Stephen Wood is an Atlanta-based composer, performer, and naturalist who creates classical and jazz music in conversation with wilderness advocacy and environmental education.
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.”
How he developed this focus:
Stephen Wood: Five years ago, during my last semester of graduate school at Georgia State University in the Jazz Studies program, I noticed a peculiar and stunning opportunity in the Society of Composers monthly newsletter: Composing in the Wilderness Field Seminar in Denali National Park. This field seminar turned out to be more than just an awesome musical vacation in Alaska. It changed my life. [Editor’s Note: Check out my interview with Stephen Lias, creator and director of Composing in the Wilderness.]
That wild composing adventure presented an approach towards environmental composing. But it also opened up the next step in a path I had already been unconsciously following my entire life. Since birth, I have been involved with music, nature, farming, wilderness adventuring, small town life, and big city visits. Each of these activities helped build the foundation for my current path.
Once I realized environmental composing was an actual possibility for my future, I gave it my all. And I continue to give it my all. I think I’m able to do this because the whole process is so rewarding. The music, the concerts, the educating—it’s never about me. I may be the one telling the story and helping others to tell their story, but the stories are what matter the most. The message must be honest and clear. It’s always about giving back to the world.
When I present environmental music, it’s about contributing a sustainable message to society. The stories may be from my perspective, but they show connections to the endemic life our Preservation System helps survive. These stories need to be told.
Inspiring Stewardship in the Classroom
On his educational program “Inspiring Stewardship”:
“Inspiring Stewardship” is especially exciting for me because it brings the idea of developing artistic inspiration from Nature into schools with real experience and hands on activities. “Inspiring Stewardship” does this by integrating environmental science with musical composition and artistic creativity. The program offers three core workshop themes – Inspiring Stewardship, Music Composition, and Soundscape Ecology. The workshops feature student-centered, sequential, and interactive activities helping students develop a musical connection with Nature.
“Inspiring Stewardship” is offered to all grade levels with different levels of focus and intensity. The most basic program involves a day of classroom visits introducing the students to environmental music. We engage in listening, discussion, and performance activities helping to generate creative connections with our environment.
A larger version of “Inspiring Stewardship” involves up to a week or more of classroom workshops in different schools and grade levels; a customized composition inspired by a local environmental area; and a school or public performance with an artist talk. This larger workshop package allows for time to visit band, orchestra, and science classes with more focused themes in relation to their studies and instruments. In the music classes, we can go more into the musical elements of environmental composing. In the science classes, we can talk more about approaching the scientific method with creative observation. I have a very specific outline comparing the scientific method with the creative process. It’s called Creative Science.
A larger workshop series is also often given in connection with a composing residency in a regional Park, Forest, Refuge, or Wilderness Area that is part of our National Preservation System.
The basic concept is to develop a workshop that is best suited for the school’s available time and budget, while still exposing students to the core message in the most active way possible.
What an “Inspiring Stewardship” class looks like:
A class period workshop begins with an introduction to environmental music. I like to start by having the students play music right away. So, we do some warm-up activities like a scale or ensemble exercise, or they might play something they’re working on. This engages the student’s minds right away and brings the focus to music. Then I talk a little bit about environmental music and what that is, exactly. It’s always a Q&A situation, though. I want the students to be thinking and answering.
The colors and the nature sounds…We’ll put those together into one improvised composition for the entire orchestra. It’s super exciting, engaging, and beautiful organized chaos. Just like our universe!
After listening, I like to get the students active again by playing more music. We create a new environmental composition on the spot. The whole orchestra comes together to improvise and compose a musical idea. We usually start with the idea of Nature’s colors: green, yellow, orange, blue, purple, etc. And we’ll build harmonic sounds through the orchestra representing the different color they choose. This can be both very organized and very chaotic. I love the chaos, though! I embrace the chaos as a natural activity and channel it into their composition. The students love that. We often play really, really loud. Then we play really, really quiet. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing on the conductor’s podium in the midst of a free jazz improvisation by an orchestra of middle schoolers! It’s exhilarating!
After colors, we start to imitate the sounds of nature. This often comes from someone accidentally making a weird sound and then I label it a frog, or something goofy. That’s kind of funny. But then we’ll have a very light introduction to soundscape and we’ll listen to recordings of animal sounds, water sounds, wind sounds, human sounds and others. The kids especially love the whale songs and wolf calls. And they’re mystified by the crazy frog choruses. But then we’ll imitate these sounds! We’ll do this as an orchestra and then as sections with different sounds playing at once.
So now we have two different compositional ideas: the colors and the nature sounds. We’ll put those together into one improvised composition for the entire orchestra. It’s super exciting, engaging, and beautiful organized chaos. Just like our universe!
I think this type of experiential creative programming is really important for today’s youth. In our new world of instant technology, young students and future generations desperately need opportunities to engage in their immediate natural environment. But I think they just need to be reminded. And not just kids. We all need to be reminded that we, as humans, are part of this great Earth and Universe. The Earth is not just a resource for our entertainment and comfort. It is possible for us to live in our current progressive capitalistic society with an openly compassionate partnership with all living things on Earth.
How engaging with the natural world through music can affect students and audiences:
There is so much that can happen. People come alive. Students understand. That simple connection to the world right below our feet, everywhere we go, is so powerful. Music awakens all of that. Music is the most profound interactive Human art form. Music is one of our core Human elements. All humans around the globe speak music. That transcendence is not limited to the human perspective. Music and sound are the threads of the universe.
