Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rocks 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.)

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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.

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.

Heralds of the New Year

Holly has always been one of my favorite trees. Something about the vibrant contrast of red and green, the sharp and glossy leaves, and the endurance of harsh winter weather appeals to me. Perhaps because I was born in December I have a particular fondness for the chill air and long nights, and any other living being that can withstand them has my respect. I also feel a kindred sympathy with anyone who has such an attractive yet prickly personality. Perhaps those adjectives describe me from time to time, though I’m not sure I look as good in crimson red.

Holly Berries at their Peak (Mark Miles, 2016)

Beyond my kinship with holly, I also have English holly (Ilex aquifolium) in my front yard by the southeast corner of my house. I hadn’t trimmed the tree for a few years and consequently decided to remedy the situation a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t as hard to prune as I expected, but I did gain a new appreciation for the dexterity of the squirrels in my yard, who somehow manage to avoid the prickly parts of the plant with the skill of trained acrobats. When I was done trimming I took some of the branches and made a display of them, which is still sitting in my living room on the cold air return, somewhat unglamorously.

Holly Graces Cold Air Return (Mark Miles, 2016)

Another task that I’ve been putting off for some time that combines the attractive and the prickly sensibilities is the traditional song Greensleeves to a Ground. It’s a very, very old melody, traceable back to the late sixteenth century in England. Some have speculated that it was even written by Henry VIII, but the publication of the score decades after the monarch’s demise seems to refute that. In any case, attribution for the song is ambiguous, and the composer remains unconfirmed to this day.

Something about that ambiguousness of authorship bleeds into the mood of the music. Though there is a decided melancholy, there is sweetness too. The traditional lyrics for this–which have nothing to do with a child in a manger–express the longing and lament of a lover who has lost his beloved and wants to talk with her again, despite the fact that she apparently doesn’t share the sentiment. It’s as if the lyricist has taken a few lessons from the holly tree, combining the attractive and the prickly in a compelling combination that demands attention.

In addition, this piece is devilishly difficult in its transcription for recorder and requires a level of technical mastery of the instrument which is hard to hear but easy to feel if you ever try to play it for yourself. For this reason, the version which I recently performed and uploaded to my YouTube channel is truncated. I’ve only included the first half of the song, which is still a not-inconsiderable two and a half minutes of music.

Though there is much ambiguity and ambivalence in the song and the plant, they both point toward something that’s less ambiguous. The New Year is almost here, and it’s heralded by both the song and the tree. The holly tree is perhaps the more obvious herald of the New Year, since it’s crimson berries are usually the only source of vibrant color in the winter landscape. But the song is also a herald of the New Year, as evidenced by one of its alternate versions. Titled The Old Year Now Away Is Fled, the lyrics are as close to a benediction as I can think.

The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is entered;
Then let us all our sins down tread
And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this holiday,
And let us run with sport and play,
Hang sorrow, let’s cast care away.
God send us a merry new year!

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.