February 11, 2022
Have you ever heard of precession? I certainly never had until my friend, the photographer Ed Ranney, took me along on a photo expedition to Star Axis, situated on a mesa in the high desert of New Mexico.
Precession is a change in the orientation of the rotational axis of a rotating body. You might ask what that has to do with any of our lives, but the answer is: a lot. As the earth rotates, it wobbles slightly upon its axis, like a slightly off-center spinning toy top. This wobble is due to tidal forces created by gravitational influences of the sun and moon, which cause the earth to bulge at the equator, affecting its rotation. The direction of this wobble relative to the fixed positions of the stars is known as axial precession. The cycle spans about 25,771.5 years.
As I was to find out, Star Axis is all about precession. Created by artist Charles Ross, this monumental structure’s shapes and angles are determined by earth-to-star alignments. They are built into the earth sculpture so that we can experience these alignments on some kind of human scale. When completed, Star Axis will be eleven stories high and one-tenth of a mile across.
Charles Ross dreamed up this artwork in 1971. Construction began in 1976 after four years of scouring the Southwest for the perfect site. When Ed and I first visited Star Axis in the 1980’s, the Solar Pyramid—with its Star Tunnel which would be precisely aligned with the earth’s axis—was in an early stage of construction. Still, I immediately sensed the grandeur and eloquence of a project intended one day to connect us earth dwellers more intimately with the stars. I could already imagine climbing the tunnel’s stairs, a voyage through time, and witnessing the 26,000-year cycle of precession through the opening Ross envisioned at its top. I would be able to see Polaris, the North star, which has guided sailors for centuries, and begin to grasp how the cycle of precession will eventually strip Polaris of its title and navigational value, only to restore it some 26,000 years from now.
Fifteen years later, Ed once again invited me to Star Axis. This time, the Solar Pyramid and the Star Tunnel it encompassed had grown significantly. The majestic granite and sandstone structure, which Ross conceived to express light, time, and planetary motion, was coming to life in slow motion.
Another twenty years passed, and several months ago Ed Ranney, on the occasion of his latest work at the site, invited me now for the third time to visit Star Axis with him. However, a short while before I was to meet Ed for the hour-and-a-half trip from Santa Fe, I received a phone call from an old friend. So excited was I about the impending adventure that I couldn’t resist regaling him with information about Charles Ross, precession, the Solar Pyramid, and finally the Star Tunnel, or, more poetically as I put it on a whim, the stairway to the stars. When the phone call was coming to an end, my friend said, “Enjoy the stairway to the stars,” and then added, almost as an afterthought, “You do know the song, don’t you?
“What song?” I asked.
“Stairway to the Stars. Great recording of it by Bill Evans.”
Bill Evans I knew and greatly admired as a legendary jazz pianist, but Stairway to the Stars, the song? Never heard of it.
On the drive to Star Axis, the two Stairways to the Stars seemed to playfully vie for my attention. Could the stairs housed in the pyramid already be finished? How exciting to think that I might be allowed to climb them! Then the other set of stairs pushed the thought away. If someone like the great Bill Evans recorded Stairway to the Stars, it must be special. Why had I not even heard of it? I resolved to listen to Evans’ rendition as soon as I returned home.
When Ed and I arrived at Star Axis, the Solar Pyramid was now nearly finished and the Star Tunnel already completed. In addition, stakes had been put into the ground that defined the perimeter of what Ross called the Shadow Field. The Solar Pyramid would mark the daily and seasonal movements of the sun across this Shadow Field.
Charles Ross has said, “The piece should rise up out of the land, not be imposed on it.” To my mind, the Solar Pyramid had a timeless and stark simplicity about it—with a sliver of a triangular opening on one side and the Star Tunnel rising toward the heavens on the other. I climbed the Tunnel’s stairs—all one hundred fifty-eight of them—despite knowing that in broad daylight there would be no stars to see at the top. Still, the enormity of Ross’s creation took my breath away. I could sense the passage of time—precession, if you will—more keenly than ever on this sublime stairway.
Ed introduced me to Charles Ross and his wife, Jill O’bryan. Over lunch, Ross appeared to be an eighty-three year old man still full of vitality and ideas. Discovering that I was a violinist, he began describing the Solar Pyramid’s various inner and mysteriously changing resonances, and ended up asking me whether I’d consider playing in the Solar Pyramid.
When I got home that day, the first thing I did was to listen to the recording of Bill Evans (piano), Chuck Israels (bass), and Paul Motian (drums) and Jim Hall (guitar) playing Stairway to the Stars. Evans packed his chords with exotic, dense harmonies while often letting the melody evaporate into breathtaking improvisation. There seemed to be such substance to what Evans had to say that I played his rendition again, and then once again. Still, I wondered what the melody was like in a less stylized version, and what the words were.
I soon discovered that the one and only Ella Fitzgerald had also recorded Stairway to the Stars. In that unforgettable voice of hers, I heard:
Let’s build a stairway to the stars?And climb that stairway to the stars?With Love beside us?To fill the night with a song?We’ll hear the sound of violins?Out yonder where the blue begins?The moon will guide us?As we go drifting along
In bed that night, I thought about the day’s events. There was no way I could compare the ageless beauty and significance of the pyramid rising out of the New Mexico landscape to a sweet song about love. Still, as memorable as Star Axis was, so were the artful performances of Fitzgerald and Evans of an endearing song about love, the stars, the moon, and, let us not forget, the sound of violins.
Heading for sleep, I was about to give up connecting the day’s disparate events in any meaningful way when, at least, one idea occurred to me. If Charles Ross’s invitation was serious, I’d be happy to play Stairway to the Stars at his stairway to the stars.
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