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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Stephen Wood: Wilderness Advocacy Through Music and Education

Photographs from the 2014 Wilderness Act Performance Series at the Outdoor Activity Center in Atlanta, GA. Proximity to Nature by Shawn Taylor and Proximity Viz, LLC. Left to right, middle: Stephen Wood, composer/director; