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Paul Sánchez’s Horizon: Our Journey back to the Stars

Updated: Jun 27

Music history continues to reveal to us that a collaboration between a musician and poet, whose musical relationship first began as an intellectual, yet artistic friendship, can produce a recipe for a musical work that transcends boundaries of time. A positive poetic connection can spark an impetus for both a shared  inspiration, as both artistic actors can similarly identify with the way their human experiences can be articulated in the language of music, while also enjoying the opportunity to enhance each other’s artistic strengths. The life connections shared between Sanchez and Dr. Harlan A. Payne, an esteemed neurologist, an adventurer, and close friend of Sanchez who unexpectedly passed away in the summer of 2011 while camping at the annual Burning Man gathering in Black Rock City, Nevada, are felt by us in Sanchez’s song cycle, Horizon. This work musically realizes and enhances one of the more prominent textual ideas found in Payne’s poetry: the acknowledgment that we are a rather small part of this vast universe, and what better way to explore this idea than to poetically create a seemingly tangible distance between ourselves and those luminous spheres in the sky that may play a part in guiding the journey of our brief lives – the stars. Considering the idea that the material of our bodies originates from residual stardust and continues to rebuild our bodies over the course of time makes us realize how impermanent we actually are, and while many of the individual poems explore the various ways in which we relate to the stars, the overall narrative trajectory in Horizon is one that emphasizes our human journey back to those very same stars that have always floated through us and continue to connect us with the universe.

The poetic speaker in this cycle is guided by the stars through a series of life transformations, and because of this he is provided a guiding constellation, which manifests itself musically through the following pitch collection:  F♯, A♯, A♮, D, C♯, G, B, E, G♯, A♯.  This constellation suggests a tonal center of F-sharp, and it becomes the tonal world of stars, the tonal world of dreams, and the tonal world of the afterlife throughout the cycle. As listeners, we journey through other tonal worlds until reaching a definitive arrival on F-sharp during the song “Horizon,” at the moment of transformation “into a new reality of life.” After passing through “Horizon,” we hear Harlan’s voice through “Listen,” coming to us as the pitches of the constellation, but purified and changed, also: (in ascending order) F♯, A, A♯, B, C♯, D, E.

The first song initiating our journey back to the stars, “Starlight,” begins by acknowledging our connection with nature. The constellation theme aids the narrator in realizing that “we are made of stardust that sweeps from these skies,” as it is embedded throughout the song’s fabric through short, but repeated permutations in both the piano and also the voice. The sense of vastness and stillness depicted by the slow moving harmonic rhythm and the repeated three-note ascending fragment in the piano part is perhaps critical to the introduction of the cycle, for it encourages us to recognize how small we actually are when examined under the light of the stars. This fragment also references the constant rotational changes of nature (those songs of the cicadas, the rotations of the stars and the moon at night, or time passing), and our acknowledgment of the small part we play in nature is confirmed in the end of the song when the narrator sings into the strings of the piano, listening to voice resonate with nature, hearing it echo back to her in the piano.

In “A New Day,” the narrator encourages in a prayerful tone us to remain positive as time moves forward, as the cycles of nature are inevitable. The narrator’s initial lukewarm acceptance of the beginning of something new is depicted at the beginning with the use of the repeated A notes, which is later met with a sense of encouragement in bar 11 when the narrator says that we should “let the rays of warmth shine in.” Furthermore, this sense of security with time is portrayed by the brief resolutions in the melody that support the internal rhyme scheme. Curiosity about our journey back to the stars is evoked through the unresolved suspensions in the last line when the narrator decides to “walk” with the day as a friend.

A sense of confinement, or of feeling hopeless and lost in sorrow is conveyed by the narrator in “Winter Evening Moonlight” with the C repeated note in the soprano line cast in a variety of rhythmic durations, only to unexpectedly have her world open up when a tree, with moonlight shining from its branches, tells her to “lie down and sleep and I will break the moonbeams with my fingers into soft little notes that will fall into your mind and play you a sweet lullaby.” Sanchez mentions that the descending figures in the opening piano part represent the falling moonbeams, for they have us enter a dream state when their brief utterances allude to the G ♭ major harmony (the enharmonic equivalent to our beginning F♯ tonal center for the constellation). In bar 22, the dream state that seemed so transitory is now the stable tonal center, and permutations of the constellation, which guide the unfolding of events in the narrative, are woven throughout the soprano and piano part. Sanchez mentioned that this compositional process of entering the dream world musically was largely inspired by Franz Schubert’s lied, “Nacht und Traüme.”

“Una Casa Nueva” was written for Sanchez’s parents on the occasion of their move from South Dakota to Arizona. Harlan’s words of encouragement and optimism towards change, and his willingness to trust in God with regards to an unpredictable future may be seen in the key phrase “your mysterious loving God may grant a new path to unknown opportunity that can transform your life into serenity. In the beginning, the narrator (in 4/4) is working contrary to the meter in the piano (3/4), which suggests that she is not in harmony with the world around her. Particularly noteworthy for the narrative is that the intervallic expansion in the left hand of the piano, initiated by a D pedal note from the opening line to the climax in bar 16 on “Serenity”, serves as the primary technique to heighten the rhetorical activity in the text. Upon the arrival of this moment the narrator is now in time with her musical world.

