This will be my longest post about my albums --- and it’s perhaps the most trimmed-back! Here on this Ridge was clearly the big turning point in my music-making.
In 1994 the holiday album Incarnation showed me I could successfully produce recordings of my own music, so I moved right into production of a general-themed CD called Wayfaring Stranger . The instruments and the Celtic and hiking material could sort of be called themes, but it was mostly just a music CD for listening.
Yet I really felt the need to pursue good topics so I could sell my CDs wholesale to destination stores --- not just to assume that an album would stand on its own because of the music alone or my supposed ‘fame,’ or that I could sell enough of them all by myself.
And, boy, did I have themes in mind! As a former English teacher and backpacking instructor in the Rockies (a Philmont Ranger in New Mexico), I wanted to compose and arrange and perform especially about nature and heritage.
My late dad E.A. 'Woody' Seaman had been a biologist with the government who used to take us kids to National Parks to hike and fish and chat with the staff, etc. He was one of those biologists who don’t just work with nature; having grown up in the inner city, he had escaped the urban environment and now truly loved the outdoors and showed that to everyone. He was sincere. He was a fresh-water aquatic biologist, President of the American Fisheries Society, who loved to go fishing!
Based on that family heritage, for my first theme I wanted to produce an album full of new music and arrangements for America’s National Parks. I started planning which Parks to include because of their special place in my heart or their popularity with visitors, and I made a long idea list (as I always do for a project) that included experiences, places, people, and concepts.
At that time I was needing to keep my Virginia Secondary English teaching certificate current, and the powers in Richmond assured me that since I was teaching music I could take music-related college courses toward that renewal --- so I signed up at Christopher Newport University in Newport News for both flute lessons with a Virginia Symphony member and for composition lessons with an adjunct who primarily was the composer for the Langley Air Force Band. I phoned my composition instructor, Aldo Rafael Forte, and asked his permission for my unique curriculum to be a specialized project on my own instruments: a National Parks Suite with the ultimate intent of performing it as a program and recording an album for National Park stores.
Aldo agreed to the idea, and he directed me to bring all my main instruments to every lesson so we could actively explore possibilities. Also he asked me to come up with a specific list of objectives. I pretty much already had that on hand!
Other blog entries will discuss some more of the valuable composition experiences I had in that semester with the perfect instructor. (Perfect because he too was composing for the general public’s appreciation of a worthy Federal Government operation!) But a couple of special moments have exactly to do with this project, which at the time was called Such a Gift.
One idea Aldo suggested was to designate certain clusters of notes (‘motifs’) that would stand for something. We looked at my list of objectives and found, for example, that I wanted to focus on the Parks’ nature, so I chose the classic pentatonic scale (the same set of note relationships as the black keys of the piano) to refer to nature and the First Peoples, and I kept that in mind throughout the composing process. Three notable examples of this are ‘Falcons Among Crags,’ meant to depict the hang-glider-like antics of the Blue Ridge’s newly re-established Peregrine Falcons; ‘My Thoughts Linger There,’ a pensive reflection on the desire of this flatland denizen to be in the mountains; and ‘Big Run Thrives,’ a celebration of restoration after a wildfire.
Another motif was a jump from the fifth step of the scale to the third one (‘so-mi’), randomly chosen because I liked it, to signify the National Parks in particular.
And the most interesting motif was a set of notes that naturally showed up here and there because I felt like playing it when I improvised about Parks, a simple fifth step, two sixth steps in a row, and back to the fifth step. One day Aldo asked me if I had chosen a ‘God theme’ motif, since one of my goals was to refer to the Creator as the personal maker of nature, since I’m a monotheist and not a pantheist. Aldo said, ‘How about that set of four notes, 5-6-6-5, or A-B-B-A, that I hear you play often?’ Then we fell silent, stared at each other agape, and both said, ‘Abba, the Aramaic name for “Father” used in the Bible for God!’
I found myself doing things such as combining that A-B-B-A motif with the National Parks motif and also with a mixolydian ‘Old Joe Clark’ scale to get tunes that implicitly expressed several ideas at once, such as ‘Spring in the Gap.’ (And note that the title of that piece also can be interpreted in two ways --- a time of year or a source of water! That’s the English teacher in me!)
I wanted to draw attention to the Appalachian Trail, so one piece, ‘Hope of the Hike,’ was an epic development of different melodic themes, hoping to show through its structure the combination of both cyclic and linear motion of traveling the great Trail.
As a lover of Bach I decided the perfect time had come to transcribe another of his pieces, as in my first two solo albums; this time ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ was ideal, since Bach had written it for an outdoorsman duke’s birthday, honoring that nobleman's commitment to caring for the lands he governed. I reapplied that topic to Shenandoah National Park, where the long-absent Whitetail Deer had been re-introduced in 1934, and I re-titled it ‘Whitetails on High Places.’
