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.

* * *

“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

Sketches of Nature: Landscape Music in the Central Asian Steppe

Тувинские просторы.jpg

By Александр Лещёнок, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

Editor’s Note: Justin Ralls, guest author and Landscape Music Composers Network member, writes his first essay for Landscape Music.

Last summer while I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park, I had much on my mind. Walking the trail—admiring the craggy, breathtaking views of granite and pine, listening and following the rush of cold streams and the calls, near and far, of birds, squirrels, and nameless others—there is much to inspire the composer. As a musician, sound is at the forefront of my awareness. But what about the immensity and awe—even terror—one may feel in these intimidating, yet intimate landscapes? Potential metaphors and meanings hide behind every cloud and tree, gust of wind, or mysterious chirp. Of course, it is up to us as composers to relate these experiences in our musical statements and aspirations. This can be a daunting task as we parse out the myriad cultural contexts and perspectives each of us brings to every piece of music and every excursion in the mountains. Informing ourselves about how other cultures draw upon the landscape in their music gives us new perspectives and helps us to clear the air of our usual conceptions. In this essay, I invite you on an adventure to another culture and another landscape.

Nature music: Seagulls at Chagatai Lake in south central Tuva. From Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond.

The musical culture of the central Asian steppe possesses an embodied connection to landscape. Here, every musical utterance is imbued with place: whether it is the metaphorical feelings of place, the contour of mountains and valleys, or the subtleties and nuances of timbre and sound in the environment itself. Theodore Levin’s Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond explores how a sustained, nomadic herder lifestyle creates mutually supportive, cultural links to the natural world. Tuva is a Russian republic in southern Siberia, nestled within the northwest border of Mongolia. Tuva is famous for its biodiverse landscapes of grassland steppes, deserts, and tall mountains, where traditionally nomadic tribes have lived for centuries. Levin describes “a sonic journey through a landscape and soundscape whose inhabitants preserve what is arguably one of the world’s oldest forms of music-making.”1Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 3 Continue reading

References   [ + ]

1. Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 3

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   [ + ]

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

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/

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