January 18, 2021

Hockney has loved driving through the Santa Monica Mountains blaring a Wagner soundtrack. Recently, I retraced his routes.

By Alex Ross

January 11, 2021


“Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica” (1990), from a series of paintings replicating vistas from the Malibu drives.Art work © David Hockney

On a crisp afternoon in December, a friend and I sat in an idling car at the corner of Las Flores Canyon Road and the Pacific Coast Highway, in Malibu, preparing to witness a performance of “Wagner Drive,” a large-scale audiovisual work by the artist David Hockney. We were the sole audience for the piece, and also its executants. My friend drove; I operated the stereo. When the clock read 4:09 p.m.—forty minutes before sunset—I hit Play on the sequence of recordings that Hockney has specified for the event. The Wagner did not begin right away: first came “America,” from “West Side Story.” As we headed north on the P.C.H., the lyrics complemented a panorama of motels, pizza places, surf shops, and car-rental outfits: “Automobile in America, / Chromium steel in America, / Wire-spoke wheel in America, / Very big deal in America!”

With a rightward turn onto Malibu Canyon Road, the beginning of a twisting climb into the Santa Monica Mountains, landscape and music changed in tandem. “America” gave way to an orchestral arrangement of the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, from “Das Rheingold.” (The Wagner items on Hockney’s playlist come from albums that Adrian Boult made with the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony in the early nineteen-seventies.) The raw might of the sound—rugged brass figures jutting through hazy string arpeggios—reinforced the geological drama of our ascent: the Santa Monica Mountains rise straight from the sea, their tilted sedimentary layers and volcanic formations evidence of tectonic mayhem at the border between the North American and the Pacific plates.

After four and a half miles, we turned right on Piuma Road, which climbs seventeen hundred feet, to the top of a ridge. At almost the same moment, the mystical prelude to “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final opera, began to unfurl. The weightless sonorities and blended timbres of the composer’s late style suited the veering, dissolving perspectives of the drive: sun-drenched south-facing mountains, purple-tinted inland ranges, road-hugging rock faces, occasional vistas of a now distant ocean. A hilltop mid-century-modern home, struck by the slanting winter sun, became a sleek update of Monsalvat, Wagner’s Grail Temple. The brass choir of the Dresden Amen harmonized with the mountain-and-ocean panorama of the Malibu Canyon Overlook, although the blare of brass from our car distracted a couple who were trying to have a romantic moment.

Nine minutes before sunset, we turned left onto Las Flores Canyon Road, which would lead us back to our point of departure. The soundtrack was now Siegfried’s Funeral Music, the memorial to the failed hero of the “Ring.” The first part of this descending leg took place in deep shadow, as the road briefly swerved north before heading back south. The muffled drumbeats of Siegfried’s funeral procession matched the loss of light and the onset of a nighttime chill. As Hockney intended, the orange disk of the sun reappeared over a gray-blue ocean just as the orchestra moved into the major and intoned Siegfried’s leitmotifs at high volume—a magnificent, valedictory mood. None of the filmmakers who live in the vicinity could have more perfectly choreographed this golden-hour blend of sight and sound.

Eventually, as in every Hollywood phantasmagoria, illusion surrendered to reality. The Funeral Music wound to its close as the road straightened out and houses became crowded together. Malibu’s beach culture reasserted itself: weathered Siegfrieds toted surfboards back to their cars. Wagner’s grandeur took on an ironic, melancholic tinge, promising a state of transcendence that contemporary existence was bound to foreclose. Still, when the sun plunged into the ocean on cue, it was like no other sunset I had seen—the final frame of a live film with an invisible director.

Hockney, with his utopian explosions of primal color, might seem a curious fit for Wagner, the master of shadow and foreboding. Nonetheless, the composer has long been one of Hockney’s musical favorites. The painter has attended the Bayreuth Festival three times, and in 1987 he designed a production of “Tristan und Isolde” for the Los Angeles Opera. Around the same time, he bought a beach house at the bottom of Las Flores Canyon, and in the early nineties he began plotting mountain routes that could be timed with Wagner selections. These expeditions informed his ideas about the play of light on landscape, both on canvas and in the theatre. When he experienced hearing loss, he had his Mercedes outfitted with a potent stereo system. Friends and fellow-artists were invited along for the ride.

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