The National Parks theme melody I composed was to be called ‘Preservation,’ developed from a newly devised alphabet chart I’d come up with as part of my explorations for the composition lessons. The word that I used in the chart to generate the notes for the tune idea was ‘Creator.’ Here’s the article about that method: a-Alphabet-chart-article.pdf (This was published in Dulcimer Players News.) In the process of developing this melody into a sort of 'Rondo' form (a first section, a second section, back to the first, then a third section, then the first again), I was driving on the Colonial Parkway --- and the idea for the third section came to me! I knew it was just what I wanted, but I had to get somewhere on time and didn't have the time to stop and write it down, so I went over and over the melody in my head to try to remember the notes. Till I saw flashing blue lights in my rear-view mirror... The irony of it all! I was given a speeding ticket by a National Park Ranger while composing a specific theme for a National Park Suite! (Yes, I told him about the context, but politely waited till he was done filling out the ticket.)
So by the end of the semester I had composed a great variety of pieces, using hammered dulcimer, flute, bamboo flute, bowed psaltery, guitar, and voice, and recorded each one casually on a cassette to present with a written program to interpret it. The program would be my spoken part in a live presentation, as well as function as the liner notes for the recording. What a great productive opportunity in a college course!
In the summer of 1995, right after the course ended, I began plans for recording Such a Gift. I wanted to actually record in a National Park, and Colonial National Historical Park was kind enough to grant me permission to set up my studio in a mostly vacant building called the Farris House, on the bluff of the York River.
I recorded alone in the winter of 1996 there, often overdubbing, often in the middle of the night if the Coleman Bridge nearby was being worked on during the day. I decided to ask other musicians to join me in a few places on the album: banjo parts by Joe Healey, guitar by Phil Skeens, singing by our daughter Laurie, and keyboards by Paulette Murphy. Paulette did a magnificent keyboard orchestration of the sweeping motion-picture-theme piece ‘Preservation,’ to which I added a dramatic solo flute --- to be the opening track for the album.
The last part of the recording process was a week of nights in the temporarily unoccupied office of a friend in Williamsburg. I recorded ‘Whitetails on High Places’ there, finishing the tracks around 1:00 in the morning. So… just as I had finished recording about the topic of the safety of deer and was driving home, a Whitetail lunged out of the woods and into the side of my car, clipping off the side-view mirror! She seemed not to be hurt, since she ran off again into the woods, but… why in the world did this first car-deer collision of my life happen… at this particular moment?! I never have figured this one out!
When the mix-down was completed, I sought a graphic artist to help make an excellent cover for Park shops. But when I found one, he told me to my surprise that he often worked with the same topics in other media, actually for National Parks (!), and that I needed to redo the entire project differently! I saw that he was absolutely right, and I decided to do that very thing, that is, to collaborate with a single Park to make a CD especially for them, and not to release a generic Parks album.
The one Park that came right into focus was Shenandoah. I’d gone there all my life, and I knew people there, so I contacted Greg Stiles, a lead Ranger we knew through my brother and mom. He helped me develop an informal collaboration with Greta Miller, the Executive Director of the Shenandoah Natural History Association (now called the Shenandoah National Park Association), plus Sally Campbell of ARAMARK Virginia Skyline, the exclusive concessioner at the Park at that time, and a new design was begun!
In the spring of 1997 I went into the studio again, this time to Henry Smith’s Outback Studio in Mechanicsville, Virginia; we re-titled some pieces, removed some pieces, re-recorded a sung song as an instrumental, added a few new pieces (‘Shenandoah,’ of course, plus the new composition ‘Hazel River’and the Appalachian folk hymn ‘The Rock’); then we did a total re-mix of it all. I passed every detail through several authorities at Shenandoah National Park, and finally the project was ready for release. It had been in the works for two and a half years!
Graydon Fisher made five birch display cases for the main stores in the Park, I set up a disc player with headphones in each display, and I drove the product and shelves to the Luray offices. I remember with fondness when I handed the headphones to Sally and Greta for them to have their first listen, and seeing their pleased responses. Greta, with perhaps a bit of a surprised look on her face, said, ‘This is beautiful!’ Aah!
It was worth it. When the first wholesale order was made, Sally was unsure that CDs would sell at all, since most cars had only cassette players at the time and all purchasers would be travelers. I talked her into tentatively trying fifty CDs and fifty tapes, with a ‘buyback guarantee,’ and I laughingly said, ‘but I’ll expect you to make another order within a week!’
She made another order within a week!
And for many years now I have traveled to Shenandoah National Park to work with displays, perform two-hour nature-and-heritage-based concerts in the Great Room at Big Meadows Lodge, camp again and again, hike, display my wares at festivals run by the Park, and generally love the privilege of being involved with this delightful and meaningful place. In 2014 we have a running total of about 25,000 Here on this Ridge recordings made, and a big chunk of those have been bought in the Park itself by folks from all over the world. This, then, has been our most significant project, I think!
Here's a solo hammered dulcimer adaptation of 'Preservation:'