Mineral Creek

The Gila: River, Mesa and Mountain

“The Gila: River, Mesa and Mountain”, is a composition for string quartet and piano, inspired by my foot travels through Arizona and New Mexico along the Grand Enchantment Trail. It was created in collaboration with Friction Quartet to celebrate the beauty of the legendary “Gila Country”.

The “Gila Country”, as it is sometimes called, contains the headwaters of the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River; it is a place of vigorous water, endlessly unfolding mesas, and thickly forested mountains rich with wildlife, all contrasted dramatically against high-desert surroundings; it has been the home of many indigenous people, recently the Apache, whose legendary leader Geronimo was born near one of its tributaries; it is where some Americans like Aldo Leopold made first attempts at wild land conservation in the United States; today it is still a wild land, made all the more precious by the ceaseless human development which has occurred all around it. For all these reasons, and some unknowable ones, the Gila Country seems to hold a special place in the American Southwest, and certainly in my imagination.

The Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) traverses much of the watershed of the Gila River in Arizona, and the entire upper Gila River watershed in New Mexico, which is one of the last free-flowing waterways in the southwest. In a broad sense, the GET follows the Gila River from near its confluence with the Salt River near Phoenix, to its headwaters in the Black Range in Western New Mexico. The GET is one of few continuous foot paths that travels extensively through the Gila Country, and walking the length of the GET drew me into many of the definitive Gila Country landscapes; blessed waterways, vivid mesas, and secluded mountains.

Music is the language I use to share a vision of this land whose vitality had been so inspiring from afar, and in reality proved more challenging, delightful, and mysterious than I had imagined. With music, I can explore the contours and colors of this remembered land, and use my imagination to craft an expression that expresses it well and truly. It is a way of focusing my mind on the remembered earth.

For inspiration in both the form of my composition and its musical content, I have looked to some of the definitive features of the Gila Country landscape; Rivers, Mesas, and Mountains. These three features of the land are highly distinct, yet interconnected. With this in mind, I set my composition in one continuous movement, with 3 contiguous sections. The character of the music for each section is informed by the character of each region; Rivers and the often broad, pleasant valleys they flow through inspire fluid, sonorous music; a cascade of piano chords represents the inexorable descent of the Mesa wall, compelled towards the same goal as the River, and by the same forces. Mountains conjure a propulsive music that moves obliquely upward, confidently towards the promise of enlightenment and ephemeral joy that we let ourselves believe the high country will bear, knowing that this joy will be equaled with toil and hardship. An ever-present D sounding throughout the length of the composition represents the shared element that shapes the Gila Country – water. It is the element that sculpts Mesas, that is stewarded by the Mountains, that is focused by Rivers.

This is the second composition I’ve composed following a simple practice where listening precedes expression. I travel slowly by foot, and with each step taken the land is telling me an incomprehensibly small part of its story; if I am listening well, I may comprehend strands of that story through my feet, my eyes, my ears, my lungs, and my mind. There are many ways to converse with the land, and it is our pleasure – perhaps duty – to do so. My practice is only one of many. Ultimately, I hope that the mystery and vitality of the Gila Country manifests itself in yet another way, amplified through the dimension of sound.

This composition would have no life without the talents and dedication of Friction Quartet. Their support greatly encouraged me to create this composition, and for this I am extremely grateful. You can support Friction Quartet in their effort to create adventurous new music – visit their Commissioning Initiative for more details.

Magdalena Ridge

The Grand Enchantment Trail

This spring I was lucky to hike the length of the Grand Enchantment Trail, a 750+ mile continuous foot path that meanders from Phoenix to Albuquerque. The “GET” is a wonderful endeavor, and a fairly incredible tour of southern Arizona and New Mexico, particularly the area in and around the headwaters of the Gila River. I am deeply grateful to have visited for so long such an interesting and scenic part of the world. I anticipated that I would be awed by the southwestern landscapes, and I am happy to admit that I underestimated the beauty of the people of the southwest, which was certainly as inspiring as the plentiful vistas. Thank you to everyone who helped make this trip possible; my parents, my partner Noemi, my brother Nate, Heather “Steady” Werderman, Dave “Two Ply” Mashhoodi, Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker, and all the folks who lent a helping hand along the way; Gerry “Uncle Scairy”, Wayne from Klondyke, Bonnie Garwood, Otie, Manuel Osano, The Los Lunas Police Department, Andy Tapia, The Winston General Store, Cary from Glenwood, Samantha and Carl, Violet Dankmeyer, Thompson Ranch, Stacy Ranch, and The Maes Family. Thank you for helping me see a part of the world I have longed to visit.

