition to express that inspiration. Though it’s impossible to say for sure how the spectacle of creation must have looked when Occoneechee Mountain was formed several hundred million years ago, I nonetheless had a mental image of massive boulders being thrown around like pebbles when writing this piece. These descending boulders can be heard in the rapid downward scale at 0:12. The thought of lava being spewed and progressively building up the structure of the mountain can also be heard in the rising trajectory of the ground bass passage starting at 0:31. (Make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel for only the best future videos.)

Though I know mere music can never surpass the mountain that inspired me to compose, I’ve nonetheless tried to capture a faint glimmer of the grandeur of Occoneechee Mountain in this piece. Perhaps just as importantly I’ve tried to create something that may help you to find your own special place in the natural world, where you can find inspiration and share it with others in turn.

Image Credits:

1. Elephant Rock Looms Large (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Gumdrop Rock in Spring (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. There’s No Mistaking Sentinel Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. The Mighty Overhang (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Reverential Rock, Home to Cairns of All Sizes (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Bradley, Phil, “The (Brief) Geologic Story of the Eno River,” North Carolina Geological Survey, accessed April 18th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

McIver, Hervey, “Occoneechee Mountain Dedication,” Eno River Association, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area,” Geocaching, accessed April 20th, 2017.

Honoring Nature in the Spirit of Leonardo, the Unbeknownst Animist

by Mark Miles

I’ve always known the earth is alive. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been prone to explore any patch of forest or meadow I can find, searching for any and every indication of life. Frequently as a child I would go outside for hours on end merely to look for insects — with which I was and still am immensely fascinated — and would occasionally collect them for my improvised terrarium. I’ve often collected leaves in fall to identify them by my field guide, and I’ve learned names for clouds which most people ignore altogether. I’ve always been intent on finding the deeper meaning, the ultimate purpose, the overarching spirit behind nature in all its forms. From my earliest childhood, I’ve been an unbeknownst animist.

It turns out there are many societies — most of which are being encroached by industrialization and impoverished by capitalism — which are still animistic. Aborigines in Australia, Bushmen in the Kalahari, Inuit in Alaska, and Cherokee in my own state are merely a few of the ethnic groups who were, and still to some degree are, animistic in their religious practices. Based on the recognition of life, spirit, and intelligence in all beings, animism is essentially the root to every branch of human religion. It’s the way our most distant ancestors viewed and interacted with the world; and it’s still relevant to this day in the way it provides a familial relationship to all creation, motivating the preservation of the earth for future generations. While the name itself is a construct of European anthropologists working in an academic setting that’s been largely antagonistic or indifferent to anything outside the domain of scientific materialism, the word nonetheless conveys a sense of the mystery at the heart of any meaningful religious practice, in which the divine is recognized to be immanent within all creation, waiting only for our willingness to listen closely to the world with all our senses.

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It turns out Leonardo da Vinci was also something of an unbeknownst animist. Throughout his life he had a reputation for purchasing birds in the market not to slaughter them but to release them. He was perennially mesmerized by the power and beauty of water, which he captured in many of his works of art. In his writings, he frequently imbued natural elements with human qualities in what would today be considered the most blatant anthropomorphism. And while he never would have applied the title of animist to himself — if only because the title didn’t exist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when he lived — he nonetheless worked throughout his life to find the underlying holistic principle that united his pursuits in art, engineering, anatomy, design, and optics. Most people are unaware that his interests were so varied, and they’re similarly unaware that one of the reasons for this diversity of interests was the basic tenet of his religious and scientific outlook, expressed by this quote from what’s now known as his Codex Leicester:

“We might say that the earth has a spirit of growth, and its flesh is the soil, its bones [are] the arrangement and connection of rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage [is] the tufa, and its blood [is] the springs of water. The pool of blood which lies around the earth’s heart is the ocean, and its breathing… is represented in the earth by the ebb and flow of the sea; and the heat of the spirit of the world is the fire which pervades the earth, and the seat of the earth’s soul is in the fires.”

Leonardo was also homosexual, which put him at variance with the ideology of the Catholic Church and resulted in the most traumatizing event of his early life, the Salterelli affair. This took place in 1476 when he was accused by one Jacopo Salterelli of committing sodomy along with three other men. Despite the relatively tolerant atmosphere of Florence at the time — Florence was a vibrant artistic center that was effectively the San Francisco of its day — the full legal penalty for homosexual behavior at this time in Catholic Europe was death by burning at the stake. While the charges were most likely fabricated for political reasons and were eventually dismissed, the period of two months during which the threat of burning at the stake hung over Leonardo’s head must have been enough to awaken him to the brutality of life in the city amongst powerbrokers and their pawns.

