Evoking Aldo Leopold’s Wildlife Ecology through Music and Poetry

Mi Casita with boulders

“Mi Casita,” Aldo and Estella Leopold’s home in Tres Piedras, NM, now the site of the Leopold Residency Program. Photo courtesy of Andrea Clearfield.

Conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is considered the father of wildlife ecology. Leopold underwent a transformation in his perspective on wildlife through a life spent in engagement with the natural world. Leopold writes of one such pivotal moment in essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which he and his friends shot at a mother wolf and her pups:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold would come to understand wolves’ crucial role in the health of ecosystems, which was proven by the successful reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park decades after Leopold’s time. (Justin Ralls explored this topic in an essay and composition for Cadillac Moon Ensemble, Of Wolves and Rivers, for Landscape Music’s National Parks centennial concert last year.)

Andrea Clearfield, left, and Ariana Kramer, right. Photo courtesy of Andrea Clearfield.

Leopold’s legacy lives on through the Aldo and Estella Leopold Residency Program: a monthlong retreat at the Leopolds’ first home in northern New Mexico, owned by Carson National Forest and hosted by the Leopold Writing Program. This past August, the residency program—usually reserved for environmental writers—hosted an unusual project: Transformed by Fire, a collaboration between renowned Philadelphia-based composer Andrea Clearfield and poet and freelance writer Ariana Kramer from Taos, NM. Their song cycle for baritone and chorus takes Leopold’s writings as a jumping-off point for a musical and poetic exploration of wolves and their role in our ecosystems.

Last June, prior to their residency and the subsequent concert performance of their work-in-progress, I sat down with Andrea and Ariana in Taos to discuss the origins and goals of Transformed by Fire. The following excerpts from this interview offer a snapshot of the formative, early stages of their collaboration—a glimpse into their creative process. Continue reading

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A Conversation with Landscape Music Composers

Nell Shaw Cohen, composer and Director of the Landscape Music Composers Network, was joined earlier this month by fellow Landscape Music composers Justin Ralls, Stephen Wood, and Stephen Lias for a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation about bringing inspirations from nature into music. It was filmed on the occasion of Landscape Music’s National Park Service centennial concert with Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum, and includes a discussion of the works on that program with clips from the performance.

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Stephen Wood: Wilderness Advocacy Through Music and Education

Photographs from the 2014 Wilderness Act Performance Series at the Outdoor Activity Center in Atlanta, GA. Proximity to Nature by Shawn Taylor and Proximity Viz, LLC. Left to right, middle: Stephen Wood, composer/director; Marti Keller, poet. Bottom: Tim Crump, saxophone; Jessica Sherer, flute; Nick Johns, piano/Corey Denham, percussion; Eric Fontaine, saxophone.

Photographs from the 2014 Wilderness Act Performance Series at the Outdoor Activity Center in Atlanta, GA. Proximity to Nature by Shawn Taylor and Proximity Viz, LLC. Left to right, middle: Stephen Wood, composer/director; Marti Keller, poet. Bottom: Tim Crump, saxophone; Jessica Sherer, flute; Nick Johns, piano/Corey Denham, percussion; Eric Fontaine, saxophone.

Stephen Wood is an Atlanta-based composer, performer, and naturalist who creates classical and jazz music in conversation with wilderness advocacy and environmental education.

Stephen Wood in Nantahala Wilderness Area.

Stephen Wood in Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area.

I asked Stephen, who is a member of the Landscape Music Composers Network, to share some of the ideas and experiences behind his innovative concerts and educational programs, in particular, and to elucidate his vision of how music acts as a catalyst for reconnecting us to our environment.

Stephen writes: “My current work as a composer, educator, and environmentalist is concerned with advocating for our National Preservation System and awakening our human connection to Earth. I do this first by composing music in different genres inspired by these natural themes. Additionally, I participate in and create Artist Residencies for our National Wilderness Preservation System, producing site-specific concerts and “Art Hikes” celebrating human connections to Nature, and presenting my educational workshop “Inspiring Stewardship” in music and science classes.” Continue reading

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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

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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

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