Aaron Jay Kernis wrote his new string quartet “oasis” in nearly perfect solitude. It was December at Tippet Rise, an arts center and festival near Fishtail, Montana, and windswept snowdrifts made it impossible to enter or leave. The facilities sat vacant except for the most necessary core personnel. His piece is stark, taciturn, full of arid harmonies and jagged melodies that seem hewn from craggy rocks; the second movement glitters with the icy reflections of distant stars. “This quartet comes out of visceral experiences,” Kernis said. “Partly out of the landscape, and party out of the idea of an artistic oasis.”

The Tippet Rise Arts Center is located on a 10,260-acre sheep and cattle ranch, dotted with monumental sculptural installations and home to a world-class chamber music venue, founded by the philanthropists Cathy and Peter Halstead, who purchased the property in 2010.

“No one believed we would actually do what we said we were going to do,” Peter told me. “They all thought we had a hidden agenda, like we were going to put in subdivisions or something.” Cathy added, “It does seem a little abstract. We always knew what we were doing, but it was hard to explain.” So far, the new classical music festival has been a success. Tickets for the first season of the festival went on sale in March 2016, and were selling solidly by May. The next season, demand crashed the festival website, so this year, the couple instituted a ticket lottery with a strict cap on how many tickets one person can win. On a day trip to the neighboring town of Red Lodge, people’s faces lit up when I mentioned I was writing about Tippet Rise. Those who had been loved it there; those who hadn’t wanted to go. “We were really wrong to judge people,” Peter said. “We’ve had so many people come up to us and say, on the one hand, ‘I don’t know what art is, but I know I like this.’ And on the other there have been all these experts coming out of the woodwork…I’d be totally floored by what they had to say.”

Peter Halstead has a distinctive way of speaking. His voice rises and falls, pausing unexpectedly at the end of a phrase before turning down a new rhetorical path. In this, his rumination seemed to mirror the landscape that surrounded us, with its gently undulating terrain and pockets of surprising seclusion. The Halsteads and their team of designers, architects, and engineers took advantage of these pockets when constructing Tippet Rise: the residence cabins are quite close to the solar power array and the Olivier Music Barn, but you can’t see one from the other. By the time you’re far enough down the path to see one vista, the other has been hidden from view by a hillock. “Tippet Rise is a metaphor in a way, where the synergy among music, landscape, sky, and art makes something else, a kind of poetry,” Peter wrote in the festival program book. It’s easy to imagine that each outcropping there is the only human habitation in the entire world.

Photo Erik Petersen
Photo Erik Petersen

The synergy between music and landscape was only sometimes present. The pianist Jenny Chen played a virtuosic recital that began with a complete performance of Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Chen’s rendition was sprightly and youthful, as fluid as the nearby brook. Chopin seemed embedded in the landscape: the burbling Eb Major Prelude ran flush with high spirits, like a person running up and down the hills, and even the world-weary B Minor Prelude shed its exhausted resignation to take on a brooding life. The next morning, the Borromeo String Quartet offered a rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Serioso” quartet that seemed unrelated to the scenery around it. This isn’t to knock their playing—they tore into Beethoven’s stark harmonies with furious intensity and suffused his more lyrical moments with poignant grace—merely to say that the goal of conceptual unity between music and environment was not always achieved.

The quartet’s evening performance, which included Kernis’s “oasis,” held a middle ground. Kernis described his vision of the landscape in his pre-concert talk, drawing an analogy between its “harsh beauty” and the harmonic language of his new work. “This is not a cuddly piece,” he said. It had undertones of a disclaimer, a warning that the “oasis” might not be as audience–friendly as the Bach and Mendelssohn that rounded out the program. The warning was unnecessary. “I thought that was quite beautiful,” a patron behind me remarked to his companion after the performance. He paused and added, “But then, I think this landscape is beautiful too.”

When I asked Kernis in our interview what sets Tippet Rise apart from other artistic retreats, he answered, “I had a very strong experience with the snow and the landscape and being alone, or almost alone. There’s limited intervention from [people] here.” This is, at best, only partially true. There are no skyscrapers or city streets, but the land has been continuously occupied by humans for upwards of 12,000 years. The oldest human burial site in North America is in nearby Wisall, Montana, and the indigenous Crow and Cheyenne Tribes have been subject to over a century of ongoing genocidal displacement. The existence of Tippet Rise is only possible because the United States government forcibly removed the land’s original inhabitants to make room for a wave of white homesteaders.

Even the physical landscape has been altered by this activity. Beyond the towering constructions of concrete and iron that the Halsteads have placed around the landscape and the roads and fences that crisscross the hills and valleys, many of the grasses currently growing at Tippet Rise are invasive species. That’s one of the reasons they have sheep. “It’s a little awkward,” Ben Wynthein, the Ranch Manager, told me. “Managing one non-native species with another. But sheep and goats are just about the only animals whose digestive tract runs hot enough to kill the seeds of the leafy spurge, so we’re kind of stuck with the sheep if we don’t want to be overrun.” Even the air showed signs of human activity: the horizon hung thick and heavy with haze from climate change–exacerbated fires in the Pacific Northwest. Every aspect of Tippet Rise bears the signs of human intervention if you know where to look.

Photo Liz Stetson 
Photo Liz Stetson 

This history is woven into the program book, if not always sensitively. An essay entitled “Before Tippet Rise” lays out the bare facts but downplays the violence. (The Crow Tribe apparently just “moved out.”) Another essay speaks of Tippet Rise being situated on land “with the ghosts of Native American vision quests,” and Stephen Talasnik’s description of his monumental sculpture speaks positively of manifest destiny, the 19th–century doctrine that viewed the forcible removal of the indigenous peoples of North America as divinely ordained. More troubling is the essay on the modernist painter Isabelle Johnson, whose family ranch would become the heart of Tippet Rise: “The land hasn’t changed much since Isabelle Johnson painted it. Not much has happened to Fishtail. But what really happened to Fishtail was that Isabelle Johnson went to Paris. She went to New York, and Rome.” The Montana landscape, the essay implies, was static and uninteresting until it could be decoded and described by a colonist in the language of European culture.