Despite living much of his life in the city, Leonardo was nonetheless a country boy at heart, raised by his Uncle Francesco and his grandparents in the sleepy Italian village of Anchiano. Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, had conceived Leonardo out of wedlock in 1452 and consequently regarded his firstborn in the manner of unwanted luggage. Uncle Francesco however regarded the young boy with love and affection, showing Leonardo the hidden secrets of life in the Italian countryside. It was indeed Uncle Francesco who instilled a love for the land in his precocious nephew and gave Leonardo the first inkling that he might indeed be good for something after all.

Despite his Uncle Francesco’s efforts, however, Leonardo was largely estranged from his family in later life. He took to the road after his apprenticeship in Florence came to a close and forged a new life for himself with a small band of travelling companions who formed the nucleus of his improvised family. There was Luca Pacioli, one of the foremost mathematicians of his day; Salai, the “little demon” who took up residence with Leonardo after the latter recognized the surpassing beauty of the young man; and Francesco Melzi, a young aristocrat with artistic talent who idolized the genius of Leonardo and may have been his lover in later life. It was in fact to Francesco Melzi that Leonardo bequeathed the greatest portion of all his worldly goods when he died in 1519.

Long before his death, however, Leonardo distinguished himself as the foremost polymath of his generation. Most people know that Leonardo painted The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but he also painted numerous other works of art that were revolutionary in their time and hold up to scrutiny to this day. He was an engineer of weaponry for military campaigns in the service of Ludovico Sforza and Cesare Borgia. He created schematics for flying machines, scuba gear, a primitive tank, musical instruments, and party favors. He was a skilled musician who was sent by Lorenzo de Medici in the capacity of musical ambassador, so notable were his skills. He was an anatomist of the first degree, a man who risked charges of heresy to better understand the physical form of his own species and who advanced medical knowledge incalculably because of it. He was an endless explorer of the potential for visual perception, demonstrating principles of light that foreshadowed the work of physicists centuries later. He was in short the original Renaissance Man.

For all these reasons, I admire and empathize with Leonardo. In terms of religious outlook, sexual identity, cultural affiliation, familial dislocation, and polymathic propensity, I find a man after my own heart, a man who was successful in ways most people can’t even imagine yet who wanted nothing more than to explore the intricacies of nature in peace and quiet. I take inspiration from the life he led and the passion that drove him to greatness despite so much hardship. And I dedicate the following piece, depicting creatures of the water — the element which Leonardo revered throughout his life in his artwork and designs — to one of the few people in history whom I’ve ever adopted as my personal patron saint. This is for you, Leonardo.

Image Credits:

1. Bridge to Tranquility (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Self Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1512)

3. Neptune and His Watery Mounts (Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1504)

References:

Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco, CA, USA: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York City, NY, USA: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966.

White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. New York City, NY, USA: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000.

Meditation on Theme and Variations

Over the past few months I’ve started dabbling in musical composition. I’ve been playing the recorder for a little more than three years now, and I’ve finally started to feel comfortable enough with the instrument to take some artistic liberties. I was hesitant about this at first, thinking that I’d never be able to write any kind of music that would be remotely listenable; but I’ve been surprised at how easily it’s come to me. The greatest challenge thus far has been picking up my pen, putting down my excuses, and doing the work.

Putting Pen to Paper (Mark Miles, 2016)

Since I’m obviously a novice at this, it occurred to me that one of the best approaches to learning would be simply to start from the work of other composers who’ve written music I enjoy. With the holiday season upon us, it only seemed natural that I should choose something with a holiday theme. Since I’m animistic in my spiritual tendencies and prefer to avoid reference to monotheistic religions and their authoritarian overtones, I decided to use the reasonably ecumenical song O Here We Come A-Caroling as a springboard for my first finished composition. As such, I’ve decided to call this piece Variations on O Here Come A-Caroling, and it’s now on my YouTube channel.

