Gwyneth Walker

Ladders to the Sky

for Piano Trio (2005)

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Read a review of Ladders to the Sky (2005) for piano trio by Ann Butler, The Durango Herald.

commissioned by the Red Shoe Piano Trio: Mikylah Myers McTeer; violin, Katherine Jetter Tischhauser; cello and Lisa Claire Campi; piano in celebration of the Centennial of Mesa Verde National Park: 1906 - 2006

Premiered by the Red Shoe Piano Trio - February 12, 2006, Fort Lewis College -- Durango, Colorado

This three-movement work was inspired by photographs of Mesa Verde National Park. And indeed the music does endeavor to correlate with visual images of the cliff dwellings and surrounding landscape. However, the language and message of the varied movements has its own, intrinsic character. So, the music may be performed with or without actual reference to photographs of Mesa Verde. General photos may be used (or none at all). For example, the three movements of the trio may be visually represented by: #1. residences, and the artifacts and people within (past or present); #2. the changing seasons (as marked in the score); #3. a spiritual quest.

This piano trio tells a story of a place, of peoples who once inhabited this place and of their aspirations. "Signs of Life" begins with sparse textures and a rhythmic background. Perhaps these are the remnants of a dwelling. But, in the middle of this short movement, the music increases in dynamics and tempo. Melodic lines become more prevalent. The "dwellings" are filled with life. Joyous life. Perhaps dancing life. Inhabitants fill the dwellings for a period of time, and then vanish, leaving only the rhythmic patterns of their surroundings to be heard.

"Seasons" depicts the various aspects of the times of the year. Winter is represented as silence, stillness, frost and a touch of snow. Quiet chords in the piano are described as "snow falling lightly." This leads to Spring, which is characterized by "energy, coming back to life." The cello "bounces" in a low C, while the violin adds touches of light. Eventually, all join together in a Spring dance. Thunder rumbles in the distance. A bolt of lightning shatters the sky. Rain falls. It is summer. And then Autumn arrives, peacefully, with slowly unfolding melodies.

The third movement, "From Darkness to Light," was inspired by photographs of ladders rising from the dark kivas (sacred underground rooms) up toward the light of the sky. This is not only a vivid remembrance of the past residents of the cliff dwellings. It is also a timeless image of the soul seeking a higher life, a spiritual existence. Therefore, this entire last movement is conceived as a reaching up to that which is beyond human grasp. The opening low notes in the piano represent the kiva below ground. The grace notes are rays of light. And everything else in the music endeavors to speak of the eternal striving to attain that which is higher and greater than human life.

Notes by the composer

Comments regarding performing Ladders to the Sky with displayed photographs

The composer has provided some comments below regarding choosing photographs of Mesa Verde National Park (from images available from various photographers) to use display during a performance of the work. Display of photographs is optional.

"I decided to divide the photos into three categories, three movements of music. One category would focus on the cliff dwellings. Another on the landscape at it changes during the various seasons of the year. And another would be just on those haunting photos of ladders coming up out of the dark dwellings into the light of the sky. These are the three movements of this piano trio.

The third movement, "From Darkness to Light," has a spiritual focus. The soul reaching up to the light (heaven). So, I would suggest a selection of photos of the ladders, or even just the sky above the dwellings, and integrate them into the music as your artistic instincts guide you.

For the first movement, "Signs of Life," this has to do with see the cliff dwellings as remnants from the past, then imagining the people who lived there, and then returning to just the dwellings. The middle section of this movement (the players can show you in the score, at letter C) is when the music comes to life. Perhaps showing photos of day-to-day objects, baskets, anything to do with human beings, would be appropriate. The music then dies out (around letter H) returning to the quiet opening section. So, with this A B A form, the idea is of the dwellings without inhabitants, the inhabitants coming to life, return to just the dwellings.

The second movement, "Seasons," depicts the four seasons. These are clearly marked in the score -- Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall. Moreover, there are specific images associated with these season which are also marked in the score, such as "Winter - silence, stillness, frost and a touch of snow" (at the very beginning of the movement), "as snow falling lightly" (letter A), etc.

There are many specific images depicted in the music. And in many cases, I have written these right in the score. Of course, there are more images that will emerge from the music than I realize. It is suggested that one listens to the music in rehearsal and chooses images based on the music's sound.