Retracing the Anza Trail

Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon, CA

Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon, CA. Photo © 2018 Nell Shaw Cohen. See more photos.

My composition Retrace for flute, violin, and cello commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968, and was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. It will receive four co-World Premiere performances during Fall 2018 in locations around the country—presented by Citywater and the Visions of the Wild Festival (9/23, Vallejo, CA), Michigan Technological University (10/4, Houghton, MI), Cascadia Composers (10/7, Portland, OR), and Juventas New Music Ensemble (11/3, Boston, MA), respectively—as part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide initiative I am directing for the Landscape Music Composers Network.

The Anza Trail stretches 1,200 miles, weaving through desert and city from Nogales, Arizona to San Francisco, California. It follows the path of the Anza Expedition of 1775-76, which traveled indigenous routes from modern-day Mexico through Arizona and California to settle the San Francisco Bay Area for Spain. A narrative mapped onto the land rather than a “trail” in the usual sense, the Anza Trail is an ongoing project of cultural and historical preservation through outreach, education, and recreation. Continue reading

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Colors, Contrasts, and the Spaces Inbetween


Video: “Snow Caps” from High Desert Panoramas by Brent Lawrence

Editor’s Note: Composer Brent Lawrence writes his first essay for LandscapeMusic.org about finding inspiration in the high desert of eastern Oregon.

Although I live in Oregon now, I am not from Oregon. My blood runs from the cool mountain streams of Appalachia, where crystalline brook-babbles froth over the stones of mountains older than I can comprehend. It is in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia, and the rolling hills of the North Carolina Piedmont, where I made my old friends. The ragged, old, and wise mountains that cradled me in my, even more youthful, youth. It is no surprise then that I was taken (and still am) by the grandeur of the Cascades as my Red Mazda whisked through the mountain highways flanked by peaks adorned with snow. For many, and to me, the forest is a magical place, especially here in Oregon. Where one can lose themselves in the clear pools of mountain brooks, the silence perpetuated by unspeaking firs, or the occasional whisper of the wind. But to me, many of Oregon’s mysteries lie in the east. Continue reading

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Landscape Music Concert at Michigan Tech on December 10, 2017

This Sunday, December 10, 2017 at 3:00pm, Michigan Technology University in Houghton, MI, in affiliation with the Landscape Music Composers Network, presents a concert of new music inspired by national parks and other remarkable landscapes.

This concert, curated by Libby Meyer, features music composed by Libby and several other members of the Landscape Music Composers Network: Nell Shaw Cohen (World Premiere), Stephen Lias, Christina Rusnak, and Stephen Wood, alongside works by Jesse Budel and Corinna Hogan.

Continue reading to explore each of the featured works by Landscape Music composers, then check out MTU’s event listing for venue details or tune into the livestream to listen online! (The livestream is available Sunday, December 10 at 2:30pm EST; concert starts at 3:00pm.) Continue reading

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Commissioning Landscape Music

Cellist Marilyn DeOliveira performs Christina Rusnak’s Glacier Blue. Photo courtesy Jacob Wade and Third Angle New Music.

Editor’s Note: Composer Christina Rusnak, a member of the Landscape Music Composers Network, writes her third illuminating essay for Landscape Music.

Christina Rusnak

Christina Rusnak

While composing a recent commission for the new music ensemble Third Angle, I began to consider how the requirements and aesthetics of the commissioning organization impact the creation of landscape music. In a pre-concert talk I attended a few years ago, Steven Stucky pointed out that frames are a good thing; otherwise, our choices would be limitless. For most of my years as an emerging composer, however, I worked without frames—except for the contexts of landscapes themselves. As I hiked, researched, and experienced the various facets of a particular place, the scaffolding of a piece would emerge. Continue reading

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Listening to Tell the Tale (With Wilderness Comes Wonder)

Shipwreck at Pictured Rocks

Shipwreck at Pictured Rocks. Photo: Steve Brimm Photography.

