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Unchained Melodies : Into the Wilderness With the Arriaga Quartet

Bob Sipchen, a Southern California writer, recently finished a play about music and river running

Barry Socher fished an ant out of his tin cup, took a gulp of Cuervo Gold and--with a grin to the ragtag audience surrounding him on the beach at Mule Creek--tucked his violin under his chin and raised his bow.

Just a few nights earlier, in his role as first principal violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Socher had performed under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl. A cherubic artiste decked out in formal concert duds, he probably didn’t look much like a man destined to be discussed, in some future era, along with folk heroes the likes of Maj. John Wesley Powell--the woolly, one-armed explorer who led the first descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Not much at all.

Yet, this summer, as Socher and his cohorts in the Arriaga Quartet--Connie Kupka, second violin; cellist Dave Speltz (Connie’s husband); and Carole Mukogawa, viola--sat poised before the music of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, on that remote beach along the Rogue River in southern Oregon, the story of the quartet’s quest to bring chamber music to the wilderness of the Grand Canyon and of the Rogue River already teetered on the brink of legend.

Over at a charcoal fire beside the river, the expedition’s five boatmen (one of whom was a woman) were rustling up a steak dinner for the 16 passengers who had paid to accompany the quartet on its five-day voyage through the Rogue wilderness. Boatmen are, for the most part, a peculiar breed--adrenaline enthusiasts, self-proclaimed shamans, renegade geniuses, and similar misfit expatriates from civilization. They also keep the old oral poetic currents flowing wherever wild rivers still rampage. It only goes to figure that the somewhat unorthodox saga of the Arriaga Quartet would capture their imaginations.

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The tale begins with a character by the name of Ron Hayes, an oarsman, environmental crusader and L.A. television actor best known for his outdoorsy roles in such series as “The Rounders” and “Lassie.” Back in 1967, Hayes was guiding a dory down the hydrokinetic chaos of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. One morning, after breakfast, about 120 miles into that towering dreamscape, Hayes took a hike up a dry creek bed.

“It came as a vision,” he says. “I was sitting where concentric tiers of Redwall Limestone meet the 1,000-foot cliffs of Muav Limestone, at a place called Delphic Amphitheatre.

Through my half-closed eyes I could see musicians playing.”

In John Wesley Powell’s journals--with which Hayes was intimate--the explorer concluded that the overwhelming beauty of the canyon can be understood only in terms of music. Hayes went a step further. The canyon, he decided, “the most creative display of the divine force on earth,” should be honored with “the finest example of human achievement"--classical music.

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A few years later, Hayes got a call from Vladimir Kovalik, an old buddy from his college days in the early ‘50s at Stanford, with whom he’d done some mountaineering and recreational river running. A dissident who had escaped jail and Czechoslovakia, Kovalik had come to America, picked up some degrees and been sent by Control Data Corp. to do research in wartime Vietnam. Kovalik grew disenchanted with his work, bought a 50cc Honda in Saigon, and in the course of riding around the world decided that what he really wanted in life was to lead people down wild rivers. And he wanted Hayes as a partner.

“When you float down a river, the whole world changes,” Kovalik explains, in a Czech accent that more than a few guides and quartet members now mimic to comic effect. “River running was my salvation.”

When Kovalik, like many exceedingly rational men, talks about the canyon, he slips unabashedly into tones that the uninitiated might find downright sappy. To him, Hayes’ idea of bringing fine classical musicians there sounded sensible.

“I’m not a spiritual man, but my experience in the Grand Canyon was a spiritual one,” he says. “The place reminded me of a cathedral. I was so overwhelmed, I’d wander up side canyons and cry.”

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In 1971, Hayes and Kovalik put together a commercial outfitting company called Wilderness World and placed a classical music expedition at the top of their agenda. For another five years, though, Hayes endured blank stares and guffaws whenever he broached the subject.

Then he heard about the Arriaga Quartet. An award-winning Los Angeles ensemble, the quartet’s collective credits included assignments with every major orchestra in town; recordings with jazz, pop and classical performers, and studio sessions for more films and TV shows than you’d care to hear about. And its members weren’t averse to experiments in art for fun’s sake.

Within months of hearing Hayes’ impassioned spiel, the quartet (along with a woodwind player from the L.A. Philharmonic and a professional flutist) loaded their instruments into specially built waterproof boxes, climbed aboard a fleet of rubberized, oar-powered rafts and took off for two weeks and 225 miles on one of the wildest rides in North America.

Hayes eventually would sell his interest in the company to Kovalik, but Wilderness World and the Arriaga Quartet have turned the artistic pilgrimage that Hayes envisioned into a semi-regular ritual, expanding their itinerary to include trips through Oregon’s wild Rogue wilderness.