Between Chasm Lake and Black Giant Pass

Kings Canyon Cross Country

Bounty Hunter, Filthy Figaro and myself got to spend 5 days in Kings Canyon National Park last week doing some cross-country travel around 11,000 feet. The weather was perfect, and everything seemed to be exceptionally comfortable and easy, even the mosquitoes. The scenery was more beautiful than I remembered from my travels through the area in 2014 on the Pacific Crest Trail. The high country above 11k reminded me somehow of an ice desert, almost as if it were a reflection of the great deserts to the east and south. Like my time spent in the desert, I found myself deeply enjoying the tenuous, exposed beauty of the High Sierra, while secretly relishing a fear of being so close to a raw, briefly welcoming edge of our natural world.

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Coyote Plan / Composers Inc. / !BAMM!

When I was in college I religiously attended the Composers, Inc. concert series, partly because they offered a generous student discount ($5 tickets!), and more importantly because the series always featured the best performers of contemporary music in the bay area, playing new music by an interesting variety of composers. Through these concerts I was exposed to a LOT of compelling music, and my participation as an audience member was a big part of my education as a composer. I’m stoked that after a decade of being a fan, I’m now a participant.

Composers, Inc will feature my piece Coyote Plan on their !BAMM! concert series coming up this Saturday, May 21st. Doug Machiz (cello), Kevin Rogers (violin), and Ian Scarfe (piano) will no doubt rip my composition into itty-bitty little pieces. Coyote Plan was my first attempt to relish the craft of writing a good part, and I’m very excited to hear how it comes off in the skilled hands of Ian, Doug, and Kevin. I titled my composition Coyote Plan because I composed it the way a coyote might approach her day – intuitively selecting those (musical) opportunities which seemed most interesting and nourishing.

I’m also really looking forward to hearing a new composition by my good friend Ryan Brown. Ryan’s music has a consistently thoughtful and poignant edge to it – I can’t wait to hear what new sound worlds he is exploring. Here’s the details for the event:

Venue: First Congregational Church – Berkeley
Date: Sat May 21, 2016 8:00pm
Tickets: $15-20

“Smear Music” for string quartet by Taylor Joshua Rankin
“Coyote Plan” for piano trio by Max Stoffregen
“Juke” for two marimbas by Howard Hersh
“Get-Go” for flute trio by Ryan Brown*
“Three Elements” for string quartet by Brian Baumbusch
“Illusion, in the deep of the abyss” for vilao and electronics by Fang-Wei Luo

Marble Canyon Dunes

New year, new projects, new adventures…same beautiful world

I am always stoked when a New Year rolls around. In addition to being a basic plus that I’m still vertical at least half of any given day, it is inevitably for me, a time of valuable reflection on my thoughts, beliefs, and past actions. A few days ago I found myself mesmerized by an interesting rock I had on my desk; losing myself in its colorful bands, I remembered the awesome rock collection I had as a kid, and my childhood belief that rocks were great storytellers. In 2016 I’m still doing the same thing I did as a kid in 1992; digging on our natural world. Some things change, but others happily do not.

Of those things that do change, I’m grateful to acknowledge some of the positive changes for me in 2015!

I successfully transitioned back to the west coast! After a few years of living in Texas, then New York City, and then 6 months of travel, it feels GREAT to be back home. I can’t figure out which was a better – leaving or coming back.

I got an awesome job! I recently started working at the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, and I am stoked to be part of such an excellent organization, surrounded by so many talented, interesting, and passionate kids and adults. In addition to my part-time accompanist duties at Contra Costa Children’s Choir, I feel genuinely blessed to be gainfully employed exclusively in the arts.

I am super excited about an upcoming album project with the Delphi Trio and John Vanderslice. I’m not sure all the when/what/how of the project, except that I will be doing the arrangements for a full length album, and that I will be working with nothing but ninjas. Could shape up to be something really special.

I’m also excited to start the process of recording and releasing my own album. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky to write original music for The Delphi Trio, Todd Reynolds, Friction Quartet, Kendra Emery, Jeff Anderle and the Switchboard Music Festival, and the Art in Nature festival; all of these compositions are united by the muse they worship – our natural world – and I feel like I finally have made a coherent statement as a composer, so it’s time to represent.

