Stairway to the Stars
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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Fascinating to learn about Star Axis! And you might want to include the guitarist’s name on Stairway to the Stars – Jim Hall. I always look forward to each Key of Strawberry post – thank you!
And don’t forget the tasteful and touching performance of Jim Hall on the Bill Evans version.
I suppose I knew there was someone who had never heard of Stairway to the Stars but never met one. On the other hand there are people who have never heard a Bartok quartet or rarer, a Zemlinsky Quarter (we were friends of the Lasalle’s so heard several)
Dear Arnold, so nice to discover with you such a wonderful dream and to know Bill Evans’ perform never heard before!
I love you. Dick Stoltzman
You are quite a storyteller! and a pied piper. Following you step-by-step, slouching upward towards the stars, – full of mirth and anticipation – on the wings of a beautiful piano playing and the magic of your pen.
What a beautiful story, and a beautiful song. You are really privileged to have had the opportunity to visit the amazing sculpture not once, but three times and seeing the progress on its construction, also meeting the inventor – and also to have had the opportunity to become a violinist.
If you’re interested in the subject, there’s a great book called ‘Fingerprints of the Gods’ by Graham Hancock, contains all sort of “unorthodox” analyses and facts such as that the Egyptian pyramids are much older than believed – they depict the night sky as it was some 17,000 years ago, based on Precession as you say. Seems to be still available. Also, how the C15 Piri Reis map could accurately show the underlying land mass of Antarctica, confirmed only recently by modern science.
Such a deeply beautiful experience you describe! Absolutely poetic on a cosmic scale.
It strikes me powerfully that the lyrics to the song interweave the idea of playing the violin on the stairway to the stars as if the entire project had been created as a result of the song! Only now,the request from higher powers in the cosmos include the personal desire that you should be the one to consummate this creation with your playing inside the structure. The fact you did not yet know of this song only serves to make the request even more fascinatingly “entangled.” Perhaps there is an aspect of the theory of Quantum Entanglement that is being played out through you at this time? It’s nice to think so.
A very beautiful and moving thought.
But if one plays the violin inside such a “machine.” Does it measure fluctuations in one’s vibrato??
Wonderful story, beautiful writing, as ever. But the big surprise was your not having heard “Stairway to the Stars”! I grew up with it and even knew (most of) the lyrics. It was in my mother’s piano bench along with “Smilin’ Through,” “In My Garden,” and “Vienna, My City of Dreams.” Sweet memories.
Dear Arnold, what an incredible piece to be reading the day before Ted and I leave for Valentine’s Day to lake Annecy at the foot of the alps, Surely another stairway to the stars. First I read your post and then I played the Bill Evans rendition of stairway to a stars, a song that my mother had sung and played on the piano when I was quite young in the night club in my fathers hotel in Hollywood. Ted was in the other room gathering together essentials for the trip and we listen to it together. Then I came in and sat down near him and read him your story. At some point it was difficult to keep from tearing up and to cover over my voice cracking since I felt that the synchronicity between these three visits and your eventual retirement to that desert, the song that you had never heard before that mentions in its lyrics the sound of violins, and the possibility that you might once again walk those stairs with one of your beautiful Storionis to perform the song stairway to the stars and to add another chapter to your story, is so very touching. I first knew you as a violinist with a talent that made my heart soar, and then as a writer whose history I could connect with even though our stories parted ways big time! However, it is very difficult for me again to determine in which way you are more talented, as a violinist or a storyteller. And now I realize that your capacity to utilize your unconscious mind to recognize patterns in nature, to marry seemingly disparate ideas and disciplines, and to connect the dots as if you were creating a new constellation that should rightfully bear your name is one of your greatest talents. And you didn’t even need to train to become a Psychoanalyst. Much love, Judi
P.S. just listened to Ella Fitzgerald‘s rendition of the song on the album 100 songs for a centennial by Ella Fitzgerald and the one right after it is Misty, in which there is the verse
“Walk my way and a thousand violins begin to play…”?
Thanks, Arnold. Bill Evans and Ella are two favorites of mine. The next time I am in Santa Fe I will check out the Stairway to the Stars. Many thanks, Harvey
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