The sparse texture, extended triadic harmony, and harmonic movement throughout “Spring” serve as the primary initiators that prepare the rather whimsical nature of the poem’s speaker.  The song’s primary musical utterance consists of only 2 measures, thus leaving Sanchez the compositional freedom to express the ongoing change evoked in text, or what he saw as a “sense of awakening.” This poem opens on a scene in which a woman leisurely awakens from sleep, smooths her brown dress, then decides to change into a green dress. Her eyes then change color, and her visage shines with anticipation. She “enlivens” her hair with shades of green and yellow. She is moody, but mellows out in the month of April. Bar 15 employs a retrograde of the key closural gesture from bar 8, as the cycle of life-to-death is reversed in springtime to one of death-to-life as Earth awakens. In bar 37 the speaker seemingly acknowledges Earth’s rather fickle nature, but inclines us to think that Earth becomes more confident after she awakens in the line “her eyes have a clearer, blue hue now.” Sanchez deploys several mediant key relationships through a discourse of arpeggios in the piano part to depict this changing nature of Earth during springtime. A sign of impending closure holds sway when we arrive at bar 57, as Sanchez recasts a fragment of the initial motive in retrograde from bar 15 to remind us of Spring’s awakening before we hear the song’s final punchline: the woman is Earth.

The text of “Risk” may refer to episodes in Harlan’s own adventurous background -- he was a skydiver who dove over one thousand times; he loved his motorcycle; he was a private pilot; he loved nature and being out in it, with all the risks and pleasures those activities have to offer. Sanchez mentioned that the cadence and prosody of the poem reminded him of poems from the Old West that would have favored the the gifted storyteller, and this can be seen from the outset in the first stanza of the text. The reoccurring opening rhythm with Am7 harmony along with the idea of spoken text over an accompaniment is borrowed directly from the song Rocky Raccoon. This is particularly interesting since Sanchez has not only consciously borrowed the musical features of the song, but he may perhaps be unconsciously borrowing the song’s cultural associations, as Rocky Raccoon was imagined by McCartney to embody the identity of a cowboy, a figure more prone to taking risks. The narrator only sings when she describes conquering fear and taking risks “to savor the fruit that grows on life’s cliffs.” A brief recapitulation of the opening Am7 harmony and rhythm occurs at measure 30 and the narrator encourages the listener that we might as well take more risks, “because no one gets out of this alive.”

The setting of “A Winter Farewell” is one of the most striking in the overall narrative of the cycle, as the narrator appears to have come face –to-face with severe loss.  Cast in a close, gentle, and intimate poetic language, the speaker seems to realize that those seemingly playful experiences which were once innocently shared in passing can now serve as key moments of spiritual growth for others. While Harlan’s poetry manages to capture the spectrum of human emotions, there remains little doubt that this text reflects one of his own personal character attributes, as described by those who knew him best, that is he always managed to see the good side of every situation.  Sanchez conveys this sentiment effectively by setting the text in a folk-inspired musical idiom, giving special attention to balance and repetition in phrasing, harmonic simplicity, and development through subtle rhythmic and melodic variants. Furthermore, the texture of the piano part suggests the sound of a guitar (or another similar instrument) being plucked; the opening of the piano part, with its muted sounds, helps to create this association at the beginning. The prolongated dynamic-curve in the melody, which rises gradually from a relatively low point, the textural intensification, and the gradual expansion of intervallic content in the piano all serve as preparatory processes to the superlative moment in bar 122, when the speaker laments, “and we will try to become and try to pass on the joy you embodied for us.” The uppermost melody is now tinged with a sense of resignation, and the decisive release of tension in texture and dynamics while incorporating a permutation of the original constellation theme over the remaining measures anticipate the notion that our journey back to stars might perhaps soon become fulfilled.

“Change” begins with the narrator hearing someone expressing despair that “Now nothing will ever be the same!” She responds, “of course not; life is change.” The narrator then encourages that someone to move on with life: “So fill your mind with incandescent thoughts to burn in your new life with a beckoning flame.” In addition to serving as an archetypal sign of impending closure, the two pedal tones in the last line structurally function as transition material to not only introduce fire as agent of change, but also to prepare the spiritual journey that is to follow. In “Horizon,” Sanchez deploys an intense prolongation of V to fulfill the narrative trajectory of transformation.  After brief tonal movement by way of 4ths in the introduction, B major becomes the stable tonal center for 12 bars before giving way to the dominant beginning in bar 24. The accumulation of dissonance over the C# pedal for the next 22 bars culminates in a satisfaction of our expectations, as the narrator is “scatter[ed] like stars out into a new reality of Life.” We have finally reached the stars, the constellation itself, and we have finally arrived at F-sharp as a stable tonal center, fulfilling the harmonic obligation exposed at the beginning of the cycle, but not under deterministic pressure.

The positive outlook on this human journey back to the stars is affirmed in opening line of “Listen” when the narrator speaks to us, as though through a letter, about her hopes for those she loves after she is gone from us. The pitch collection is entirely comprised of the constellation, which has been changed, or purified, through fire (or, is it that our perspective of the constellation has changed?).The narrator sings into the piano. We hear her voice, but from afar, and completely connected to the resonance of the musical universe (all of the piano’s strings are undamped). We hear her voice even when she is not speaking to us, fulfilling the narrator’s hope that “As I am listening to your voice You’ll be hearing mine.

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