By Eva Soltes, Founder/Director
All photography by Eva Soltes

Bingo, sometimes the universe just puts people together.

It was summer of 2020 that Portland composer Kennedy Verrett, at the urging of friends to follow his dreams, launched a GoFundMe to start an Eco Village, experimental composer lab in Joshua Tree. He named three composers whose legacies inspired him and one such person was Lou Harrison. Although Kennedy had visited the area many times he didn’t know that Harrison House, Music, Arts & Ecology existed.

Months earlier Elena Yu of Hi Desert Test Sites posed the question to Joshua Tree arts professionals (JTAP): how are we as a community going to acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement and create more racial inclusion in our community?

I was determined to do my part. For several months I searched, to no avail, for just the right composer of color who might truly benefit from a residency at Harrison House. As I was about to give up and start calling on colleagues for recommendations, kismet! Kennedy’s dream reached me via a fourth hand Facebook share!

Excited, I looked up his page and saw that he led the drum corps during the Portland Black Lives Matter protests. Outcry through music, yes! Another divine clue was that one hallmark of Lou Harrison’s composing was centered on percussion.

I reached out to Kennedy and within hours we met via facetime. Each grinning as if we had been lifelong friends I uttered “We have the same dream!” As Covid had shut down most of Harrison House programming, I was able to extend an immediate invitation and within weeks, Kennedy arrived with their partner for a two month stay.

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As an artist, Kennedy was much, much, more than I ever dreamed. A large heart, independent thinking and curious mind with the talent to back up his ideas. Equally interested in science and music, Kennedy was raised in a southern Baptist Louisiana family and grew up playing piano in church. Ever encouraged by his aunties and mother to share his musical gifts, Kennedy began composing at the age of 11. His tenacious character and interest in nature bloomed while earning Eagle Scout status.

Music won out as Kennedy received his bachelor of music degree in at the U of Louisiana Monroe. Through a Buddy Baker workshop in NY, he was encouraged by Baker himself to go west and pursue a career writing music for film. After doing coursework for a masters degree at UC Fullerton, where his ears were further opened in a deep listening workshop with Pauline Oliveros, Kennedy was accepted into the USC Scoring for Motion Picture and Television program. Composer Christopher Young, USC faculty, tapped Kennedy to join his team following the program. For the next six years, Kennedy composed, orchestrated and made arrangements for films such as Deliver Us from Evil (Screen Gems), The Monkey King, Priest (Screen Gems), and Drag Me to Hell (Universal).

But his heart wasn’t in it. More and more drawn to the environment, instrument creation and playing live music for live people, Kennedy left the Hollywood rat race and created his own musical path. A skilled bassoon player he expanded his playing to include didjeridoo and duduk and has gone on to teach music to countless young people some gifted and some challenged. He created The Mad Composer Lab, the moniker under which he teaches, creates and shares with community.

Myself, being a filmmaker, I found Kennedy to be a fascinating subject. Each Sunday morning during his residency at Harrison House, I arrived iPhone in hand to document his work. The first short piece https://vimeo.com/513235133 followed by https://vimeo.com 481761666 turns out to be only the beginning!

The Sunday Kennedy took me on a walk though a little valley in the neighborhood adjacent to the National Park, and with the utmost respect and understanding for every plant, rock and creature showed me how the wind creates polyrhythms among swaying plants, what melodies are suggested by majestic rock formations and how the birds and scampering creatures are all part of the rhythm and subtlety of the sonic environment, was stunning.

I immediately called David Smith, Superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park and asked “Can we present a piece in the park for visitors?” David, immediately understood Kennedy’s gifts for experiencing nature through sound, said yes! On Earth Day, April 22, 2022, SoundCheckEarth, composed by Kennedy for 17 acoustic musicians, will be the culmination of his 16 month exploration in the park and an ear opening opportunity for a strolling audience to experience the natural sound environment of the earth, animals and the people. Of course, it will be followed by a film.

EVA SOLTES is a prolific performing arts producer, dancer, and documentarian, who has championed the work of gifted artists and underserved art forms for decades. She is the Founder/ Director of Harrison House Music, Arts, Ecology, a residency/performance program based in the late Lou Harrison’s straw bale retreat in Joshua Tree, California. Soltes enjoyed a multi-faceted personal and professional relationship with Lou Harrison that spanned nearly 30 years. During that time, she developed a large body of media on the composer, culminating in her feature length documentary, LOU HARRISON: A World of Music, which has been called “wizardly” (SF Chronicle) and “affecting” (The New Yorker).

All photography by Eva Soltes

For public & educational screenings and all other inquiries contact us at info.harrisonhouse@gmail.com or call 760-366-4712

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