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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