Here’s to 2016 – more art, more collaboration with friends, more time spent outside…sounds like a plan.


Back on the trail

Tomorrow morning I will be back on the Pacific Crest Trail near Mt. Shasta, right where I left off last year. I am super stoked and very grateful to be heading out on another extended trip. My goal is to make it to the Columbia River Gorge, but I look forward to whatever tangents, side trips and obstacles that may exist between me and there. In some ways I hope I never finish the PCT. I like to think of the PCT as trail in the sky that goes on forever and will never be conquered by any human, let alone me. Of course, people do finish it. People do it twice in one year. I even heard a tale of a person who attempted (on a dare) to hike the whole trail in a wedding dress. One thing I know; I am headed towards Mt. Shasta, Crater Lake, the Three Sisters, and Mt. Hood, and if I do get to set my eyes upon such landscapes, I will gaze long and happily.

Hiker-trash magic trick.


Walking reveals the music in landscapes

This is an article I wrote for the Pacific Crest Trail Association blog where I get a chance to talk in depth about my approach to writing music inspired by the natural environment, and the nature (ha!) of my collaborative efforts with Friction string quartet. Thank you to the PCTA for giving me a turn to sing my praises and share my thoughts!

Composer Max Stoffregen walks the PCT to reveal music in landscapes – Pacific Crest Trail Association.


This Land [reboot]

This is a reboot of a song called This Land that Odessa Chen and I wrote together. I played a mix of a recording of the song for my buddy Keegan Stokes while we we were relaxing one night over some cold beers, and Keegan started singing the hook to It’s Raining Game by Mac Dre & Raphael Saadiq over an instrumental break in the track. The Mac Dre reference fit the the song really appropriately (since both songs are about living in the bay area) and I knew instantly that I had to do a reboot of This Land that incorporated the hook from It’s Raining Game. The idea of putting Odessa, Mac Dre, and Raphael Saadiq on a track together where they are all singing about the bay was way too magical to pass up.


The Great Trickster

I was walking through Tuolumne Grove this past news years day, gazing happily upon an indescribably massive Giant Sequoia, when I noticed a Coyote sauntering past the base of the giant tree. I am fascinated by Coyotes. Several years ago I discovered rather by accident that whistling to a coyote will often pique its curiosity and thus slow its gait, giving me more time to observe and admire the animal. Apparent lovers of song and virtuosic singers themselves, Coyotes seem to me natural born musicians; rambling, expressive, intelligent, social, yet aloof and wary. And so I whistled. As I hoped, it slowed. I whistled again, a variation on my tune. It stopped. I whistled some more. Placing itself just behind a tree so as to become invisible in the diffuse early winter light, it casually laid down. Coyotes seem to do this instinctively – no matter how curious they are, care is always taken to remain invisible yet observant. It was a lovely moment. Then I remembered where I was.

This Coyote was no doubt aware that the Tuolumne Grove is a popular place for tourists like myself, who often accidentally drop tasty snacks from their pockets in moments of reverie. Perhaps there are even some visitors who still find it entertaining to feed wildlife when encountered. As I stood whistling tunes, I also remembered who I was dealing with – Old Man Coyote, the famous trickster – and it dawned upon me who was regaling who. I remembered what the human ego has wrought. We think of ourselves highly as a species, and I am no different. Impressed with my own whistling skills (I am a better whistler than singer, which says little), I believed I was directing the encounter. I could almost hear the universe laughing as this thought dissolved. Comfortably lain with attentive ears perked, the Coyote was playing an utterly convincing role as attentive listener. But it was in fact I who was being regaled. In a masterstroke of cognition and perception, the Coyote both fooled and charmed me, all while giving himself potential access to a novel food source. All he had to do was stop, rest, and be seen. Perhaps this Coyote sensed in me that he had an enthusiastic audience, just as I thought the same of him.

As these thoughts occurred to me and then came together in my mind, I stopped whistling and decided it was time to leave Old Man Coyote be. He remained elegantly lain in a pile of sequoia needles as I turned my back and continued my happy stroll through the grove. I wished I could leave some gift for him in return for being such a gracious teacher, though what gift I did not know. Large undisturbed tracts of land would be a nice start. Perhaps it is true among animals as well that giving is the greatest gift, and that Old Man Coyote was content with the lesson he gave me.