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.

Getting Started

By nature, I’m an explorer. That informs all of my endeavors—including composing. So for each piece, I immerse myself in the landscape, experiencing as much of its diversity as possible. To further inform my understanding and experience, I then research its physical geography, geology, flora and fauna. I ask myself questions: What senses are engaged? What is my point of view? Am I composing strictly about the visible aspects of the landscape or something more? Many of our most scenic places overlap with a rich human history, so I also explore the cultural geography of the landscape over time.

National and State Park residencies offer a wealth of support beyond pro bono lodgings. Their libraries, knowledgeable staff and “behind the scenes” insight into the minute details of the landscape enable me to have the depth of understanding to create a piece of music that is authentic and, I hope, compelling. Visitors and local residents can contribute additional perspectives. Even when I am independently creating music about a place, rangers and other staff members have been eager to help.

I composed the piece from the point of view of the mountain—not the sound of the fire, but its intrinsic feeling of anguish and of hope.

At this point, the specific aspect (or aspects) of the landscape I want to convey emerges. The impetus for The Life of Ashes was the 2012 fire that ravaged the Mount Adams Wilderness Area In the Washington Cascades. Specifically, I wanted to examine how that event connected to the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the ever-changing and temporal nature of the landscape, where the natural process of nature—life, death and rebirth—march on with minimal interference.

“A wilderness…is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”—The Wilderness Act

I composed the piece from the point of view of the mountain—not the sound of the fire, but its intrinsic feeling of anguish and of hope.3http://www.oregonlive.com/performance/index.ssf/2014/08/a_musical_tribute_to_mt_adams.html

Free Land, composed for Homestead National Monument, was born out my exploration of the rolling hills of the diminishing grassy prairie of the Central Plains and intersected with the trajectory of the Homestead Act—from its signing to the subsequent sorrow and celebrations of those who tried to prove their claim.

Tall Grass Prairie, Nebraska.

Tall Grass Prairie, Nebraska. Photo by Christina Rusnak, 2012.

Creating a Plan

Do I map out my Landscape Music, or are the pieces through-composed: as we hear them from beginning to end? Theoretically, if I hike for several days through a wilderness area or park, I could be creating the work chronologically to represent my walk. The problem is that my hike may not be fully representative of the place. While I usually create a map, occasionally the scope is narrow and lends itself to through-composing. For instance, in Denali National Park in 2013, I created Teklanika as a snapshot piece—I observed a single landscape from a steep slope overlooking the valley and river.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park. Photo by Christina Rusnak, 2014.

The piece focuses on the layers of the topography: its ancient geology, the glacier, the braided river below and the diversity of tundra plant life carpeting its mountains. In this case, I composed the piece from beginning to end. As one element of the landscape changes and morphs, so does the piece. Even if I don’t adhere to it, I find that creating a plan for the composition fleshes out both the musical and the extra-musical ideas, as well as providing a shape and general timeframe for the music.

From Landscape to Music

To choose instrumentation for my music for landscapes, I consider what makes sense for the landscape itself, the sound world I want to create, and what’s practical for the place(s) in which the music will be performed.

To choose instrumentation for my music for landscapes, I consider what makes sense for the landscape itself, the sound world I want to create, and what’s practical for the place(s) in which the music will be performed.

With given constraints, for The Life of Ashes I chose a trio of flute, viola, and percussion—primarily marimba and bass drum. A significant portion of the Mount Adams Wilderness lies within the Yakima Reservation4Acreage originally set aside as Wilderness Area returned to the tribe in 1972. http://www.ynwildlife.org/Recreation.php so the flute and drum are ancient and integral instruments of the landscape. The wood of the marimba and viola represent its mountain forest. For Free Land, few constraints existed, so I researched to find out which instruments were most often brought across the country by the homesteaders.5Piano and violin topped the list, but with the piece to be performed at Homestead National Monument (2016), a piano would be highly impractical so I substituted marimba.

Conversely, in Coal Creek, composed for Yukon Charley National Preserve in Alaska, I wanted to communicate the hardship of the environment, the motion of the ever-present Yukon River, and the deep churning of the gold dredge and the people who operated it. My instrument selection of two violins, bass clarinet and marimba, was specifically intended to create a sound world that inferred (not replicated) the physical and cultural landscape.

I’ve created some of my landscape pieces as a series of musically-related episodes.

“Music is a medium inextricably linked with time, on many levels…”6Cohen, Nell Shaw. “Composing Point Reyes from Chimney Rock.” http://landscapemusic.org/essays/composing-point-reyes-from-chimney-rock/ We concurrently experience music’s present time, its complex divisions of time, and its change over time. Then the piece ends! Music is, has been, and always will be, transitory—and unless we are viewing a static image, the nature of our experiencing the landscape is also transitory. To suggest the temporal aspect of that experience, I’ve created some of my landscape pieces as a series of musically-related episodes.

