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By M.A. Tiesenga

Sketches of Chaparral

M.A. Tiesenga creates an original graphic score reflecting the unique energy and textures of Southern California’s natural landscape.

I wanted to make something capturing and responding to the multifaceted character of the chaparral in all of its texture and diversity - from hillsides that form planes of fuzzy splotches, rugged juniper bushes that find homes in remote boulder crags, to the complexity found in a single branch of chamise. Chaparral plants are often overlooked, and I wanted to bring out some of the beauty in their banality. What can we learn, if anything, from these humble perennials? How might these disparate influences be expressed in orchestration?


One popular misconception about Los Angeles is that it’s a desert. Technically, the name of our biome is called California chaparral. A biome is what we call the biogeographical habitat formed in response to the physical location and climate of a region. Other examples of major biomes include deserts, tundras, taigas, tropical rainforests, and grasslands. Chaparral may not be as celebrated, but it’s our dominant wildland - and it’s one of the rarer biomes in the world.

The name of this biome comes from the category of shrubby plants that dominate and define it. According to the National Parks website: “Chaparral is characterized by deep-rooted, drought and fire-adapted evergreen shrubs growing on coarse-textured soils with limited water holding capacity.” All of those puffy, prickly, dry bushes that dot the hills around us are all different types of chaparral. Chaparral covers a huge amount of California’s foothills and lower-altitude mountains. It’s a ubiquitous plant totally emblematic to our state.

Initially in beginning this project, I envisioned focusing much more on the geology/topography of the area, but when I arrived at interesting sites such as Mint Canyon and the formations surrounding Rocky Peak in Simi Valley, the quirky bushes are what caught my eye. I started noticing chaparral - everywhere. Despite seeing these plants every day, many times a day, in my mind they have previously faded into a vague sense of the landscape. I knew so little about them. If I am being perfectly honest, I did not initially find this bush very appealing. Being such hardy plants, they’re built for function. They’re rough, they’re pointy, they seem pretty inhospitable to people…they present a very real barrier when hiking. Chaps, the things vaqueros wore on their legs, are named for protecting them from the chaparral while on horseback. These plants tend to be pretty overlooked, except when they’re obstructing something or fueling giant wildfires.

The longer I considered these plants, the more beauty and complexity I started seeing in them. Beyond their modest veneer, chaparrals persevere - they’ve evolved to thrive in a plethora of cruel environments. I began noticing how they, in all their many variations, adorn the hillsides next to freeways in lush combinations of greens, greys, browns, yellows, and even reds. At a distance, they manage to simultaneously form a pointillistic texture as well as a soft wash of earthen color. 

While I researched more about these funky shrubs, what I found is more information about how our dramatic topography is responsible for the striking differences in chaparral across Southern California. The mountain ranges surrounding the greater LA area are called the Transverse Ranges, and this includes the mountains near Santa Barbara all the way to Big Bear, San Gorgonio Mountain, and Toro Peak. They were formed by the different ways the North American Plate scooched up against the Pacific Plate over millions of years. Besides the striking rock formations found all along these ranges, another interesting result of this tectonic scooching is the way these mountains interact with the atmosphere, resulting in a rainshadow effect. This phenomenon describes how the mountains physically block rainy weather from the other side of the mountain, leaving the desert in a rainshadow.

The rainshadow is responsible for the two major subdivisions of the California chaparral ecosystem - cismontane chaparral and transmontane chaparral. Cismontane means “this side of the mountain” (with “this side” meaning the Los Angeles side) while transmontane means “the other side of the mountain,” (referring to the desert). Anyone who’s driven to Joshua Tree from LA has seen this in action - once you get through the mountains, the color of everything changes. This includes the chaparral! East of the Transverse Ranges, the shrubs pointillistically contrast against gravelly soil until the rock transitions to yellowish desert sand. Traveling alongside the eastern side of these mountains up north to Lancaster, you can see subtle changes in gradient, both in terms of the density, size, and color of the chaparral plants alongside the highway. As you drive north back into the slightly wetter mountains, the shrubs get less pointy and more smooth. 

Walls of chaparrals that adorn hillsides contain deceptively rich complexity, even if we’re just looking at them superficially and ignore the functions of habitat and histories of the place. I’ve been calling them “walls” in my head because they can have this flat panel effect when seen from a distance. Part of what makes these walls so captivating to me is the contact between the delicate details imbued within each plant, each little bud adorning each branch - the contrast between seeing and knowing this, and the visual effect of how seemingly randomly they are placed on the wall in relation to each other creates a striking effect.

In many instances (some of my favorites!), small groupings of chaparrals serendipitously make little puffy dioramas with other various scrubby plants, like little terraced bouquet cities of scrub. Each one really does seem like a city - with mice, snakes, squirrels, crickets, and other guys making homes inside. There might be lots of space between these hubs, really highlighting the contrasting and complimenting arrangements. Little isolated megalopoli of dry plants coexisting peacefully together, symbiotically relying on each other for survival in an unforgiving world. Delightfully arbitrary yet coordinated placements and compositions, in communication with each other in invisible pollination patterns. 

Beyond developing a visual language based on solely superficial observations, I had the idea to imagine observations from the point of view of the chaparrals themselves.

In more harsh granitic soil, the poofs of foliage tended to be more isolated from others. These isolated collections sometimes took on a shrine-like quality. Seeing them this way, certain environments began to feel like reliquaries. This was especially true atop one of the formations of Vasquez Rocks, in which a lone juniper bush comes into view after a climb to the rocky promontory of the steeply inclined ridge. The flat precipice hosting this juniper is framed from two sides by steep, perpendicular rock faces, further contributing to an ambiance of an altar.

Vasquez Rocks have been home to people for thousands of years. Looking for more information about the people who inhabited Vasquez Rocks before European settlement led me to stumble upon this research paper by archaeologist Sebastian Cristobal Garza, entitled “Social Complexity at Vasquez Rocks: A Bioarchaeological Study of a Middle Period Cemetery.” In this paper, Garza describes the different aspects of life that can be ascertained about both ancient populations and the more recent Tataviam people from complex analysis of the site. Garza explains in detail how the chaparral plants provided sustenance to the Tataviam. The Tataviam left petroglyphs and pictographs on the rocks that are still visible today. Several hundreds of years later, infamous bandit Tiburcio Vásquez (for whom the rocks are named) would use these same rocks as a personal hideout from the law.

If these plants could communicate with us, what would they know? What have they seen, what do they tell each other, what would they tell us? 

To misquote Wittgenstein: “If a chaparral could talk, we could not understand him.” 

In my desire to commune with the plants, I decided to collect their impressions by making charcoal rubbings of them and their surroundings directly into my sketchbook.

These rubbings, to me, possessed a special kind of musical legibility. I sought to incorporate this imagery into the score and imagine what kinds of sounds this notation would convey. I really enjoyed how much these forms - the shadows of the physical objects themselves - had in common with my pre-existing visual style. This felt like a confirmation of the concept.

Our prickly protagonists began to feel imbued with both magical and metaphysical properties the longer I spent illuminating them. This alongside the belief that graphic scores are apertures through which we witness the deconstruction of our own mechanisms of subconscious synesthesia make for a kind of magical experience in making this composition.

I studied the shapes, textures, functions, and processes before me in this biome, and I began a process of abstraction and sublimation. This process involves breaking down complex objects into their core parts and reassembling those parts into ones that may bear no resemblance to the original object, though they retain that memory. By trying to draw landscapes of the California chaparral in front of me, naturally the things you see need to be broken down into simplified markings that communicate the general idea. Mixing abstracted forms with mixed metaphor, I began working my ideas out visually by sketching elements observed, felt, and collected in the environment. Much of this process is intuited and improvised.

These sketches were completed predominantly on location at sites around the Transverse Ranges (Mint Canyon, Simi Valley, Lake Hughes, Altadena, Morongo Valley, Joshua Tree National Park, Angeles National Forest). The process of working out ideas in these sketches contributed to how I constructed the score visually and sonically. Through visually isolating ideas and combinations of textures, it becomes easier envisioning how these elements might be best organized via orchestration.

Understanding the Score

The final graphic score is meant to convey the totality of the musical idea - though there are other pages of the score withheld from this editorial. These include the disambiguation, the explanations, and the keys to the map. Echoing a common custom to distribute individual parts to the ensemble rather than giving everyone the full score, parts are extracted from this full score, made into panels that further break down into more traditionally legible material adjusted for the instrumentation. Attributes of modularity, openness, and indeterminacy are retained but in a way that implements a linear progression and group cohesion.

Working with graphic scores presents unique opportunities for engaging with abstraction. For me, the full score represents something primordial. The markings describe expressions, textures, form, and modulation. The changes in line structures are, in my mind, representative of modifications to preceding and surrounding ideas. Musically speaking, this may be actualized by either pitch content modulations, durational changes, augmentations to melodic or motivic content. Linguistically speaking, small changes to the symbol could also signify a morphological augmentation - determined by the ongoing musical context of that particular moment. Little allomorph add-ons to slightly change the grammar of the original morpheme (motivic development). In practice, this is not actually that complicated - it could denote something as simple as adding an extra note or duration to a small musical idea. A collection of lines at an oblique angle to preceding shapes can signify the arrival of an obliquely contrasting chord.

