Evoking Place through Music: Three Modes of Expression


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.

1. Music as aesthetic response to place: Utilizing the vocabulary of music—harmony, melody, rhythm, orchestration, timbre, etc—composers have created musical expressions responding to specific aspects of place that may be considered essentially non-musical. This music is conceived apart from associations with place-based music or environmental sounds (more on that below).

The result could be an evocation of the emotional, visceral experience of encountering and moving through a place, or it could be a synesthetic response to sights, sounds, smells, and sensations. Furthermore, the music might depict the composer’s impressions of the intrinsic characteristics of a place, such as natural processes, or flora or fauna that exist there.

This is the most abstract and probably most prevalent way in which composers have evoked place.

2. Imitation of place-based sound: Other music may echo and transform environmental sounds (both human and non-human)—birdsong, the burble of a stream, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the whistle of a train—and incorporate them directly into the sonic fabric of a musical composition.

While composers might sometimes take a literal approach to this, especially in the case of electroacoustic works that utilize field recordings, in some cases these place-based sounds may be so deeply sublimated into the composer’s language that they’re not immediately identifiable. I feel this mode should describe only music that was intentionally derived from specific sounds of place, and which gives the music a character a distinctive quality resulting from the use of “extramusical” sound (subjective though that may be).

3. Allusion to place-associated music and musical styles: Some composers allude to specific music and musical styles, evoking culturally-derived associations the composer and/or listener may have with a particular place, and likely a specific time period in that place.

Many film composers use this technique (with varying degrees of taste and subtlety!) to establish a sonic atmosphere for narrative: e.g., the use of instruments from a specific culture to suggest locale. This approach is also hugely important to the concert music tradition.

A glimpse of the Housatonic above the suspension bridge, leading to the Ice Glen, Stockbridge, (Mass.).

A glimpse of the Housatonic above the suspension bridge, leading to the Ice Glen, Stockbridge, (Mass.). Published by E. & H.T. Anthony, 1863-1885(?).

Some of the most powerful place-based (though not always landscape-based) music in the Western concert music canon is that of Charles Ives (1874-1954). Ives engages in multiple modes of musical representations of place at different moments in his works. The sinuous, hazy, overlapping violins in The Housatonic at Stockbridge are extremely suggestive of a specific sensory atmosphere, evoking the watery mist and meandering ripples of water across the Housatonic River. Perhaps this could be considered primarily an aesthetic response to place (the first mode), with some imitation of water sounds mixed in (the second mode).

However, the third mode—allusion to place-associated music—is perhaps the most striking characteristic of Ives’ works. Drawing on his childhood experiences, Ives layers and threads together tunes and harmonies from the vernacular music of turn-of-the-century America—church hymns, band music, fiddle tunes, popular songs. He creates a multi-dimensional representation of a specific cultural-historical experience that is inextricably rooted in place (especially public places such as fields, churches, barn dances, or town streets) while also being profoundly personal. Ives’ Holidays Symphony and Three Places in New England contain many examples.

Admittedly, Ives’ music challenges my distinction between between imitation of environmental sounds versus allusion to musical styles. Much of the music he quotes could be considered, in the terms of film music, “diagetic”: that is, music that is also environmental sound (e.g., the sound of songs filtering out the window of a house).

Thor's Hammer

Thor’s Hammer formation in Bryce Canyon National Park. By Luca Galuzzi, 2007.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is generally acknowledged as a master of observing and incorporating birdsong into music (e.g., Le merle noir), and this ornithological commitment from the 1950s onwards certainly places him in the second category of imitating place-based sound.

But Messiaen’s music also offers outstanding instances of the first mode. Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the canyons to the stars…), while also containing birdsong, is a veritable study in synesthetic sonic representations of pure color and form. Created in response to the desert canyons and wildlife of Utah, this music is a highly original depiction of a distinctive landscape.

It makes strange yet perfect sense that Messiaen, a Frenchman, would be drawn to this place: the colorful, harshly beautiful desert landscapes of the American Southwest have been felt by many people to possess a spiritual, metaphysical, or cosmic energy… and Messiaen’s harmonic and rhythmic language (in this and many other pieces) could readily be described as all of the above!

Fort Selkirk, Yukon River, looking east

Fort Selkirk, Yukon River, looking east. By Bruce Barrett, 2013.

Our most prominent living composer of music inspired by nature, John Luther Adams (b. 1953), is a truly place-based artist. Having spent decades living in Alaska, and a period spent more recently on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, his work evokes extremes in nature. The violent percussion of Strange and Sacred Noise depicts the break-up of ice on the Yukon River. In Become Ocean, “crisscrossing musical velocities” (Adams’ phrase) moving across the orchestra place listeners into the visceral space of all-encompassing oceanic waves.

While Adams’ works present nature itself—natural processes, the elements, the impacts of climate change—through music, rather than his personal experiences of nature, these works are inevitably the result of the composer’s aesthetic responses to place.

Several of Adams’ works also utilize environmental sounds, such as the birdsong-inspired songbirdsongs and Canticles. Some pieces dive further into this idea by making new environmental sounds: Inuksuit disperses an army of percussionists throughout an outdoor area, producing a fully immersive listening experience. At present, Adams is exploring extremes in human landscapes, crowdsourcing field recordings made in New York City as material for a new piece to be listened to on the streets where it was originally recorded (Soundwalk 9:091http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/concerts-and-performances/soundwalk).

In my own music, I have worked exclusively in the first mode of music as aesthetic response. As I’ve written in the context of my orchestral tone poem Point Reyes from Chimney Rock2https://landscapemusic.org/essays/composing-point-reyes-from-chimney-rock/, my music thus far has encompassed primarily visual perceptions, physical sensations, and emotional responses to place. Because much of my work has also responded to representations of places drawn from visual art and literature (the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, John Muir, et al), I have been particularly focused on finding musical “metaphors” for those artists’ insights and creating layered, multidimensional expressions of place that transcend one medium or one artist’s perspective.

There is much more that could be said on this topic beyond the scope of this essay. For example, one of the many interesting issues with a composer expressing their individual aesthetic response to place is the potential for conflict if a listener already has prior specific musical associations the place. (Imagine, say, the cognitive dissonance of hearing Baroque harpsichord music on the score of a Western.) But whatever the subject of a composition may be, I believe the most effective musical evocations of place are those that are authentic to the composer’s own perceptions and experiences, regardless of listeners’ expectations—a fact that is exemplified by the impactful and original works of Ives, Messiaen, and Adams.

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