Evoking Place through Music: Three Modes of Expression

Wanderlust

Wanderlust. By Nell Shaw Cohen, 2015.

The question of how composers evoke place through music is one that could fill a book, or several of them. At the risk of taking a cursory approach to the subject, I’d like to propose three “modes of expression” that composers have utilized to this end: 1) music as aesthetic response to place; 2) imitation of place-based sound; and 3) allusion to place-associated music and musical styles. I’ll then consider some examples of how three prominent place-inspired composers—Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, and John Luther Adams—took these approaches in their work.

The modes I’ve identified are inherently broad and very fluid: as we will see, composers and even individual works may combine them. That said, I perceive these three distinct approaches in many pieces of music—and I can’t think of any example of music strongly evoking place that doesn’t utilize at least one of them.
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The ecocentric rationale for wilderness

Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Frazier NashI recently read Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash‘s influential landmark survey of the intellectual history of wilderness in the U.S. In the Epilogue of the fourth edition, Nash muses on possible futures for wilderness and explains why the attitudes and rationales that led to the preservation of wilderness in the past may not hold up going forward.

Ecocentric” arguments for wilderness preservation, which are rooted in ethics—rather than aesthetics, politics, or economics—are becoming increasingly important. Such a shift in conversation necessitates an intellectual and moral transformation of attitudes about nature. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and Nash’s ideas have stimulated me to further contemplate how music might support the ecocentric perspective. Continue reading

Stephen Lias, Adventurer-Composer

Stephen Lias

Stephen Lias. Source.

Stephen Lias is an accomplished and inspirational composer of music for orchestra and large ensembles, chamber ensembles, and voice. He also founded the remarkable field seminar “Composing in the Wilderness,” which he leads annually.

As a self-made specialist in music inspired by the U.S. National Parks, Stephen Lias has been Artist-in-Residence at Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Denali, Glacier Bay, and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, and has written over a dozen park-related pieces.

Many of these works will be featured on his forthcoming CD, Encounters: Music Inspired by Our National Parks, which I hope you’ll support on Kickstarter (I have!).

Last weekend I had an illuminating conversation with Stephen about many facets of his work: from the perspectives he has gained through his adventures in wild places, to the techniques he uses to capture and transform these wilderness experiences into music. Stephen spoke with me over Skype from Nacogdoches, Texas, where he is Professor of Composition at Stephen F. Austin State University. Continue reading

Composing “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock”

Tom Killion, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, 2011

Tom Killion, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, 2011. Woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist.

My orchestral tone poem Point Reyes from Chimney Rock takes its title and inspiration from a woodblock print (above) by contemporary artist Tom Killion. This work reflects on a coastal landscape in Point Reyes National Seashore in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I was born and raised). It was commissioned by the NYU Symphony and premiered at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City on March 3, 2014.

In the following reflection, I share some of what went into the creation this piece. My intention is certainly not to dictate how to listen to my music—you are free to form your own conclusions and derive your own meaning from it!—but to hopefully illuminate the compositional process, both for laypeople and for other composers who may be interested in how I approached writing music inspired by a landscape. Continue reading

Rachel Panitch: Making Music in Zion National Park

Rachel Panitch

Rachel Panitch

In April 2014, Rachel Panitch spent four weeks as Artist-in-Residence at Zion National Park in Utah, where she created several works inspired by the park—including an online “Musical Map”—and performed her music on site.

A fiddler, composer, improviser, and educator based in Boston, Rachel’s varied musical output combines influences from varied aural and folk traditions from North Indian Raga to contra dance. Rachel and I first became acquainted through the Entrepreneurial Musicianship grant program at the New England Conservatory of Music, where we both studied.

I was delighted to speak with Rachel over the phone recently about her time in Zion National Park and the work that she produced there. Below, I’ve highlighted some of Rachel’s thoughts from our conversation, in which she discusses her expectations, surprises, process, interactions, and the approaches she took to engaging with Zion’s landscape through music. Continue reading

Why I started LandscapeMusic.org

I’ve composed many works of music inspired by paintings and drawings of landscapes by artists from Thomas Cole to Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve gradually been writing more and more works inspired by my direct experiences of nature, parallel our with and/or unrelated to interpretations by visual artists. I’ve come to realize that what I’ve Metal- been striving to achieve is the sonic equivalent of what visual artists accomplish with landscape art. I coined the term “Landscape Music” to communicate this wholesale nba jerseys ideal and philosophy.