Composing this piece, however, got me to thinking about the history of the musical form that is variations on a theme. The earliest documented example of this form originated in the fourteenth century. Presumably there have been examples of variations on a theme for as long as music has existed, since there’s nothing more primal than taking something familiar and progressively embellishing it with meaningful details to make something new and unexpected. In a sense, this is the basis of all creativity. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the form had become reasonably commonplace, as evidenced by Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Mozart’s Twelve Variations on Ah Vous Dirai Je, Maman (better known in English as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star). Since that time, composers as varied as Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Glass and Williams have turned their pen to the form as well.

With this track record, it’s clear that theme and variations have have been pivotal to the historical development of music. But they’ve also been pivotal to one degree or another in other areas of human culture. Fields as diverse as architecture, literature, agriculture, seafaring, commerce, banking, fishing, mining, and industry have all been shaped at a fundamental level by the simple principle of variations on previously dominant themes of human culture. The Roman aqueduct, the Greek alphabet, the Viking longship, Chinese gunpowder, Native American corn (or maize depending on where you’re reading this), and Templar banking are just a few examples of variations on preexisting themes of human culture which have been progressively developed and transformed over time.

Fall on the Banks of the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

And so lately I’ve been thinking about how variations on a theme have permeated through our lives in ways both good and bad. Since I love the outdoors and spend a good deal of time hiking around the Eno River here in North Carolina, I’ve begun to think about the variations to the river that have been caused by humans over the centuries. There’ve been dams, mills, drainage-systems, factories, reservoirs, and hydraulic fracturing to name a few. Virtually all of these variations to the river have been bad. Dams have obstructed the paths of migratory fish, mills have dumped residual industrial byproducts, drainage-systems have redirected pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, factories have guzzled huge amounts of water for cooling and cleaning, reservoirs have depleted local watersheds, and hydraulic fracturing has injected a whole host of highly toxic chemicals into the deepest sublayers of watershed to be leaked out progressively over the coming decades and centuries.

Whanganui River on North Island of New Zealand (James Shook, 2005)

But thankfully there have also been tiny victories, tiny movements in the right direction amongst disparate communities seeking to ensure that their variations on an aquatic theme are healthy and sustainable. In New Zealand there’s been recent legislation to recognize the personhood of nature, granting legal rights and protections to features of the land and water that have been traditionally revered by the native Maori for centuries. In New York there’s been a ban on hydraulic fracturing that recognizes the endemic risks of forcing toxic chemicals deep into the ground to slowly seep into the drinking water of millions of people. In North Dakota there’s been principled protection of sacred land and water by the Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock. All of these are powerful expressions of the pressing need to create new variations on what we do with the themes of nature. All that’s needed now is for us to support these movements and ensure they succeed and proliferate for the sake of future generations who will inherit the legacy of the variations we leave behind.

Seasonal Interlude

For the coming months, I plan to have a few seasonally appropriate selections of recorder music, starting with this one today. Of course the idea of autumn under the present circumstances–when central North Carolina has lately been experiencing torrential rains and persistently overcast skies more indicative of spring than fall–is somewhat tenuous. Still I feel that my music would be more consonant with the theme of my blog if I would make regular use of the seasons as a point of departure. As such, this Adagio by Robert Valentine provides a melancholic accompaniment to the changing colors, cool nights, and shortened days of the season. Coincidentally the melancholic temperament was traditionally associated with fall in medieval Europe and happens to be my own temperament as well. So there’s plenty of room for overlap here.

I should say a few words on the piece itself. First of all, pardon the duck lips. I was very tired when recording this and obviously wasn’t circumspect regarding my facial expression. Second of all, while the tempo of this adagio is very slow and doesn’t allow for quite as many virtuosic fireworks as I enjoy, I was able to incorporate some new ornaments which I’ve been mastering lately. These are basically slides–which is not a technical term but which describes them more meaningfully than their traditional labels–which I’ve used to bridge the gaps between notes. They’re a graceful way to add flavor when the piece being played could be mistaken for a funeral dirge.

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Speaking of dirges, I have some spooky music planned for Halloween. It may or may not materialize, since I haven’t been able to find suitable sheet music for it and may end up attempting to reconstruct it by ear. I hope I can make it happen in the coming weeks; but even if I can’t, I have more definite plans for the holiday season which should be appealing to those with an interest in Christmas carols. Personally I’m not religious–though I am intensely ethical–but I have an unabashed soft spot for holiday music. It also doesn’t hurt that my birthday is December 25th.