Nature, Neighbors Guide Composer's Notes Phillip Bimstein blends the voices and sounds of his hometown and Zion National Park in southern Utah to create songs. A "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa," is a musical hike through the sounds of the park.
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Nature, Neighbors Guide Composer's Notes

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Nature, Neighbors Guide Composer's Notes

Nature, Neighbors Guide Composer's Notes

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Zion National Park in southern Utah is famous for its narrow canyons and red rock walls thousands of feet high. But Phillip Bimstein doesn't only go there for the views. He travels to Zion for the sounds. This week we've been reporting from national parks across the country, and today NPR's Howard Berkes has this story of a composer's musical journey at Zion.

HOWARD BERKES: Put an alternative classical musician in Zion National Park, give him a tape recorder and then a computer, and this happens.

(Soundbite of "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa")

BERKES: This is "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa," which composer Phillip Bimstein calls a musical hike through the sounds of Zion National Park.

(Soundbite of "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa")

Mr. PHILLIP BIMSTEIN (Composer): I first gathered the sounds for "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa" by going for a hike up Many Pools Canyon on the east side of Zion National Park, which has these potholes filled with water in the slick rock. And so I got the sounds of the frogs. I recorded coyotes. I recorded crickets, and I recorded the sound of the Virgin River. And I also recorded rocks that I would pick up and scrape or hit together.

(Soundbite of music, "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa")

Mr. BIMSTEIN: To me, it's a joyful piece. It's got spirit to it, which I think Zion National Park and all of those critters in Zion National Park have. They have spirit. And so when we go to a national park and we see those sights and we hear those sounds and we see those animals, it helps us to regain our own spirit.

BERKES: All that drew Bimstein from Chicago to Zion 20 years ago. He settled in Springdale, Utah, the town of 550 just outside the park, and was elected mayor twice. That helped him discover the area's human landscape.

Mr. BIMSTEIN: Hey, Garland, join in.


Mr. GARLAND HIRSCHI (Rancher): Hello, there.

BERKES: Nice to meet you.

Mr. HIRSCHI: Same to you.

BERKES: Garland Hirschi grazes cows in the pasture next to Bimstein's house. That's where we all met a decade ago, when Hirschi's voice, his cows' moos, and musical notes based on both, combined for an alternative music hit.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HIRSCHI: Well, well, well, I'll tell you a little bit about my cows. A little bit about my cows. A little bit about my cows.

Mr. BIMSTEIN: You know, he grew up before there was electricity there, and he'd spent most of his life there.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HIRSCHI: They'd live off what they raised in the summertime, like the gardens and that. And then they'd have new cattle meat for the wintertime.

Mr. BIMSTEIN: And so I found a man whose voice and stories totally expressed the experience of growing up in the presence of Zion National Park.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HIRSCHI: My name is Garland C. Hirschi. Rockville, Utah.

Ms. VILO DeMILLE (Quiltmaker): I'm Vilo DeMille. I started when I was about nine years old to make these quilts.

BERKES: Vilo DeMille is famous for her colorful pioneer quilts, but it's the ghost town she grew up in that is the focus of one of Bimstein's more conventional ballads.

Mr. BIMSTEIN: I said to Vilo, I said, you know, I just wonder, you know, since it's a ghost town, did you ever hear any stories about ghosts? And she just looked at me and went, oh, I'll tell you about some ghosts.

Ms. DeMILLE: We were playing run sheepy run(ph), the kids in Grafton were. I must have been about 12 or 13. And we started up that lane there by my folks's place. It was just dusk.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) The children of Grafton ran too high, while she shut her eyes and she opened them wide and saw two figures in long, white dresses, hair clean down to their waist. She tried to give chase, but they went through the fence and disappeared into space.

Ms. DeMILLE: I swear to that to this day.

BERKES: Did you ever speculate about who they might have been?

Ms. DeMILLE: Mm-hmm. We just wondered if it was those two girls that was killed in the swing down there to Grafton. And the log at the top busted, come down and hit them on the head and killed both of them. They're both buried down there together in the same grave in the cemetery.

BERKES: The ghost song is part of a new project called "Red Rock Rondo," which marks the centennial of Zion National Park next year. It's a century in which the town, the people and the park intertwine for better and worse. Lives dependant on farming and ranching shifted to lives dependent on tourists. That was a painful transition for some, and Bimstein captures that in a ballad about Carnelia Gifford Crawford.

Mr. BIMSTEIN: Whose family settled up in land back in the 1870s that subsequently became Zion National Park. And she farmed that land for about 50 years, when eventually as an old woman her sons sold that land to the park.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: Thirteen precious babies all drank from my breast. Eighty-six(ph) grandchildren these green fields have fed. Three hundred acres I've nursed all my life. Why can't they let me live here till I die, till I die?

Mr. BIMSTEIN: Now, I as a person who loves the park, am grateful for that land that they sold. But I understand from her perspective, she was very angry that her sons sold that land to the park because she didn't want to move off of it. And I hope that when people hear that song, it helps them to understand that perspective.

BERKES: Some of Bimstein's compositions are equally serious, some are whimsical. Rancher Garland Hirschi seemed amused 10 years ago by the composer/mayor recording stories, voices, critters and rocks.

Mr. HIRSCHI: It sort of makes me laugh, some of the things he does. But he gets music out of them. I think it's okay, as far as I'm concerned.

BERKES: Bimstein says the stories the music tells prove this.

Mr. BIMSTEIN: There is more to visiting a national park than the place. It's the history, it's the people and it's the life in the community today that can be just as interesting as the park itself.

(Soundbite of music)

BERKES: Phillip Bimstein's latest compositions about the characters and community linked with Zion National Park in Utah are due out on CD in September.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You can hear entire compositions by Phillip Bimstein and see photos of some of the people featured in this music at

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