Skip to content

LIFE CYCLES – Friday Night at High Desert Soundings

photo: Violet Tang

Living and working in Los Angeles is no easy feat for anyone, especially for young musicians like myself. This fall, it has been incredibly difficult for me to find any time for a small change of pace, so I decided to look elsewhere, well beyond the city. Friday the 13th had been circled on my calendar for a while – it was meant to be a weekend I could escape the routine with my husband & my girlfriends, but instead, the world saw a steep and frightening descent into darkness as we journeyed into High Desert.

Suddenly, with horrors of genocide looming over our heads, music became secondary. The four of us were reminded of how privileged we are, to be traveling in love & safety at a time like this. We felt a sudden wave of helplessness, being so far removed from the dire situation in Gaza. Seeing many of my colleagues gather in modest comfort, in a place like Twentynine Palms, and seeing artists from all walks of life come together at The Palms for High Desert Soundings to experiment with the healing powers of silence & noise gave me a sense of (re)new(ed) purpose. I have put this review off for far too long, having recently been perturbed with waves of grave inhumanity and sternly occupied with my personal, unrelenting activism against the ongoing apartheid. I have finally decided – this is the only way forward for me.

I shall begin with Life Cycles, by Stephanie Cheng Smith, one of the headliners of Friday night, and certainly the most appropriate set for the long days our civilization faces ahead. Part of an ongoing sound installation, Stephanie has amassed in her own words “eighty-four cicada apparati separated into seven broods, installed long term as an accelerated representation of overlapping periodical life cycles of different broods and species of cicadas.” And to High Desert, she carried only less than a handful cicadas with her. Accompanied by the faint crackle of firewood and the lovely smell of sand & smoke, her cicadas were as cryptic as the desert animals themselves, joining the little grey moths dancing above our tables in glistening twilight. It was truly a quiet meditation, a gentle reminder for us all to breathe deeply with love & intention. A contrast to some of the more provocative noises we have heard tonight, Stephanie’s work gave us a glimpse at how interconnected we are with the environment around us, and how everything we know is precious simply because it is impermanent. Indeed, it is true that annual cicadas are species that emerge asynchronously every year. Before emerging from darkness to find their mates with song, their life cycles can vary from one to seventeen years living as underground nymphs. We must remember, as the limits of music technology continue to defy all odds in a post-Cageian, postmodern musical landscape, nature will only continue to journey alongside us, surprising us with an honest reflection of our own organismic values and behaviors.

To send us off into the stars of the night, Technical Reserve returned us to a jarring, industrialized reality. A trio of two laptops & one pedaled-up cello, Hunter Brown, Dominic Coles, and TJ Borden threw an eclectic & original vernacular at us – one that no one was ready for. With shades of Morton Feldman’s late cello works and the subtle foreshadowing of the implications of artificial intelligence, Technical Reserve tautly flexed their outstanding expertise in an astonishing, semi-improvised set. Around midnight, it seemed as if we were launched into an immersive historical survey, illustrated by paradoxically paired genres of structureless free jazz and rigid serialism. Through jurassic growls, explosive feedback, silences of space, and instruments of war, the trio suggested that what makes us unique as human beings is our unwavering curiosity. At this point, the outdoor classroom that is the quaint courtyard of The Palms were now littered with stimulated, engaged minds, with Bach, Coltrane, and Stockhausen acting as our instructors on behalf of the trio sitting in front of us.

The road ahead is long, and our humanity is being put on full display. We must continue to lead with hope & fight urgently for freedom. Our resiliency will show not only through activism, but also through the thread of all humanities – in literature & the arts. High Desert Soundings has given me an important moment to breathe and a second chance to do what is right in fighting with courage for human rights. I am most certain many of those in attendance returned home feeling the very same.