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

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

Concert Preview: New Music of Our National Parks

Linda Chase performs on the rim, August 2012. Photo by Autumn Chase-Dempsey.

Linda Chase performs on the rim of the Grand Canyon, August 2012. Photo by Autumn Chase-Dempsey.

This Spring, the epic landscapes of Zion, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite will be brought to life in Boston. New Music of Our National Parks is a concert of new chamber music inspired by nature, honoring the national parks in the centennial year of the National Park Service. I’m delighted to be involved with this project, produced by Rachel Panitch in affiliation with the Landscape Music Composers Network.

The concert, which will take place on Friday, April 15, 2016 at 8:00pm on the monthly Advent Library Concert Series at The Church of the Advent in the heart of historic Beacon Hill, Boston (suggested donation is $10), brings together works by three members of the Composers Network—Rachel, Linda Chase, and myself—and features performances by Cardamom Quartet, vocalist Burcu Gulec, flutist Alicia Mielke, guitarist Devin Ulibarri, and the vibraphone/violins trio Thread Ensemble.

I’ve previously posted a brief announcement and a press release about the event. Below, I dig a bit deeper into the works featured on the program and explore how each of the composers drew inspiration from national parks. Continue reading

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.” https://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

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.
Continue reading

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

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/