The next step in this piece was to identify and distill legibly musical ideas from the score - including some tonal harmonic content from which to extrapolate upon. I designated different pitch clusters to different areas. Looking at the full score, there is always an implied motion. All areas of arrival may also imply areas from which to move ahead forward. Harmonically, I had to decide if I wanted these to be a key change or a chord change or maybe a deletion of elements, which by simplification would reveal a new color.

(sketch of ideas for musical material)
(sketch of ideas for musical material)

For the purpose of more seamless arrivals, I sketched out some basic progressions involving these different pitch clusters from which to draw upon and expand. I see the incorporation of harmony within this piece as something adding stability and focus. In this piece, I consider underlying chord structures something like the underlying bedrock of the Transverse Ranges - something not always visible, though at times revealed at the surface, something upon which everything else grows, something that ebbs and flows throughout the piece and that does establish a foundation for harmonic movement and interaction. Structure that informs and dictates the progression of the piece as well as the shape and interactions of the material expanded from it.

By incorporating more developed harmonic content into certain areas of the piece, it established a contrast between areas of functional harmony and more timbral regions. However, maintaining a balance of both harmonic and incidental material was important to me in this piece.

Rhythmic configurations include mixed meters and repeating cells of simultaneous, varying meters and rhythmic durations. Sometimes using the shapes of the specific branches to tease out intervallic structures and rhythms and other times thinking about larger motions and underlying structures - it’s about the superimposition of varying nodes to achieve different values of color and texture within the composite whole. At some points achieving a rhythmic coordination, at other points achieving some degree of messiness, or clarity. Shaping arrivals into these events contribute to the contour of density throughout the piece. After all, there are obvious rhythms to these plants. Witnessing a wall of chaparrals is basically like seeing a collection of repeating, superimposed lines.

The next step I took was to create pools of information from which performers can choose to create rich collages of superimposed textures and tone colors. It was important to me to preserve these qualities of varying degrees of controlled indeterminacy in creating diverse modules for overlapping ideas.

The task of extracting more literal musical material from the full score to create legible keys for performance is a fun, eidetic process - one that I find very similar to and alongside creating the visual elements. Designating elements for coordinated rhythms, pitch and key centers, and instrumental hierarchy begins to look a lot more like a typical traditional composition process. Ascribing these elements to specific symbols and symbol areas contextualizes them within the full score matrix, and from there it’s a process of carving out which parts I would like to bring out and prioritize in each section/moment. Another analogy for this feels like what it’s like walking up to a specific chaparral plant, fully checking it out and appreciating it in its environment, then walking over to another plant and spending some time there. The experience of going on walks and hikes has been a recurring inspiration in my work - I think that improvising a walk in nature is very much like composing a piece (in whatever form that might be). During a walk, we naturally curate points of interest with our attention and physical movement.

(sketching an elaborated orchestration)
(sketching an elaborated orchestration)
(sketch of overlapping ideas and coordinated entrances)
(sketch of overlapping ideas and coordinated entrances)

To create locus points in the composition - areas of interest distinguished from the rest - I focus on a single element and extrapolate out from there. Achieving this musically involves incorporating tutti entrances, coordinated changes, and solo moments emerging from the texture. Inspirational material in drafting solos is mostly drawn from deeper investigations into a particular plant, birdsong, or other form. 

As an instrumentalist, I have spent a lot of time performing and interpreting music with open or expanded notation - composers such as Julius Eastman, James Tenney, Wadada Leo Smith, and Pauline Oliveros have been highly influential to my performance practice as well as my composition. As a part of LA-based chamber music collective Wild Up, I have been involved in the ambitious anthology project to record all of Julius Eastman’s work. His work in particular has been important and close to me in recent years, and his approach to structure and motivic modularity has resonance in mine.

My process of sketching the chaparrals and diving into their worlds lent to the creation of speculative chaparrals, fictional ones, maybe some magical ones as well. In a world where so much can be known about a thing (biota, music theory, delineated design principles), things are as magical as you want them to be. Ultimately, this piece is about noticing the elegance of our environment; considering that we’re as much a part of the ecosystem as anything else, there is important reciprocity to our relationships with our habitat and to each other. 

The world premiere of M.A. Tiesenga’s Sketches of Chaparral, will be performed by the LA Phil New Music Group conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni for a special California Festival edition of Green Umbrella at Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 14, 2023.

About the Author


M.A. Tiesenga is an multimedia artist, composer, improvisor, and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles. Tiesenga’s interdisciplinary practice explores means of creating environments and communication. Tiesenga’s creative collaborations include work with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Wild Up, Long Beach Opera, Kunsthalle for Music, SPEAK Percussion, Dog Star Orchestra, and Ensemble Supermusique.