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

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

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

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

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

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

Composing Landscape Music

Editor’s Note: Christina Rusnak, guest author and Landscape Music Composers Network member, graces us with the second essay of her two-part series written for Landscape Music. Read the first essay here.

Tears welled up in the US Forest Ranger’s eyes when an audience member responded, “Hearing this piece [The Life of Ashes] has changed how I will experience the Wilderness going forward.” That moment is one of the highlights of my compositional life. Part of a competitively curated month-long exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the exhibit was originally limited to visual artists—but after hearing music I composed for our natural landscapes, the ranger procured the funding for the performance.1See Columbia Arts Center http://www.columbiaarts.org/more-arts/2014/8/rusnak- performance.html and Oregon Live http://www.oregonlive.com/performance/index.ssf/2014/08/a_musical_tribute_to_mt_adams.html

the individual landscape, the breadth of its scope, and the specificity of its details actually morph the approach and process I take in composing about one place or another.

So how do composers endeavor to express the essence of the grandeur and the minutia…of our natural and wild places2Rusnak, Christina, “Landscape as Advocacy.” http://landscapemusic.org/essays/landscape-music-as-advocacy/ Those of us who are inspired to create music about landscape feel a strong connection to the natural world that we’re writing about. While one may infer that we all begin with the same palette of musical choices, as an artist I bring my unique experiences, values and perspectives to the work. Thus, the individual landscape, the breadth of its scope, and the specificity of its details actually morph the approach and process I take in composing about one place or another. What are some common threads when I compose pieces for our national parks and wilderness areas?

Mount Adams Wilderness 2014. Photo by Christina Rusnak.

Continue reading

References   [ + ]

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.
Continue reading

Landscape Music as Advocacy

Editor’s Note: I’m delighted to present the first of a two-part series of essays penned for Landscape Music by guest author, composer Christina Rusnak.

Composing in Denali

Photo courtesy of Stephen Lias, 2012.

If you research “Music” and “Advocacy” together, invariably your search will bring up articles, scholarly and otherwise, about Music Education Advocacy: why to, if to, when to, and how to advocate for music in the schools. Add to the search “Landscape”, and up pops essays on ethnomusicology. While I certainly agree that landscape shapes culture, I contend that our environment—the physical landscape—undoubtedly has influenced musical creation for eons.

“Sound is one of the original elements of the Earth’s ecosystem.” Like us, sound and music require air. “Music breathes; giving it breath and beauty is what we call music making.”1Kennedy, John. “On the Nature of Music”, New Music Box, January 1, 2004. http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/On-the-Nature-of-Music/ Music is what composers create to reflect our human experience.

Music is, has been, and always will be transitory! Whether we are hiking, biking, riding a horse or driving, the nature of experiencing the landscape is also transitory.

Research is mounting that getting outside and experiencing nature is essential for our health.2Metger, Chloe. Scientific Reasons Getting Outside is Good for You http://news.health.com/2014/09/29/health-benefits-of-nature/ I myself am a product of the transformative power of wilderness. A field botany class in college, during which we hiked over 60 miles in Big Bend National Park, literally changed my life.

There are those who consider composing new music about place, whether urban or wilderness, problematic—“primarily because of its transitory nature.”3Siepmann, Daniel. “Who is Creative Placemaking? New Music, Integrity and Community”, New Music Box, July, 9, 2014. http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/who-is-creative-placemaking-new-music-integrity-and-community/ Really? Music is, has been and always will be transitory! Whether we are hiking, biking, riding a horse or driving, the nature of experiencing the landscape is also transitory. Continue reading

References   [ + ]

1. Kennedy, John. “On the Nature of Music”, New Music Box, January 1, 2004. http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/On-the-Nature-of-Music/
2. Metger, Chloe. Scientific Reasons Getting Outside is Good for You http://news.health.com/2014/09/29/health-benefits-of-nature/
3. Siepmann, Daniel. “Who is Creative Placemaking? New Music, Integrity and Community”, New Music Box, July, 9, 2014. http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/who-is-creative-placemaking-new-music-integrity-and-community/

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