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.
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. 3Continue reading →
I recently read Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash‘s influential landmark survey of the intellectual history of wilderness in the U.S. In the Epilogue of the fourth edition, Nash muses on possible futures for wilderness and explains why the attitudes and rationales that led to the preservation of wilderness in the past may not hold up going forward.
“Ecocentric” arguments for wilderness preservation, which are rooted in ethics—rather than aesthetics, politics, or economics—are becoming increasingly important. Such a shift in conversation necessitates an intellectual and moral transformation of attitudes about nature. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and Nash’s ideas have stimulated me to further contemplate how music might support the ecocentric perspective. Continue reading →
Claude Lorrain, Landscape with the Rest on The Flight into Egypt, 1666
For better or for worse, most of the words and concepts we have for “nature” in English emerged from the opposition between human civilization and everything else. In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash traces how the term wilderness was transformed in America over the centuries from an essentially derogatory indicator for uncultivated, uncivilized areas, to its current positive associations with environmental conservation. Gary Snyder explored in The Practice of the Wild how even the popularly-held conception of nature is itself paradoxical. Despite the common and seemingly unavoidable usage of the word to refer to the “non-human” world, we humans and all of our activities – from gardening to browsing the Internet – are a part of nature.
Furthermore, when thinking about interpretations of “wilderness” or “nature” within art, it is inherently impossible to avoid human-imposed lenses on nature. The interpretation of nature through art is, by definition, the representation of human perspectives. This, I believe, is not a bad thing. In Landscape And Memory, Simon Schama argues eloquently for the importance of understanding that “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature” and that culture is “not the repudiation, but the veneration, of nature” (p. 18).
In this spirit, I seek to acknowledge and engage with culture-based perceptions of nature as the ways in which we humans necessarily make sense and meaning from the world around us, whether it’s through an Albert Bierstadt painting or a Disney movie.
I feel that landscape is the term that best embodies this overall idea. This word was imported from Dutch into English in the 16th century and has been used historically to refer to the aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially in the context of visual art. “Landscape” may be as accurately applied to bucolic scenes (the word’s original application) or cityscapes, as to wilderness locales that have been minimally impacted or modified by human hands. That having been said, as a creator and an audience member I’m interested primarily in art and music that acts as apathway to fostering a greater empathy with, and connection to, the rest of the natural world.