Michael on Piano Wearing Tuxedo

“Northwest Passage”

The amazing music of composer, Alex Shapiro

Featuring the world premiere of ARCANA: SUITE FOR PIANO  commissioned by and dedicated to and performed by Michael Tierra, pianist.

Peace United Church, Santa Cruz, California

March 20, 7PM

I am diverging this month from the usual blog on herbs and healing to write about a very special piece of music celebrating herbs and healing. This month I will be performing the premiere of Arcana, a 20-minute long suite of short piano pieces which I commissioned highly celebrated contemporary composer, Alex Shapiro, to write for me nearly two years ago. (Buy tickets for the March 20 show in Santa Cruz here.)

Michael Tierra the musician

My Life as a Pianist – Herbalist – Healer

I began my life as a musician. I was a pianist, sometime composer, conductor, and an early avant garde music exponent. At one point in the late 1960s, seeing  the possibility of fusing my own revolutionary creative musical impulses within the popular genre of rock and roll, I joined up with avant garde musician Joseph Byrd and others to form a rock band known as “The United States of America (http://bit.ly/1RikfWY).

Even though I initiated the band and we were able to secure a potentially lucrative contract with Columbia Records which led to an LP recording, there were conflicts with one member of the band that caused me to turn my back on it and move to a cabin at the foothills of Mt Shasta. So except for one rare take, I was not on the first recording nor did I join the one and only tour the group undertook before disbanding.

Later, while living for 4 ½ years in a remote Northern California forest commune called Black Bear Ranch, I found myself strangely attracted to the wondrous world of wild plants that grew in the forest or as weeds in our communal garden. Herbal medicine is not simply using plants for healing, but also represents a philosophically rich path whose metaphorical meaning engages us with our interdependence with nature and the possibility that what we need to assuage our ills and imbalances might just be underfoot – a secret for us to discover.

It is my belief that the same creative spirit that imbues music, art and poetry strangely partakes of the creative energy of the planet as represented by the diverse world of plants. Just as plants provide the fundamental nourishment for all life, in some unique way they nourish our spirit. In fact, plants are the first medicine, and for those who are willing to honor their ancestral connection, even in our 21st century a world of rapid technical progress, they are still often the best medicine for healing certain diseases of mind, body and spirit.

While for me the path of an herbalist and musical artist seems perfectly natural, somehow these two worlds always seemed distant from each other. Except for the occasional odd curiosity, musicians seemed to not know or care about the part of my life that pioneered the mid 20th century herbal renaissance, nor the nine books I wrote which are still in print about herbal medicine, the thousands of students and healers I’ve taught and influenced, nor my work as a California state licensed acupuncturist. In the past but less so now, herbalism and herbalists were regarded as part of a counterculture that, for the most part, was too caught up with the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead. While they seemed to respect manifestations of the human creative spirit that included classical composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Chopin and so forth, they were hardly inclined to an interest in contemporary art music or more obscure music of the Middle Age and Renaissance. How many times I’ve wanted others to recognize the two sides of myself: the serious musician and the herbalist acupuncturist and healer!

I consider that contemporary music (by recently deceased or living composers), is necessary to maintain the ongoing evolution of music. In fact, any serious music lover should maintain at least an equal interest in the music of the present as they to do that of the past. Listening to the glorious music of the great masters is familiar, safe and unchallenging no matter how much we try to nuance one performing artist’s interpretation as compared to another. Listening to contemporary music is exciting, not because of what we expect to get from it, but more what we might receive that we didn’t expect. It is an adventure.

I felt that I needed to write music about healing and herbs but somehow, whether lack of confidence, ability or that I was simply too close to both, I could not do it. I came upon the music of Alex Shapiro quite by accident. I was looking for a contemporary chamber work while planning a program proposal for the Santa Cruz Chamber Players. When searching online, I found my now good friend, Alex Shapiro’s website.

At first I was attracted to the images on her website, a part of the country where I once briefly lived and have visited many times – the Puget Sound islands off the coast of Washington State. It is such a beautiful part of the world that I hate to say much about it for fear that it will be overrun with too many visitors. It is an area I visited several times, first to learn from my first herbal teacher, a woman named Norma Meyers who lived on an island off the coast of Vancouver.

Later, I traveled to Whidbey Island to teach herbal medicine. The pristine waters, the sea life, the haunting botanically-rich nearby Olympic rainforest — maybe it was only fantasy, but those were the photographic images that first awoke such found memories. Seeing Alex’s beautiful face as part of the whole picture and listening to samples of her various works on her website, I realized I had found a kindred spirit – someone who, as it turned out, I would shyly commission to write a piece of my dreams, a work I could perform that would show my relationship and very special connection to art, music, herbs, nature and healing.