At the same time, I’ve noticed several other composers who have been approaching a similar ideal from different aesthetic angles or perspectives. With the creation of this website, I seek to investigate work being done in this vein and to explore commonalities, divergences, exciting new developments, unexplored potentials, and possibly to derive some general principles or practices relating to this idea of musical landscapes.

Music inspired by nature, in my view, should never be taken as cheap mlb jerseys an objective representation of the natural world through sound, or even a way to concretely evoke a world beyond human experience. I argue instead cheap nba jerseys that the creation of music inspired by nature is an inherently humanistic act that simultaneously affirms the intrinsic value and importance of the non-human natural world to the human experience.

The perception that a particular important melody played on the flute signifies or “captures” the experience of sunlight ano? filtering through the leaves of a tree, for example, inevitably has far more to do with the composer and/or the listener than it does with sunlight or trees themselves. This does not devalue Custom the flute melody, however: a musical idea can be a conduit for communicating, understanding, and encapsulating human experiences of the natural world.

Because of my own background, and an awareness of the established tradition of music inspired by landscapes in Western classical music, this publication will inherently be biased towards music created by “composers” within the tradition of “classical,” “concert music,” or “New Music.” That said, I hope this website will encompass music cheap jerseys created within other genres and perspectives (jazz, rock, pop, “folk” music, musical traditions cheap nfl jerseys from other regions of the world, etc) that similarly seek to express experiences of landscape, nature, and sense of place.

“Landscape” and the role of art in our understanding of nature

Claude Lorrain, "Landscape with the Rest on The Flight into Egypt," 1666

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with the Rest cheap jerseys on The Flight into Egypt, 1666

For better or for What worse, most of the words and concepts we have for “nature” in English emerged from the opposition between human civilization and everything else. In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash traces how the term wilderness was transformed in America over the centuries from an essentially derogatory indicator for uncultivated, uncivilized areas, to its current positive faire associations with environmental conservation. Gary Snyder explored in The Practice of the Wild how even the popularly-held conception of nature is itself paradoxical. Despite the common and seemingly unavoidable usage of the word to refer to the “non-human” world, we humans and all of our important activities – from gardening to browsing the Internet – are a part Legacy of nature.

Furthermore, when thinking about interpretations of “wilderness” or “nature” within art, it is inherently impossible wholesale jerseys to avoid human-imposed lenses on nature. The interpretation of nature through art is, by definition, the representation of human perspectives. This, I believe, is not a bad thing. In Landscape And Memory, Simon Schama argues eloquently for the importance of understanding that “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature” and that cheap NFL jerseys culture is “not the repudiation, but the veneration, of nature” (p. 18).

In this spirit, I seek to acknowledge and engage with culture-based perceptions of nature as the ways in which we humans necessarily make sense and meaning from the world around us, whether it’s through an Albert Bierstadt painting or a Disney movie.

I feel that landscape is the term that best embodies this overall idea. This word was imported from Dutch into English in the 16th century and has been used historically to refer to the aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially in the context of visual art. “Landscape” wholesale NFL jerseys may be as accurately applied to bucolic scenes (the word’s original application) or cityscapes, as to wilderness locales that have been minimally impacted or modified by human hands. That having been said, as a creator and an audience member I’m interested primarily in art and music that acts as a pathway to fostering a greater empathy with, and connection to, the rest of the natural world.

Why Landscape Music is more important than ever

One of the greatest quandaries that human beings now face (arguably the greatest) is how to balance human activity and growth with the natural world: how can industrialized nations and peoples make the necessary changes that will enable us to sustain ourselves and other living beings on the planet?

Hubris, shortsightedness, and overall alienation from nature is leading us towards catastrophic instability and mass-scale environmental imbalance, resulting in climate change and dwindling biodiversity. Many sense that a massive paradigm shift is necessary to reconcile the human species with our position in the universe and on the earth as animals, as a part of the larger fabric of life; to move our society towards perceiving nature as more than a resource merely to be “utilized” and used up.

Artists concerned with this environmental sustainability crisis are faced with the question: how can we artists best utilize our time, skills, and insights as creators to reconnect ourselves and our audiences with the natural world? Through research and writing for Landscape Music and the process of composing and promoting music inspired by landscape, I hope to find for myself and for other artists some possible ways in which to work towards this goal.

I don’t pretend to claim that art solves all problems, but it is a powerful force that influences peoples’ feelings, alters their priorities, and gives them purpose. Being affected by a work of art can awaken a person’s mind to the world around them.

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