AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS was composed between 1983 and 1984 and published as an on-demand score in 1985.
I revised it in 2011 through 2014, while engaged in many other projects. The new score was uploaded on January 11, 2014. The new version is exactly the same length, down to the last sixteenth note, as the first. The revisions were extensive, but almost all of detail.
The work was first inspired by a single word that came to my attention. I learned of the William Gaddis novel The Recognitions at about the same time I read in the card file in the U.C. Berkeley Music Library of a dissertation about "Recognition and Re-Cognition" in music. The notion of the recognition of a musical idea was obviously not new, but I am not a composer who insists on the use of recognizable material. Sometimes I use recognizable motives, even themes; sometimes I do not.
I became very attracted however to the idea of creating a kind of music in which the ideas were of varying degrees of recognizability. Some would be readily recognizable, some less so; as I began to think about how a music like this would work, I became fascinated with creating a music with as many levels of identity and kinds of recognizability as possible. Some ideas, also, are only apparently recognizable: for example, it is evident at the beginning that the trumpet ostinato is a repitative motive, but not so easy to tell where it begins or ends.
I had cast the structure of a large work and sketched out a design of transformations of motives, based on a five-note motive treated with more than the usual amount of liberty, and begun to compose the piece, when I went to the Banff Center School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada, to work in solitude for a few weeks. The cold weather in the high mountains proved to have more of an effect on the music than I realized at the time.
When I took the bus in to Banff it was the middle of the night and I could see nothing. I well remember seeing the Canadian Rockies first thing the next morning, and thinking how spiritual they seemed to me, even more so than the American Rockies, which had already impressed me greatly when I travelled through them. The thoughts I had about those Canadian mountains would be more important to the piece than I knew at the time.
(This program note is a work in progress; more will follow.)
The focus of the music becomes increasingly dynamic and clear until a final event that arrives like the solution of a ubiquitous, unsuspected secret cipher whose meaning suddenly dawns as it is finally understood. This realization corresponds with the confined madman Danforth’s growing awareness of the significance of the flutelike utterances he seems now to realize were some decisive truth that came from the Old Ones themselves – though by this time Danforth refuses to speak about what he seems to have realized. The music begins to indicate that the five-point star found everywhere in the City of the Old Ones has some secret correspondence with the alien-sounding word reported by Arthur Gordon Pym, and which Danforth says he may have heard among the strange Antarctic flutings in the apparently long-dead city. Or were they the flutings which Lake, from his brief study of their anatomy, which was cut short so violently, believed might have been the natural voice of the Old Ones?
The design of the five-pointed star had appeared everywhere in all manner of variations in the ancient city. After the five-note musical motive appears throughout the orchestra in hundreds of forms, from single, flitting variants to vast, complex patterns, it becomes clear that the figure’s passage through varieties of expansion and diminution will reach an inevitable conclusion. At the end, it is compressed into a stark, obsessively repeated two-note figure. The impression is of a final, unrelenting and dramatic confrontation. In spite of its many variants the final figure is a surprise, but once achieved it is maintained to the end, as a simple, persistent revealed truth finally deciphered from vast, awesome expanses of rugged logic and elusive mystery. The “truth” once reached is not relented; the point of the adventure is made: it is a single word of profound realization, and of warning; and with that the piece concludes. The entire string section repeats the motive with a unanimity of insistence previously unknown to them, while the patterns of clangorous cascades reach their last echoing waves, the destinations of their mountains of invention having at last been found. The trumpet ostinato at the beginning is distilled and explained into the final two-note figure.
