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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Marfa's Mysterious Lights In Music

Flickr: Nicolas Henderson/texasbackroads
Marfa lights, 2014.

As far back as the 1880s, there have been reports of mysterious glowing orbs dancing just above the horizon in far west Texas, just outside the town of Marfa. Explanations of the phenomena have ranged from campfires, to ball lightning, to automobile headlights. Regardless of their origin, the Marfa lights have inspired countless travelers, artists and writers, and now you can add a classical composer to that list.

Michael Daugherty, born 1954 in Cedar Rapids, has made a career of successfully documenting Americana in his music. “Route 66” (1998) was described as a “big boisterous Cadillac of a piece.” He’s written about architecture (“Fallingwater”), artist Georgia O’Keefe (“Ghost Ranch”), Rosa Parks, J. Edgar Hoover, and even Superman (“Metropolis Symphony”).

Now, as part of a four-movement suite written in 2015 called “Lightning Fields,” he paints a portrait of the Marfa Lights, scored for a lonely flugelhorn and spare piano. The five-minute work opens with an otherworldly bit of atonality to set the mood, then slips into a slow southwestern tempo, as the flugelhorn interpolates the “Degüello” and a Mexican dance. Halfway through, the piano echoes the short atonal phrase before the flugelhorn climbs into a higher register, then relaxes as the music concludes as it began, having unfolded in the words of the composer “in slow-motion like tumbleweeds rolling across a dusty Texas plain.”

Give a listen yourself in the YouTube link below, featuring Jason Bergman and Steven Harlos. If you like the track, it’s available as an mp3 on Amazon. The full album, "The Lightning Fields," is newly released on MSR Classics.

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.