American Wild Ensemble

Music in the American Wild album cover
Based in Springfield, MO

“American Wild Ensemble celebrates the people, places, and stories that shape American history and culture through the commission and performance of new music. The American Wild Ensemble specializes in context-driven music that encourages our audiences to explore their environments through a different lens, engage with contemporary music in a new way, and foster the sense of community between performers, listeners, and the spaces that surround them. We design programming that is unique to each of our partnering organizations or locations, offering cohesive, site-inspired performances, workshops, and special events that support and reflect the vision of our collaborators.”


American Wild Ensemble began with a national touring initiative celebrating the 2016 National Park Service centennial. The American Wild Ensemble commissioned 11 works inspired by American national parks and headed out on tour of seven park sites around the country, with performances in caves, on mountaintops, and everywhere in between at: Mammoth Cave National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, San Juan Island National Historical Park, North Cascades National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, and Olympic National Park.

In the summer of 2018, the American Wild Ensemble returned to North Cascades National Park Service Complex to help celebrate the park’s 50th anniversary. Over the course of our week at North Cascades, we performed evening concerts of new music inspired by our national parks, designed and led education programs blending music, movement, and nature, and engaged in daily back porch jams where visitors joined us in singing and playing a variety of beloved folk tunes.

We concluded our time at North Cascades with a very special event, a performance of Chris Chandler’s Audubon Sketches on the Trail of the Cedars. Visitors were invited to walk the loop and listen to the music as they traversed the trail.

AWE continued its celebration of the great American outdoors with a chamber music commissioning and performance project in Hawai‘i in February 2020. AWE traveled to Oahu and the Big Island of Hawai‘i to perform newly commissioned works by composers Takuma Itoh, Michael-Thomas Foumai, Tonia Ko, and Byron Yasui, all current or former Hawai‘i residents. The central commission of the project, Itoh’s Adaptation Variations, was inspired by endangered endemic Hawaiian birds and supported by a Classical Commissioning Program Grant from Chamber Music America. Further commissions by Foumai, Yasui, and Ko took inspiration from Hawaiian wildlife, geography, and traditions.

Work Samples

Adaptation Variations (2020) by Takuma Itoh. Filmed and Edited by Jorge Arzac. Live outdoor concert audio – February 15, 2020 Lyon Arboretum, Honolulu, Hawaii. American Wild Ensemble: Emlyn Johnson, Flute; Ellen Breakfield-Glick, Clarinet; Lauren Becker, Horn; Hanna Hurwitz, Violin; Alexander Peña, Viola; Daniel Ketter, Cello; Colleen Bernstein, Percussion. The commission of Adaption Variations was made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For more information about American Wild Ensemble’s 2020 Hawaii tour in which this work was premiered, including interviews with composers and performers, see this short documentary.

Adaptation Variations is a work inspired by the remarkable adaptive radiation of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers, in which a single species of bird that first arrived in Hawaii evolved to become 56 distinct species. When talking about evolution, scientists have often used the musical analogy of a “variation of a theme” so I took that somewhat literally and wrote a set of (very loose) variations on a theme. Some of the variations are inspired by some of the notable adaptations: bark-picking insectivores like the ‘akikiki are represented by repeated notes; seed-eaters like the palila by percussive, rhythmic patterns; the nectarivores like the i‘iwi with their long curved beaks through glissandos.” —Takuma Itoh, Composer

Music in the American Wild (2018). Released October 10, 2018. Emlyn Johnson, flute; Ellen Breakfield-Glick, clarinet; Lauren Becker, horn; Jeremy Potts, violin; Emily Sheil, viola; Daniel Ketter, cello; Colleen Bernstein, percussion; Kevin Michael Holzman, conductor.

“During the Summer of 2016 the American Wild Ensemble toured seven national parks to premiere the works recorded here. Eleven composers and eight performers came together to fill several of our country’s grandest natural venues with a new opus of inherently American music. These commissioned works, supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, were inspired by the history, variety, and majesty of our national parks and other American landscapes. The first disc of this set has also been made into a full-length video album of beautiful footage from our original tour, available here.”

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