My Own Fantasia: Illustrating a Symphony / by Steve Lowtwait

In celebration of their 125th year, the Geological Society of America has commissioned a symphony about the geology of Colorado. Titled 'Formations', the music is created in four movements, each reflecting a chapter of geologic history. The GSA approached me to illustrate their symphony.

Here's the catch. The music was still being written and didn't yet exist. I was to visualize music I couldn't listen to.

Luckily, the composer, Jeffrey Nytch, has created a video blog documenting his experience composing the piece. In the videos, he discusses in detail what each movement represents, the tempo of the music, and his influences for each. That was enough to get me started.

 

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1. Orogenies

The first movement is about the formation of mountains and landscape. To depict the force of nature, I used an exaggerated perspective looking upward from within a canyon. The jaggedness of the rock texture radiating from the center is like a burst of power representing the earth's force in building mountains. Contrasting that is the quiet stream symbolizing the slower processes from which landscapes are formed.

 

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2. Rush

The second movement is about the human relationship with geology, specifically the mining booms in Colorado's history. The music is fast depicting the frenzy of the gold rush. The piece is busy with movement as objects point and reach in multiple directions, indicative of how people tore up the land, built upon it and dug holes in it. The art is loud and hot in color reflecting a human/earth friction, though the rock formations remain a cool, steady blue. The railroad symbolizes the wealth of progress that came from the riches of mining, as well as the speed of the music.

 

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3. Requiems

The third movement is about the build up of shale from when Colorado was under an ocean 70+ million years ago. The music is slow to express the long process from which carbon becomes rock over time. I captured this with large, exposed rock walls lined with sedimentary layers of shale. In the foreground is closeup of the broken, layered shale rock. The colors of this piece are cool and still, again representing the slowness of time. It feels quiet and relaxing.

 

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4. Majesties

The fourth movement, the climax, is about the modern Rocky Mountains. The scene depicts a hole in a rock formation that can be seen at the Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs. Through the hole is Pike's Peak, one of Colorado's majestic "fourteeners", mountains that rise over 14,000 feet. I chose these landscapes because today's mountains are oft defined by their landmarks. The hole itself acts like a frame around the mountain, the way geology is framed by modern definitions - names and science. The hole also provides a visual sense of closure like curtains closing at the end of a symphony.

 

The four movements are laid out in a grid so that the art has flexibility for various uses. It'll be used in various marketing efforts, on the cover of the symphony program, and on CDs of the music. The askew angles that form the grid are similar to the way that rock naturally breaks apart.

Illustrating 'Formations' is one of the most unique and inspiring projects I've recently done. The chance to enrich another piece of art is a great honor. Now I can't wait to hear the symphony when it premiers this autumn.