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.

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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.
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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

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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/

Why I started LandscapeMusic.org

I’ve composed many works of music inspired by paintings and drawings of landscapes by artists from Thomas Cole to Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve gradually been writing more and more works inspired by my direct experiences of nature, parallel with and/or unrelated to interpretations by visual artists. I’ve come to realize that what I’ve been striving to achieve is the sonic equivalent of what visual artists accomplish with landscape art. I coined the term “Landscape Music” to communicate this ideal and philosophy.

At the same time, I’ve noticed several other composers who have been approaching a similar ideal from different aesthetic angles or perspectives. With the creation of this website, I seek to investigate work being done in this vein and to explore commonalities, divergences, exciting new developments, unexplored potentials, and possibly to derive some general principles or practices relating to this idea of musical landscapes.

Music inspired by nature, in my view, should never be taken as an objective representation of the natural world through sound, or even a way to concretely evoke a world beyond human experience. I argue instead that the creation of music inspired by nature is an inherently humanistic act that simultaneously affirms the intrinsic value and importance of the non-human natural world to the human experience.

The perception that a particular melody played on the flute signifies or “captures” the experience of sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree, for example, inevitably has far more to do with the composer and/or the listener than it does with sunlight or trees themselves. This does not devalue the flute melody, however: a musical idea can be a conduit for communicating, understanding, and encapsulating human experiences of the natural world.

Because of my own background, and an awareness of the established tradition of music inspired by landscapes in Western classical music, this publication will inherently be biased towards music created by “composers” within the tradition of “classical,” “concert music,” or “New Music.” That said, I hope this website will encompass music created within other genres and perspectives (jazz, rock, pop, “folk” music, musical traditions from other regions of the world, etc) that similarly seek to express experiences of landscape, nature, and sense of place.

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“Landscape” and the role of art in our understanding of nature

Claude Lorrain, "Landscape with the Rest on The Flight into Egypt," 1666

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with the Rest on The Flight into Egypt, 1666

For better or for worse, most of the words and concepts we have for “nature” in English emerged from the opposition between human civilization and everything else. In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash traces how the term wilderness was transformed in America over the centuries from an essentially derogatory indicator for uncultivated, uncivilized areas, to its current positive associations with environmental conservation. Gary Snyder explored in The Practice of the Wild how even the popularly-held conception of nature is itself paradoxical. Despite the common and seemingly unavoidable usage of the word to refer to the “non-human” world, we humans and all of our activities – from gardening to browsing the Internet – are a part of nature.

Furthermore, when thinking about interpretations of “wilderness” or “nature” within art, it is inherently impossible to avoid human-imposed lenses on nature. The interpretation of nature through art is, by definition, the representation of human perspectives. This, I believe, is not a bad thing. In Landscape And Memory, Simon Schama argues eloquently for the importance of understanding that “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature” and that culture is “not the repudiation, but the veneration, of nature” (p. 18).

In this spirit, I seek to acknowledge and engage with culture-based perceptions of nature as the ways in which we humans necessarily make sense and meaning from the world around us, whether it’s through an Albert Bierstadt painting or a Disney movie.

I feel that landscape is the term that best embodies this overall idea. This word was imported from Dutch into English in the 16th century and has been used historically to refer to the aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially in the context of visual art. “Landscape” may be as accurately applied to bucolic scenes (the word’s original application) or cityscapes, as to wilderness locales that have been minimally impacted or modified by human hands. That having been said, as a creator and an audience member I’m interested primarily in art and music that acts as a pathway to fostering a greater empathy with, and connection to, the rest of the natural world.

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Why Landscape Music is more important than ever

By NASA.Mrshaba at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Photo by NASA.Mrshaba, from Wikimedia Commons

One of the greatest quandaries that human beings now face (arguably the greatest) is how to balance human activity and growth with the natural world: how can industrialized nations and peoples make the necessary changes that will enable us to sustain ourselves and other living beings on the planet?

Hubris, shortsightedness, and overall alienation from nature is leading us towards catastrophic instability and mass-scale environmental imbalance, resulting in climate change and dwindling biodiversity. Many sense that a massive paradigm shift is necessary to reconcile the human species with our position in the universe and on the earth as animals, as a part of the larger fabric of life; to move our society towards perceiving nature as more than a resource merely to be “utilized” and used up.

Artists concerned with this environmental sustainability crisis are faced with the question: how can we artists best utilize our time, skills, and insights as creators to reconnect ourselves and our audiences with the natural world? Through research and writing for Landscape Music and the process of composing and promoting music inspired by landscape, I hope to find for myself and for other artists some possible ways in which to work towards this goal.

I don’t pretend to claim that art solves all problems, but it is a powerful force that influences peoples’ feelings, alters their priorities, and gives them purpose. Being affected by a work of art can awaken a person’s mind to the world around them.

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