Editor’s Note: Composer Libby Meyer, a member of the Landscape Music Composers Network, writes her first essay for Landscape Music about her NEA-funded project “Listening to Parks.”

Apostle Islands Rain in a Pressure Cooker. Recording by Libby Meyer.

I found myself in a tent during a thunderstorm on Ironwood Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on a Thursday evening in August eating rice and beans with my husband and recording the sound of rain falling into my pressure cooker with a hydrophone. That evening, we would later find out, a young man had drowned in 8-foot waves off of Stockton Island about ten miles east of our campsite. We had listened to the rescue attempt on our marine radio: helicopters in the background and reports of sightings. We learned from a ranger, who had come to clean the outhouse on Otter Island where we camped the next day, that his body had been found. While we were listening to rain and enjoying our dinner, safe and warm in our tent, someone was losing his life. Vulnerability is relative.

* * *

“We have work to do.”

Four months earlier, a late night text from my colleague and sound designer, Chris Plummer, announced that we—along with designer Kent Cyr—were awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the National Park Service Program Imagine Your Parks. My initial reaction was one of elation. This was quickly followed by something closer to panic: “Now we really have to do this.”

For our project, entitled “Listening to Parks,” we are recording soundscapes at Isle Royale National Park, The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Keweenaw National Historical Park (KNHP). I will be composing a piece based on these recordings and my impressions of the Parks to be premiered by the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra in December 2017. Our team will design a multi-media sound installation utilizing collected images, music, video, and audio recordings, which will tour to locations in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We will work with with K-12 students and teachers in our region, utilizing our project to promote enjoyment, stewardship, and lifelong learning through the National Parks. In addition to our funding from the NEA, we were subsequently awarded funding from the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation to include another two national parks on Lake Superior: Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore and Grand Portage National Monument. Continue reading

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Exploring “Of Wolves and Rivers” by Justin Ralls

Yellowstone River, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone River, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: “Of Wolves and Rivers” by Justin Ralls receives its World Premiere on our upcoming Landscape Music Composers Network concert. In this essay, Justin explores the inspiration behind his piece.

I am honored to be a part of Landscape Music’s upcoming concert with Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons, NY on September 9, 2016, celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service and our common natural heritage. In creating a piece for this very special concert, I looked to Yellowstone for inspiration. Not only was Yellowstone the nation’s first national park, dedicated in 1872, but the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a living portrait of wilderness: filled with free rivers, rugged mountains, thick forests and wildlife. Yellowstone exemplifies what much of North America, both east and west, was once like only generations ago. Nell Shaw Cohen’s Refuge also draws inspiration from Yellowstone, with a movement exploring a musical narrative of the bison’s once and future home in the American landscape and consciousness.

Along with the bison, the wolf has become an emblem of such primal wilderness. Continue reading

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Stories of Wildlife Conservation in “Refuge” by Nell Shaw Cohen

Bison Bison

Bison in Yellowstone. Photo © 2010 Douglas Bowen. Made available under CC BY 2.0 license. Source.

Refuge (2016) for flute (piccolo), percussion, violin, and cello is a 16 1/2 minute narrative suite following the conservation stories of three wild animals and their habitats. Each of these species offers a different perspective from which to reflect upon the National Park Service’s role in wildlife conservation and the diversity and fragility of life on Earth.

I composed this piece for an upcoming World Premiere by Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons, NY on September 9, 2016, presented by the Landscape Music Composers Network, to celebrate the centennial year of the National Park Service. Learn more about this exciting concert, which also features a World Premiere by Justin Ralls and four other works by members of the Landscape Music Composers Network.

In the following essay, I explore each of the three species and national parks that serve as the focus of Refuge and relate how I’ve approached telling their stories through music. Continue reading

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Intersections: Duets with Nature

Humpback Whale by Christopher Michel

Humpback Whale by Christopher Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Landscape Music isn’t really a publication for conventional music journalism, but interesting projects frequently come to my attention that are well worth mentioning here. Accordingly, I bring you Intersections: a series of articles highlighting large-scale, interdisciplinary, multimedia, and/or collaborative projects at the intersection of music, nature, and environmental advocacy. These articles will profile groups of diverse projects that share compelling thematic connections.