Part of the ongoing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America is the attempted eradication of their culture. The ideology of manifest destiny gave rise to horrors such as the residential school system in which Native American children were stolen from their families; forbidden from speaking their languages, practicing their religions, or even keeping their names; and forcibly assimilated into European-American culture in an attempt to “civilize” them. The program book often uncomfortably echoes this history of supplanting indigenous cultures with European ones. Mark di Suvero’s titanic statue Proverb “changes the dynamics of the canyon. It anchors it, while the canyon echoes Proverb’s wild side. Both seem less without each other, now that they have married.” In other words, the landscape itself is insufficient. It must be marked by a monument to white culture—in this case a 60-foot tall scarlet pendulum of welded steel—or risk becoming “less.” Indeed, through this lens, the entire festival takes on unsettling undertones: our ancestors having forced the indigenous people and their music off the land, we’re now free to fill these hills with Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach.

Mark di Suvero, Beethoven’s Quartet (2003)
Mark di Suvero, Beethoven’s Quartet (2003)

I asked the Halsteads whether they ever do land acknowledgements—formal statements of a place’s original inhabitants and their displacement that are de rigueur in parts of Canada and Australia—or outreach with the Crow Tribe. “It’s something we’re really thinking about,” Cathy said. “Now that we’re up and running, that’s something I think we need to make part of Tippet Rise for its future.” I asked if they have any concrete plans. “No, we’ve just started discussing it. We want to make sure we do it very thoughtfully, very respectfully.” Peter’s normally assured stream of clauses broke down a little. “We wish we knew more, Brin,” Cathy said. “But we will the next time we see you.”

Peter found his footing again. “We know, of course, that the Crow really regarded this as sacred land, and sadly were forced off it by the United States government quite a while ago, but we are delighted to be able to restore it partly to the spirituality which they represented in their ethos and their own shamanistic sense of the land.” But it seems dubious that playing works by white Europeans, in the shadow of monolithic sculptures by European-Americans, has much to do at all with the spiritual understandings of the Apsaalooké.

It’s also hard to give the Halsteads much credit for their desire to begin the process of making a plan at some unspecified date in the future. The desire seems genuine, but the timeline is off. The Halsteads began looking at potential ranches for Tippet Rise in 2009; design work began in earnest in 2012. In addition to installing eight monumental sculptures, building a world-class concert hall, and running three successful seasons of chamber music programming in that time, they’ve also published two art books about Tippet Rise (with the Princeton Architectural Press). Of course, issues of unaddressed settler colonialism bedevil almost all non-indigenous arts organizations in the U.S, even ones that don’t make a spiritual connection with the land a central part of their artistic mission. This is less a defense of Tippet Rise than an indictment of how far America is from addressing its genocides.

Another feature of Tippet Rise that is common to other classical music organizations in the U.S. is the dearth of music by people who aren’t cis white men. In the eight weeks of their third season, Tippet Rise programmed a grand total of two works by women, though the complete “Goldberg Variations” were programmed twice. All of the composers were cis. All of the composers were white.

No one I spoke to wanted to take responsibility for this. “The artists we invite really shape our season,” Cathy told me. “We wanted to give them the freedom to shape their weekend.” Peter added, “When we invite musicians, we don’t want to say to them, ‘Oh, but you have to play X.’” The musicians weren’t necessarily thinking about issues of equitable representation either. “I wouldn’t say we’ve gone out of our way to pay attention to it per se,” said Kristopher Tong, a violinist in the Borromeo String Quartet. “It’s a little ‘the chicken or the egg,’ right? The opportunities need to be there to allow people to have an outlet, and then people need to be willing to listen to it also.” As a composer, Kernis was similarly noncommittal. “Because I’m just an element in one week of the season, I’ve looked less at the overview. But I think those are good and valid issues; it’s clearly a work in progress. It’s something I assume will be more thought of as time goes by.”

Photo Erik Petersen 
Photo Erik Petersen 

The Halsteads are thinking of it, sort of. “As we’re looking forward to our fourth and fifth seasons, we’re really thinking about diversity and what composers from diverse backgrounds can bring to us at Tippet Rise,” Cathy told me. Peter has also realized that audiences will allow him more room for experimentation. “I thought we’d have to sneak up on the more challenging stuff with a lot of ear candy, but it doesn’t seem to matter.” He told of his surprise on programming a concert of Gabriel Kahane next to Chopin and hearing audience members say they liked the Kahane more than the Chopin. “People are really hungry for things that are new and different and challenging, it’s really what they want. We don’t do the old stuff for them, we do it for me, because I’m old stuff.”

Music by marginalized composers is not necessarily challenging, of course, but a wariness toward new and challenging art is easy to read in the program book: “The way we add a croissant to our breakfast, or English tea to our afternoons, we can add Mozart to our Saturday mornings.” A rambling meditation on “Artistic Integrity” suggested that “a musical phrase has to reveal as much truth as you can summon,” but mentioned nowhere that this truth might unsettle, challenge, shock, call to account, demand change, or do anything other than beatifically pacify. I wanted to believe that the festival could help craft a future better than the past. But seeing the visceral power and earth-shattering potential of this art—the vitriolic broadsides and passionate politics that composers have written into their works for generations—reduced to the status of a breakfast pastry left me little cause for hope. ¶

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