I live where the land is on fire. Western North Dakota, the area of the country experiencing the Bakken oil boom, is marked by flares and pump jacks, oil rigs and semis, rapid development and expansion.
Classical music, like the spine, is my base for support. It accompanies me in times of grief and times of joy; it is the first thing I tune into when I seek comfort and solace; and it is a welcome balm to help relax my body and mind.
In my travels around western North Dakota, which is arid due to being west of the 100th meridian, I crave water. This dusty and dry land makes it difficult for a plethora of flora and fauna to exist and, as a person who enjoys a bombastic thunderstorm or a roiling stream, I often turn to classical music to give my mind a sensory experience in a desolate land.
Chopin's Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15, often nicknamed the "Raindrop," has been inhabiting my brain and my being throughout the summer. It is an odd juxtaposition to be driving through the land where pump jacks gently rock up and down like chickens pecking at scratch — and observing tubes burning natural gas, creating a flame resembling the Wicked Witch of the West — only to turn on one of the most relaxing pieces in the Western repertoire.
The Prelude, which is in D-flat Major, sinks deep into my skin like a refreshing shower. The noted A-flat with its repetition feels like drops of water plopping on my skin. But this piece does not allow me to sink into serenity. When it shifts to C-sharp minor, with the dominance of the A-flat growing in intensity, I feel the piece speaking truth to the land I live in: the land is dynamic, whipped by wind and painted with a palette of pinks, purples, grays, browns, and greens, and this sudden shift in the "mood" of the Opus 15 creates a matching musical reality for my mind and imagination.
When I need something more powerful than the drip, drip, drip of raindrops, I turn to Bedrich Smetana's Vltava, more commonly known as The Moldau. Throughout the summer I have traveled to where the muddy Missouri and Yellowstone rivers meet, flowing on as the powerful Missouri River. I imagine myself floating along its swift currents, going farther and farther south, eventually meeting the mighty Mississippi River, north of St. Louis.
Perhaps this is the very reason to listen to Smetana's 12-minute tone poem: the piece is designed to paint pictures of delight in your imagination. The piece begins with two springs that eventually become one in the Vltava River (in what is now the Czech Republic), flowing through woods and meadows before a strong two-beat rhythm signifies the celebration of a farmer's wedding. Serenity returns with mermaids in the nighttime, and the current transports the listener past palaces, and castles, and rocks, where ruins dot the riverbanks. Eventually, the St. John's Rapids toss and turn rhythms and melodies and then the mighty Vltava widens as it reaches Prague, flowing and vanishing in the distance, ending at the Labe.
The Moldau, for me, though, represents something more than a tone painting of a European river: it shows me the power present in the natural world and how that power can lead to fits of fury, states of wonder, and overall joy. It seems to me that the reason I have been listening to the music of Chopin and Smetana this summer while living in North Dakota is an attempt to find beauty and sustenance in a landscape of upheaval.
Taylor Brorby is a writer, environmentalist, and GLBT rights activist. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is the current writer and communications consultant for the Dakota Resource Council.
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