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

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.

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“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

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.

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   [ + ]

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

Composing “Point Reyes from Chimney Rock”

Tom Killion, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, 2011

Tom Killion, Point Reyes from Chimney Rock, 2011. Woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist.

My orchestral tone poem Point Reyes from Chimney Rock takes its title and inspiration from a woodblock print (above) by contemporary artist Tom Killion. This work reflects on a coastal landscape in Point Reyes National Seashore in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I was born and raised). It was commissioned by the NYU Symphony and premiered at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City on March 3, 2014.

In the following reflection, I share some of what went into the creation this piece. My intention is certainly not to dictate how to listen to my music—you are free to form your own conclusions and derive your own meaning from it!—but to hopefully illuminate the compositional process, both for laypeople and for other composers who may be interested in how I approached writing music inspired by a landscape. Continue reading

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