Each of these projects provide new and illuminating answers to the question of how we can make music about, with, and from natural landscapes (or, as the case may be, seascapes!). And all of the work I’ll be exploring is closely aligned with the ideas behind this website, though these artists are not affiliated with Landscape Music or the Landscape Music Composers Network.

For this first article, I’m focusing on a few unusual projects in which new music is created through a “duet” with sounds from the natural world: POD TUNE, an ambient album featuring whale song; E-Mago, music made with geophysical data; Inuksuit, John Luther Adam’s outdoors epic; and Nat Evans’ The Tortoise, a sonic documentation of the Pacific Crest Trail. Continue reading

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Sketches of Nature: Landscape Music in the Central Asian Steppe

Тувинские просторы.jpg

By Александр Лещёнок, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

Editor’s Note: Justin Ralls, guest author and Landscape Music Composers Network member, writes his first essay for Landscape Music.

Last summer while I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park, I had much on my mind. Walking the trail—admiring the craggy, breathtaking views of granite and pine, listening and following the rush of cold streams and the calls, near and far, of birds, squirrels, and nameless others—there is much to inspire the composer. As a musician, sound is at the forefront of my awareness. But what about the immensity and awe—even terror—one may feel in these intimidating, yet intimate landscapes? Potential metaphors and meanings hide behind every cloud and tree, gust of wind, or mysterious chirp. Of course, it is up to us as composers to relate these experiences in our musical statements and aspirations. This can be a daunting task as we parse out the myriad cultural contexts and perspectives each of us brings to every piece of music and every excursion in the mountains. Informing ourselves about how other cultures draw upon the landscape in their music gives us new perspectives and helps us to clear the air of our usual conceptions. In this essay, I invite you on an adventure to another culture and another landscape.

Nature music: Seagulls at Chagatai Lake in south central Tuva. From Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond.

The musical culture of the central Asian steppe possesses an embodied connection to landscape. Here, every musical utterance is imbued with place: whether it is the metaphorical feelings of place, the contour of mountains and valleys, or the subtleties and nuances of timbre and sound in the environment itself. Theodore Levin’s Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond explores how a sustained, nomadic herder lifestyle creates mutually supportive, cultural links to the natural world. Tuva is a Russian republic in southern Siberia, nestled within the northwest border of Mongolia. Tuva is famous for its biodiverse landscapes of grassland steppes, deserts, and tall mountains, where traditionally nomadic tribes have lived for centuries. Levin describes “a sonic journey through a landscape and soundscape whose inhabitants preserve what is arguably one of the world’s oldest forms of music-making.”1Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 3 Continue reading

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References   [ + ]

1. Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 3

Concert Preview: New Music of Our National Parks

Linda Chase performs on the rim, August 2012. Photo by Autumn Chase-Dempsey.

Linda Chase performs on the rim of the Grand Canyon, August 2012. Photo by Autumn Chase-Dempsey.

This Spring, the epic landscapes of Zion, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite will be brought to life in Boston. New Music of Our National Parks is a concert of new chamber music inspired by nature, honoring the national parks in the centennial year of the National Park Service. I’m delighted to be involved with this project, produced by Rachel Panitch in affiliation with the Landscape Music Composers Network.

The concert, which will take place on Friday, April 15, 2016 at 8:00pm on the monthly Advent Library Concert Series at The Church of the Advent in the heart of historic Beacon Hill, Boston (suggested donation is $10), brings together works by three members of the Composers Network—Rachel, Linda Chase, and myself—and features performances by Cardamom Quartet, vocalist Burcu Gulec, flutist Alicia Mielke, guitarist Devin Ulibarri, and the vibraphone/violins trio Thread Ensemble.

I’ve previously posted a brief announcement and a press release about the event. Below, I dig a bit deeper into the works featured on the program and explore how each of the composers drew inspiration from national parks. Continue reading

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