The final moments of the symphonic treatment correspond with Danforth’s utterances alone in the madhouse, “confined to the single mad word of all too obvious source.” The profundity of Danforth’s realization is not the less for his madness, and the orchestra sounds its tone in burgeoning clangor. It is the word of alarm Pym had reported was cried by the aborigines, when they saw the strange creature whose appearance they thought betokened their greatest possible peril, the very same emblematic phrase Danforth once admitted he heard in the fluting echoes in the City of the Old Ones at the Mountains of Madness:
Calendar of HP Lovecraft’s novella
At the Mountains of Madness
Compiled with commentary
by Christopher Fulkerson
September 2, 1930
The Dyer Expedition, also called the
Misketonic Expedition, sails from Boston Harbor under Prof. William Dyer with a team of 36 men and 55 dogs, aboard the sailing ships Misketonic and Arkham. Along with the scientific leaders is one Danforth, a scholar of an earlier Antarctic expedition reported by Arthur Gordon Pym, and published by Edgar Allan Poe. This knowledge proves intriguing and perhaps useful later on, when it is discovered that Poe’s Pym told the truth.
Crossing of the Antarctic Circle.
“Land Blink” atmospheric glow appears in the south.
The expedition passes Franklin Island. (This is located in approximately the center of the very large bay called the Ross Dependency, which is claimed by New Zealand. Franklin Island is a major breeding site for Emperor Penguins.)
Sighting of Mts. Erebus and Terror on Ross Island, and the Parry Mountains.
Midnight: Landing on Ross Island. The ships remain at McMurdo Sound. (This Sound is dominated by the live volcano Mt. Erebus and the extinct volcanoes Mt. Terror, Mt. Bird, and Mt. Terra Nova.)
Four-hour exploratory flight over shelf ice.
ESTABLISHMENT OF DYER’S MAIN BASE CAMP “above the glacier” at Latitude 86 degrees 7 minutes East Longitude 174 degrees 23 minutes, altitude 8500 ft.
(This places their camp as far south as Beck Peak, which is on the East Flank of the Amundsen Glacier, slightly north - that is, slightly less absolute South - of Mount A. Beck, and very near Titan Dome. Their base is almost directly south of the city of Bluff, New Zealand, which is at 46 degrees 36 minutes S 168 degress 20 minutes E.)
Shackleton, Amundsen, and Scott all explored this area.)
Pabodie, Gedney, and Carroll ascend Mt. Nansen, (This is at 74 degrees 33 minutes S, 162 degrees 36 minutes E, nearly south of New Zealand, near the northernmost part of the Antarctic portion of the Ross Dependency.)
January 6, 1931
Dyer, Lake, Pabodie, Daniels and ten others fly over the South Pole in two planes. “Distant mountains floated in the sky as enchanted cities…” (The Geographic South Pole, at 90? S 00? E, over which they apparently flew, is several hundred miles closer to the Base camp than the apparent center of the continent, which is referred to as the Pole of Inaccessibility, that is, the place furthest from any ocean. There is a statue of Lenin that was left by Soviet explorers at one of the spots reckoned to be the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility.)
January 11-18, 1931
Core-boring expedition of Lake, Pabodie, and five others. Two dogs are lost.
January 22, 4 am
Lake’s (second and last) sub-expedition:
am Lake reports in.
Noon, Lake reports the discovery of unusual slate fragments with markings.
3 pm Defying Dyer’s orders, Lake flies off for more specimens, which he doesn’t yet describe.
10:05 pm Lake, from his plane, reports huge mountain range never before seen, 700 miles from Dyer’s main base.“Probable Latitude 76 degrees 15 minutes [S], Longitude 113 degrees 10 minutes E.
(This is almost directly south of Perth, Australia. In fact, the Aurora Subglacial Basin is there. It is possible however that what he saw is part of the mountain range of which Dome C, also called Dome Circe or Dome Charlie, is part. The present Concordia Research Station, jointly operated by France and Italy, is the best-known research station now near that location and the station that best answers to the location and geography Lake describes. It is located at 11,000 feet above sea level on Dome C, within easy flying range of Antarctic points due South of Perth. Concordia Station was founded in 2005 but it may be thought remarkable that the place HPL has his explorers find the City of the Old Ones is now a major research location. As an armchair explorer,
HPL didn’t do half bad.)
10:30 pm Lake reports Mouton’s plane forced down. The mountain is over 35,000 feet, “Everest out of the running.” Sighting of strange cube formations on mountain. Mouton’s plane is quickly recovered.
11 pm Lake scouts foothills in Carroll’s plane. He flies as high as 21,500,’ and says the mountain is 30,000 to 35,000’. (This contradicts the claim that the highest mountain in Antarctica is the Vinson Massif, 16,000 feet tall. At 13,000 feet Dome Argus is the tallest peak in East Antarctica. However, since even the Vinson Massif was not seen for the first time until 1958, perhaps there is some plausibility to Professor Dyer’s claim that there are taller mountains as yet unreported.)
During a thirty-minute radio report Lake makes a direct comparison of block-like structures to Roerich’s Himalayan paintings.
Lake urges Dyer to come and investigate. Dyer says he maintained that “A direct route across the unknown region between Lake and McMurdo Sound was what we really ought to establish.”
“Three-cornered wireless with Lake and Capt. Douglas.”
4 pm Extraordinary messages from Lake.
7 pm Lake strikes a cave. Discovery of five-pointed star icon.
9:45 pm Orrendorf and Watkins discover the bodies of the Old Ones. The dogs begin to go berserk, and are never comfortable in the presence of the bodies of the Old Ones.
11:30 pm Lake’s description of the Old Ones.
2:30 am Lake puts tarpaulin over carcasses and retires.
4 am Lake signs off and is never heard from again.
Midnight Sherman, Gunnarsson and Larsen fly in to Dyer’s camp.
7:15 am Dyer flies to Lake’s camp; McTighe pilots and Ropes relieves him.
While in flight, they sight the gigantic City of the Old Ones.
Dyer discovers that the entire Lake party is murdered, though Gedney is reported missing.
4 pm Dyer sends message about the situation to the Arkham.
Dyer and Danforth’s sixteen-hour trip into the City of the Old Ones. This is the apex of the story. Among many fantastic architectural structures and artworks they see are buildings that incorporate wall decorations, carvings, and carved palimpsests that relate the very ancient history of the Old Ones. From this artwork, they piece together an approximate history of the Old Ones. They find the bodies of Gedney and some missing dogs. On their way out of the City of the Old Ones (also called the City of the Elder Things), they are chased by a Shoggoth, one of the large slave creatures that
were created by the Elder Things and which eventually displaced them. Shoggoths were observable in the city’s artwork. Danforth claims he has seen one of the Old Ones and begins to repeat the fluting sound-phrase he says they speak, which sounds like the “Tekeli-li” reported by the earlier explorer Arthur Gordon Pym.
Danforth goes mad and thinks he is in the Boston Underground, calling out station names he thinks they are passing. Dyer gets them out of there.
The final crisis is due to Dyer’s limited flying skills, which they must rely on since Danforth, who flew
them in, is now insane; somehow Dyer manages.
About 1 am Dyer and Danforth return to Lake’s Base.
All expedition planes fly back to the main base.
Return of the survivors and planes in two laps to McMurdo Sound.
The Arkham and the Misketonic clear the field ice and enter the Ross Sea.
February 15 or before
The ships leave the polar ice behind them. Professor William Dyer's Expedition is ended.
Sometime a year or two later, Professor Dyer learns of the plan to send another expedition, and, in order to prevent what he believes will be an act of folly, he writes his report, calling it At the Mountains of Madness, to discourage further exploration of the City of the Old Ones.
Danforth is confined to an insane asylum, and never recovers his sanity. Though he refuses to give details of what he says he saw and heard, he obsessively repeats one expression, the fluting sounds “Tekeli-li,” over and over, which he hints he heard from one of the Old Ones’ flute-like piping voices in the ancient city.
The total duration of the Dyer Expedition is just under 5 ½ months, from September 1930 to February 1931.