The Life of Ashes contains three distinct sections: A) The Wilderness, opening with a modal flute solo. Perhaps because I’m a vocalist, I associate the flute with wind and/or breath. Breath equates to life. Accordingly, after the opening theme, the section bursts into life intertwining the instruments in play. B) Change and Fire, using repetitive gestures, louder faster notes and a percussive climax. A-C) Regeneration begins with a hint of activity, leading with percussion. Just before the recapitulation, two measures of the fire motive return softly—signifying that tragedy is never far away. During the last minute of the piece, I added a new theme counterpoint to the original theme. My intention is to communicate the old adage that one can never step in the same river twice. In this case, the forest regenerates, but in new ways: it never re-grows exactly the same as before.

Free Land, also episodic, fully integrates landscape and the multiple meanings of the landscape with history and cultural geography. In other words, the piece is not just about the tall-grass prairie in of itself, but the impact of the change of the landscape over time. The piece is broken up into three movements with thematic material that may seem unrelated. The use of Major 2nds and descending minor 3rds throughout the various themes provide a thread of continuity.

Sod House

Sod House. Photo by Christina Rusnak, 2012.

The first movement, Homeland, opens with a thunderstorm interweaving the essence of the Central Plains landscape with the lives of the indigenous Americans. Two Seasons, anticipates and celebrates the passing of the Homestead Act: the impact of the railroad, the clash of built up expectations with reality and the settlers’ hard work, joys, and sorrows. A poignant moment happens about halfway through when the violin, against a soft dissonant backdrop plays a mournful melody—heard nowhere else in the piece, but full of descending minor 3rds—representing the thousands of women who left everything to arrive on a treeless prairie. The third movement, Harvest, celebrates the successes of the homesteading communities. This movement primarily is a dance beginning in F major. However, themes from the first and second movements overlay and/or fuse into the theme, in part altering the dance melody and harmony to honor both the landscapes and people who are forever altered.

Our diverse landscapes call for a variety of musical approaches. Going Rogue, a short piece for french horn, trumpet and trombone, is more traditionally constructed and explores the characteristics of the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. I use short bursts of notes, syncopated rhythms and rising intervals, each “voice” punctuated by the interruption of the other voices (instruments) of the river, to try to convey the churning rocky rapids between which the water calmly flows.

Rogue River

Rogue River. Photo by Christina Rusnak.

Conclusion

I dive deeply into every place I compose in.

Our landscapes and waterways are layered, complex environments; admittedly, I have trouble keeping to a single idea or thematic motive. I always build into my timetable two to three weeks for the piece to “sit” when it is almost complete. Like many composers, my pieces tend to grow appendages during the compositional process or even after they’re “finished.” Often, the appendages fill in subconscious gaps and/or solve compositional dilemmas. From my initial exploration of the landscape to the unbidden additions that emerge during the process of composing, to the memories I carry long after the composing is finished, I dive deeply into every place I compose in.


Christina Rusnak

Christina Rusnak. Photo courtesy of the composer.

CHRISTINA RUSNAK
christinarusnak.com

Christina Rusnak, a member of the Landscape Music Composers Network, is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about Landscape, Geography and Art as an expression of human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of all of these into her work. Her goal is to compose music that engages the performers and, hopefully, the audience.

Cloudburst, released in 2007, launched Ms. Rusnak’s musical exploration of place and space. An avid hiker, she has explored many of our Parks and Wilderness areas. Her Landscape Music has included Free Land, in 2012 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act and four pieces celebrating distinct natures of Denali and Yukon Charley National Park and Preserve. Canyon Voices was composed for Oregon State Parks’ Cottonwood Canyon and the John Day River. Going Rogue resulted from a trek along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. The Life of Ashes commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Ms. Rusnak was selected as Artist in Residence at North Cascades National Park, Stehekin, 2014.

She also works with communities and organizations to bring music, culture and heritage into public spaces. Her recordings are available on ERM and Parma Recordings.

References   [ + ]

1. See 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
2. Rusnak, Christina, “Landscape as Advocacy.” http://landscapemusic.org/essays/landscape-music-as-advocacy/
3. http://www.oregonlive.com/performance/index.ssf/2014/08/a_musical_tribute_to_mt_adams.html
4. Acreage originally set aside as Wilderness Area returned to the tribe in 1972. http://www.ynwildlife.org/Recreation.php
5. Piano and violin topped the list, but with the piece to be performed at Homestead National Monument (2016), a piano would be highly impractical so I substituted marimba.
6. Cohen, Nell Shaw. “Composing Point Reyes from Chimney Rock.” http://landscapemusic.org/essays/composing-point-reyes-from-chimney-rock/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *