Drawing Inspiration from Nature in a Time of Ecological Collapse

Image: “Wildfire” by Annie Bissett. Courtesy of the artist. More information.

Editor’s Note: Landscape Music composer Ryan Suleiman contributes his first essay to LandscapeMusic.org.

This Saturday I’m looking forward to hearing the premiere of my new orchestra piece, Burning, commissioned by Pete Nowlen and the Symphony d’Oro in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento). The collaboration has been such a joy for me. The concert is billed as a celebration of the Earth, programmed alongside Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 (one of my favorites) and James DeMars’ Lake That Speaks, two other works that engage with nature. The concert is also fundraising event for Whisker Warriors, a nonprofit that helps animals displaced by fires.

What does it mean for our art when the natural balance of the environment is in a state of crisis?

Beethoven, like many creative people, was deeply inspired by the natural world, talking walks through nature and retreating to the countryside to escape city life, recharge himself, get ideas. Scientific research has shown, as most artists have long known intuitively, that doing this is essential for one’s health and creativity. To state the obvious, there is so much fantastic music and art that is inspired by the wonder and beauty of nature. The clearest aspect of the beauty one finds in nature could be said to be the surface level. During a sunset, the sky is filled with vibrant colors. Mountains and trees in a forest create a striking form.

But of course, it is not just color and form that inspires us. It is the awe one feels looking at something so momentous as a mountain or an ocean and knowing that it has been here for millions and millions of years. It is knowing that it is part of a delicate balance and complex and dynamic web of life and death. Something bigger than oneself. It is also knowing that, as old as the mountains and the valleys are, they were literally completely different at one time, since they’re always changing. Or knowing that as seemingly timeless as the formations of California’s Central Valley are, they used to be an inland sea. It is the fact that nature provides nourishment and healing for us, but also can destroy us – it doesn’t care about us. It is the sublime. The reason we find inspiration in nature is because it contains both surface level beauty and these much deeper meanings because of our physical and spiritual connection with it. Continue reading

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Composing the Oregon National Historic Trail

Oregon Trail map

Editor’s Note: Composer Christina Rusnak writes her fourth essay for LandscapeMusic.org.

Last October, Nell Shaw Cohen, Stephen Wood and I met to discuss the feasibility of a developing a concert series to celebrate the 50th Anniversaries of the Wild and Scenic Rivers and National Trails System. Eleven months later, concerts are premiering in Vallejo, CA (9/23); Atlanta, GA (9/29); Houghton, MI (10/4); Portland, OR (10/7); and Boston, MA (11/3), as part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails concert series. My music is being performed in all locations except Boston. Determining what river or trail I would write about was easy—2018 also marks the 175th anniversary of the Oregon National Historic Trail, and I live just 12 miles from the trail’s end.

The Oregon Trail, and our near-mythological familiarity of it, is fraught with controversy. Claimed by both the British and Americans, the land was actually controlled by the indigenous inhabitants who had no idea what was coming. The emigrants who traveled the 2,170 mile Oregon Trail began their journey in Independence, Missouri—skirting the northeastern edge of what is now Kansas and traveling through Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho into Oregon, although none of these states actually existed until decades later. The hopeful settlers traveled through “Unorganized Territory” into Oregon Territory. While most people dispersed along the way to settle within east or south of Oregon Territory, the route officially ended at Willamette Falls—the second largest waterfall (in the U.S) after Niagara. About 20% of emigrants, over 80,000, followed the trail to the end. Continue reading

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Retracing the Anza Trail

Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon, CA

Mission San Antonio de Padua, Jolon, CA. Photo © 2018 Nell Shaw Cohen. See more photos.

My composition Retrace for flute, violin, and cello commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act of 1968, and was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. It will receive four co-World Premiere performances during Fall 2018 in locations around the country—presented by Citywater and the Visions of the Wild Festival (9/23, Vallejo, CA), Michigan Technological University (10/4, Houghton, MI), Cascadia Composers (10/7, Portland, OR), and Juventas New Music Ensemble (11/3, Boston, MA), respectively—as part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide initiative I am directing for the Landscape Music Composers Network.

The Anza Trail stretches 1,200 miles, weaving through desert and city from Nogales, Arizona to San Francisco, California. It follows the path of the Anza Expedition of 1775-76, which traveled indigenous routes from modern-day Mexico through Arizona and California to settle the San Francisco Bay Area for Spain. A narrative mapped onto the land rather than a “trail” in the usual sense, the Anza Trail is an ongoing project of cultural and historical preservation through outreach, education, and recreation. Continue reading

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Colors, Contrasts, and the Spaces Inbetween


Video: “Snow Caps” from High Desert Panoramas by Brent Lawrence

Editor’s Note: Composer Brent Lawrence writes his first essay for LandscapeMusic.org about finding inspiration in the high desert of eastern Oregon.

Although I live in Oregon now, I am not from Oregon. My blood runs from the cool mountain streams of Appalachia, where crystalline brook-babbles froth over the stones of mountains older than I can comprehend. It is in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia, and the rolling hills of the North Carolina Piedmont, where I made my old friends. The ragged, old, and wise mountains that cradled me in my, even more youthful, youth. It is no surprise then that I was taken (and still am) by the grandeur of the Cascades as my Red Mazda whisked through the mountain highways flanked by peaks adorned with snow. For many, and to me, the forest is a magical place, especially here in Oregon. Where one can lose themselves in the clear pools of mountain brooks, the silence perpetuated by unspeaking firs, or the occasional whisper of the wind. But to me, many of Oregon’s mysteries lie in the east. Continue reading

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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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