How his work as a composer-educator fits into environmental education and the educational climate as a whole:
The most prominent platform currently taught and funded in the environmental education world is STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. This is not limited to environmental education, though. STEM seems to be a core curriculum model for all education in the U.S. Obviously, there is something missing from this: The Arts! So, there is a growing demand for STE(A)M. I’m building Inspiring Stewardship as a bridge between STEM and STE(A)M.
Most people I know in environmental education are always doing amazing work continuously finding new ways to engage people and youth. Environmental educators are an exciting, creative, and motivated breed. There are some distinguishing elements of what I do, though. The first is that I absolutely love composing music about our world. I love telling the story of a specific environment or life form through the musical language. I think the spirituality of that brings people in.
Another distinctive aspect of my work is that the performances and educational programs are not about my academic perspective or about a mathematically explained scientific process. I allow the subject matter to be presented in it’s own way. This is life, after all. And we are just part of it. Our perspectives are just observations of what is happening all around. The human ego, however, is often a distorting factor in how we perceive and observe.
What I’m about to briefly touch on may seem existential and spiritual. But it is also a very logical scientific approach, which can be related to both the scientific method and creative process.
If one can observe our world without interpretation, Nature will speak to us. We just have to allow for the voice of what we’re observing to be heard. A conscious space needs to be nurtured between our sensorial observations and our ego’s expectations and interpretations. A composition and piece of art is most often the perceptive creation of our ego. A perception of this sort then loads the creation with elements oriented more towards our expectations and personal interests of the observation. If we allow our selves to settle in the space between sensorial observation and ego, we are able to discriminate between the true nature of the observed and what our ego wants and expects. This type of experience allows the Natural element or process to exist in its own state within our human perception. When musical and artistic inspiration arises out of that space, it is able to be more compassionate towards and representative of the subject matter—free from the manipulation of ego.
During workshops and presentations, I often refer to this approach as “Observation without Interpretation.”
Performing Environmental Music
On the relationship between educational programs and public performances:
They really go hand-in-hand. My educational work spawns from the concepts of my productions and my productions are examples of my educational work. There really isn’t a definite line between the two. My performances and educational programs are developed from the same artistic vision and sense of community engagement. They feed and support each other equally.
However, while the core message is developed from a similar place, more specific goals are often formulated for particular audiences. The classroom programs are, of course, focused on student engagement and activities. The program is also in the classroom, indoors. Media is used to portray examples of environmental music. The classroom situation allows us to play music together and improvise. The focus is on what students can take away from the program for use in their everyday life.
My hope is for the music and art to be created and presented in a way so connected to the environment that the audience begins to remove their expectations and judgmental perceptions of Nature.
On the Wilderness Act Performance Series:
The Wilderness Act Performance Series was huge. It involved 26 artists, five nature centers, one month of artist field seminars at the nature centers, a Wilderness Residency with the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a five-week long performance series, and over a full year of my life. By all outside estimations, the idea was just too big and WAY too far outside the box. And I had a ridiculously small amount of funding. I’m still in awe and feel very blessed and honored.
There was so much involved in the Wilderness Series—so many amazing people, artists, and organizers. Every single person involved gave all of their energy. I mean it. We’re talking over fifty people who were intimately involved on some level. Artist, composers, poets, photographers, musicians, nature center directors, grant writers, web designers, fiscal agents, newspapers, and on and on. I just can’t give everyone any where near the amount of credit they deserve. Especially the artists. They were more than I could have ever dreamed.
I think there was one thing, though, that brought everything home and maintained honesty throughout the entire process: The story of Wilderness. The field seminars were incredible and truly unique to the series. But I think it was the staying true to Wilderness, in every part of the Series, that made it happen. The people got it. The audience understood. They showed up and they were incredibly moved.
But I didn’t do that alone. The artists made it happen. The venue directors embraced it. And there was wonderful support and conversation from good friends in the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Wilderness Society who were continually helping me stay true to the Wilderness message. All of this, together, made it work.
The Wilderness Series was by far the biggest project I had ever put together and will probably be the biggest for a while. But I stayed true and determined, and it was successful and got a lot of attention.
I learned so much. I learned patience. A lot of mindful patience and planning. Funding is also so important and the most difficult part. But so important. I know it seems like the opposite of environmental and creative thinking, but there needs to be money. And money is out there. It’s just a matter of finding it and selling your idea in the most honest way. I wish it wasn’t this way. But it is.
Bridging individual creative work and the larger goals of environmental music:
We’re talking about Life. We’re talking about the future of culture and Earth. This isn’t self-serving entertainment. It is community-oriented entertainment. And the music has to reflect this. The musical composition and presentation walks a fine line between the ideas of commercialism and advocacy. We want the music to be good, of course. But we want it to be “good” in a different sense from our own pretentious definition of good. The goodness is in pursuit of communicating an honest message in a way people can relate to! It’s storytelling. The music is the core element of emotional connection. If I were to present music that has no concern for portraying the story in relation to human emotion, then I have failed. But when I do fail, I learn and try again.
I tell students this, also. Sometimes we don’t sound that great. Sometimes a performance isn’t the best. Sometimes we don’t feel a strong connection to the music, audience, or environment. And sometimes we just mess things up. But that’s when genuine inspiration and honest compassion is needed the most. We have to wake up the next morning, learn from the experience, and try to be more mindful. Only in this way can we grow, improve, and help build a better community.
How composers and creative artists contribute to wilderness advocacy:
We contribute by creating conversation, passionate advocacy, and educational programs. How can artists do this? Go into schools. Teach kids. Do a residency and then put on a giant performance about the residency. Promote it. Get people there. Make your voice heard. Do it with art and music that the public can connect with. Make the music exciting, passionate, and tell a story.
Do all of that and more. Don’t stop.