“Arcana” composer, Alex Shapiro

Arcana, the Music, As I See It

All this being said, this is Alex’s piece in the genre of the romantic piano suite which began with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition and then similar piano suites by Robert Schumann such as Forest Scenes as well as various suites by MacDowell, Grieg, Poulenc, Bartok and many others.  Just as each of these composers developed their unique style and tonal palette, the term “arcana” means “secret” or “mystery.” Perhaps the name was inspired from the Herbal Tarot deck I created with fellow herbalist-artist, Candis Cantin, in which the first 22 cards of the deck represent the metaphorical mystery of all aspects of existence. (I don’t consider myself superstitious but I personally use the cards as pictures that awaken subconscious thoughts and feelings to inspire deeper self- understanding.)

Please keep in mind that all of the following is my impression as interpreter of Arcana and may not be anything that Alex had in mind. In fact she once told me that her primary goal always was to write a good piece of music.

Alex’s Arcana is philosophical, representing a perspective of life, our interconnection with plants, healing and the Earth.  At least we can see the connection of healing with music in a unique way through each short piece. Before offering my own interpretation of each piece I must tell you that the work is full of vivid interpretive directives such as ‘the secret must be protected,” “with anger,” “the meeting of two selves jaunty and assured, but questions linger,” ”vines and roots begin to spread,” “alarming changes have altered the ground and air,” “arriving at magic and understanding,” and so forth.

Each of the eight pieces of Arcana, like the 22 cards of the Tarot major arcana, is intended to evoke some aspect of our relationship with nature, plants, the meaning of disease, healing and in the end transcendence. To be more specific than this would be “to expose the secret,” which unnecessarily risks the likelihood that the secret is at once universal and unique to each of us.

According to the Alex herself, “Arcana explores the painfully fragile, and often perilous relationship between humans and the healing secrets of earth’s abundant plant life. The music often does so from the perspective of the plants themselves, with healing herbs as protagonists of a story that begins with a dire warning, and ends with the faith that wisdom and grace shall ultimately triumph.”

Alex is truly a contemporary, post-modernist composer who freely adopts any musical style or sound to accommodate her expression. As a composer, she works pretty much strictly on commission and it is safe to say that her music is in wide demand.

Alex’s music as reflected in this work embodies many influences that may not at first seem apparent, including Chopin, the jazz pianist Bill Evans, Brahms and many others blending together to create a unique sound expression. Alex loves dissonance. She also loves Middle Eastern rhythms, melody, rich harmonies as well, in the piece, the art of intimate, personal expression. When I play her music I feel like she is speaking through me to you, dear listeners, of something with rich philosophical and dramatic import.

Following is the program of all-Alex Shapiro music that I directed and produced at this concert on March 20 for which the composer will fly down from San Juan Island to attend:

Of Wood and Touch

Cello — Aude Castagna

Piano – Ben Dorfan

Shiny Kiss

Solo flute – Kathleen Purcell


Bass Flute – Kathleen Purcell

Water Crossing

For clarinet and electronic sound environment

Clarinet – Jeff Gallagher

Vista – Alex Shapiro

For solo violin and electronic sound environment

Violin – Brian Johnston

Below – Alex Shapiro

Kathleen Purcell – Bass flute

Electronic environment including the songs of whales


Arcana – suite for solo piano

Commissioned by, dedicated to, and performed by Michael Tierra

  1. Cradle these roots — something very precious and fragile
  2. Unfurl – What is life?
  3. Heal From Within – crisis and acceptance
  4. Reach to Light – Life affirming
  5. Roots and branches – Seeking the best remedy
  6. Touch it – Qi

7 Search – What is meaning?

8 From Earth to Sky – something very precious and fragile

Unabashedly More

Mixed Sextet

Artists: Brian Johnston, Violin; Shannon Delaney, Viola: Aude Castagna, Cello; Kathleen Purcell, Flute; Jeffrey Gallagher, Clarinet; Ben Dorfan, Piano

Alex Shapiro’s music is included in many performances and recordings and there is one recording entitled “Notes From the Kelp” which is only her music and exemplifies the wide diversity of styles and genre’s that is a hallmark of her music.

Please find out more about her at www.notesfromthekelp.com and her website, www.alexshapiro.org.

Following are some You Tube live performances of her music:

Immersion Surface

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+alex+shapiro&qpvt=youtube+alex+shapiro&view=detail&mid=00D0E3FCA9A35D5480A800D0E3FCA9A35D5480A8&FORM = VRDGAR

Of Breath and Touch performed on Cello on our program and renamed “Of Wood and Touch.”

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+alex+shapiro&qpvt=youtube+alex+shapiro&view=detail&mid=95C9B391230FECB48F1295C9B391230FECB48F12&FORM = VRDGAR

Alex has composed much creative music for bands. One of her most popular is a novelty piece entitled “Paper Cut” which incorporates the sound of paper as part of the tapestry of the music.

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+alex+shapiro&qpvt=youtube+alex+shapiro&view=detail&mid=C1770B6DF60E479441B7C1770B6DF60E479441B7&FORM = VRDGAR

There are many other performances of Alex Shapiro’s amazing music to be found on You Tube and on her website. I recommend checking it out.

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