Evoking Aldo Leopold’s Wildlife Ecology through Music and Poetry

Mi Casita with boulders

“Mi Casita,” Aldo and Estella Leopold’s home in Tres Piedras, NM, now the site of the Leopold Residency Program. Photo courtesy of Andrea Clearfield.

Conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is considered the father of wildlife ecology. Leopold underwent a transformation in his perspective on wildlife through a life spent in engagement with the natural world. Leopold writes of one such pivotal moment in essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which he and his friends shot at a mother wolf and her pups:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold would come to understand wolves’ crucial role in the health of ecosystems, which was proven by the successful reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park decades after Leopold’s time. (Justin Ralls explored this topic in an essay and composition for Cadillac Moon Ensemble, Of Wolves and Rivers, for Landscape Music’s National Parks centennial concert last year.)

Andrea Clearfield, left, and Ariana Kramer, right. Photo courtesy of Andrea Clearfield.

Leopold’s legacy lives on through the Aldo and Estella Leopold Residency Program: a monthlong retreat at the Leopolds’ first home in northern New Mexico, owned by Carson National Forest and hosted by the Leopold Writing Program. This past August, the residency program—usually reserved for environmental writers—hosted an unusual project: Transformed by Fire, a collaboration between renowned Philadelphia-based composer Andrea Clearfield and poet and freelance writer Ariana Kramer from Taos, NM. Their song cycle for baritone and chorus takes Leopold’s writings as a jumping-off point for a musical and poetic exploration of wolves and their role in our ecosystems.

Last June, prior to their residency and the subsequent concert performance of their work-in-progress, I sat down with Andrea and Ariana in Taos to discuss the origins and goals of Transformed by Fire. The following excerpts from this interview offer a snapshot of the formative, early stages of their collaboration—a glimpse into their creative process. Continue reading

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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   [ + ]

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/

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

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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

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