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So it was that in the dusk of a summer evening, Socher pulled his bow across the strings of his violin, launching the Arriaga Quartet in an informal concert of dinner music--Pachelbel, Grieg, Mozart--for the boatmen and other passengers, and for some mildly astonished passersby from another outfitter’s boats.

If the quartet gets a kick out of the sense of incongruity that their presence initially creates, it’s probably because they themselves were taken so completely by surprise on their historic first descent.

Carole Mukogawa, a true tenderfoot who had never slept outdoors, recalls: “We’d been hiking up a side canyon, and my feet were covered with cuts and blisters. I sat down to rest on a patch of grass, and I heard this sound. It was lizards crawling on the rocks. I couldn’t believe it. I’m a city girl, and I was stunned. You could actually hear lizards crawling on the rocks.”

Dave Speltz was particularly impressed when the boat in which he was riding caught an angry wave the wrong way. The boat reared, the wave gave an extra nudge, and the Arriaga’s cellist spent an unsettling moment sloshing about beneath an overturned runaway riverboat.

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What the quartet members found most surprising, though, was the intensity and inspiration that the canyon gave to their music making.

“Our very first concert, we had to climb a cliff with ropes (boatmen helped haul the instruments and paraphernalia), walk along a little ledge, swim across one big pool and a smaller pool, then pull ourselves up another rope,” Connie Kupka recalls. “And there we were, in a spectacular granite cavern with a beautiful little stream trickling through.”

The quartet sent Mozart resounding through the crystal acoustics of the ancient rock. When the concert was over, they agreed that the place was as fine a chamber for chamber music as exists on earth.

In contrast to that first expedition, a few days into this trip the Arriagas look as though they’ve sprung full-blown from the bank of the river. Casually, Speltz pours out a stream of bad puns as the boats rodeo through the rapids. Later, Kupka beats the bears to the fattest blackberries for the cheesecake that the crew whips up. Mukogawa nonchalantly scrambles along the river’s edge on a moonless night, leading Socher to a wind- and water-sculpted throne that she discovered.

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And Socher, with his battered canvas hat and Adventure 16 fanny pack, is efficient outdoorsmanship personified.

Back in society, some aesthetes might find the high-brow quartet’s enthusiasm for this less civilized way of life undignified. For instance, after the evening of dinner music, passengers and boatmen and musicians gathered around the obligatory campfire. As the Milky Way appeared, a singing attorney passed a guitar to a boatman. Fueled by grain alcohol, his fingers ran the frets, and he let loose a bluesy tune about a boatman’s winter yearnings: “Gotta Find Me a Woman With a Chainsaw.”

A composer for TV’s “Knots Landing"--one in a long line of musical friends the Arriagas have introduced to their ceremony--picked up his flute and added to the number a sound like that of the lowing wind. A verse or two later, from off in the shadows, Socher’s fiddle eased in with a few tentative notes, then took off weeping and wailing, filling the night with blues riffs so soulful that a good mountain woman would have been moved to cut her man a dozen cords of wood.

All that folksy stuff does capture the adventure of river running. But, as Ron Hayes intuited, the music of classical composers can bring insights into nature itself.

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In the Grand Canyon, a massive silence compels listeners to focus at once on the intricacy of the music and on the overpowering sensuality of the primordial, billion-year-old, red-and-maroon rock formations. The Rogue River landscape, from a cooler segment of the color spectrum, is eons younger. Along the Rogue, the faint sounds of river and forest are a musical undercurrent.

At the second official concert, on the morning of the trip’s last day, the quartet performed with an intensity befitting Carnegie Hall. Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D Major soared into the trees con brio . A listener’s senses naturally followed, up to the shafts of pale-green light that cut through moss-covered boughs; back to earth, where the scent of fecundity rose from rich forest duff; into the fern-covered boulders from which the deepest tones of Speltz’s cello resonated. After taking her bows, Kupka looked up at the trees and said, sotto voce, “Mendelssohn must have been sitting here when he wrote that.”

Following the concert, Kupka and Speltz claimed one of two inflatable kayaks; Socher and a passenger climbed into the other. On the river, deer swam across the currents. Dive-bombing osprey seized fingerling trout and salmon.

Following the line taken by Kupka and Speltz, Socher and his partner bravely paddled their kayak into a rapid--the peril of which would have made Maj. Powell roll his eyes. Watching Socher, like an overgrown kid in an overflowing wading pool, whoop and giggle at the bottom of that rapid, it’s difficult to imagine him going down in the hell-bent-for-glory annals of wild-river lore.

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Despite his less-than-expert boatmanship, though, 20 years from now, when drunken boatmen gaze into the boils and eddies of rippling campfires, they’ll spin yarns about Socher and his fellow Arriagas. They’ll say that the musicians were pioneers who guided folks to new discoveries along rivers thought to have been thoroughly explored.


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