He recorded most of his instrumentals right in the depths of the Canyon during his fourth raft trip in 1985 (and the rest in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York). His album’s liner notes use words of John Wesley Powell to explain his inspiration:
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech nor by speech itself… It is the land of music… a land of song. Mountains of music swell in the rivers, hills of music billow in the creeks, and meadows of music murmur in the rills that ripple over the rocks… All this is the music of waters.”No art form – not the world’s greatest photographs nor the greatest paintings – come close to recreating the full esthetic, the powerful, soul-stirring experience of being immersed in the Grand Canyon. For me, the haunting music of Paul Winter’s “Canyon” comes closest.
That’s what I was listening to through my ear buds when my tears flowed. The first notes of “Canyon” from a desert drum emit a buzzing snare so primitive and dark and low that you might think something is wrong with your speakers. Hearing those sounds rumbling in the Canyon itself, I was overwhelmed. Those opening, aboriginal chords resonate with the very core of the Grand Canyon – a black, ominous rock of ocean muds beyond ancient, the Vishnu schist.
“A float down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon is a stark descent through light and density and time. From the soft sandstone and flamingo limestones of the Kaibab Plateau, exposed at river level Lees Ferry, the Colorado cuts through rock that progressively ages, hardens and darkens. It plunges through the eons and the strata, through shales, conglomerates, and basalts, residues of primordial seas and cataclysmic eruptions and upheavals. Until, at last, in the Inner Gorge, in the deepest corridor of the canyon, the river washes against the oldest, blackest, and hardest rock of all: Vishnu schist. Dark as Dante’s Inferno, almost 2 billion years old, the rock is a relic of a time when the earth’s molten center disturbed its surface, imposing unfathomable heat and presses that recrystallized sediments into new minerals. So dark it seems to swallow light, Vishnu schist is named for the Hindu deity worshiped as the protector, a syncretic personality composed of many lesser cult figures and associated with the sun.” –Former Boatman Richard Bangs, “Time Bandits” (in The Gift of Rivers, 2000)How can anyone see such things and hear such music and not be touched in their soul? Mornings, we awoke to trills of canyon wrens, their songs complementing the ceaseless, tumbling, orchestral river. Days on the water were filled with long minutes of silence, soaking in the exquisite, ever-changing beauty, then punctuated by laughter and screams of sheer exhilaration while crashing through rapids – more than 150 in all.
Evenings, we watched the shadow of sunset creep up cliffs, meeting the flaming rock layers of reds, yellows, and ochers. Such sunsets have happened every night for several million years – for that’s how long it’s taken the Canyon’s forces to incise the river through a mile of rocks – the scene ever changing, never exactly the same. Yet, until the last blink of an eye in geologic time, no human ever saw one of those sunsets. No human ear ever heard the Canyon’s music. Was it still as beautiful?
It was that great beauty of it all – the landscape and river, the company of old friends and new, the music of “Canyon” in my head – that overpowered me, leaving me speechless and so very, very grateful to be alive. That’s why I was crying like a baby in the middle of the day while floating in sunshine down the Colorado River in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I don’t think anyone even noticed.
Back to Introduction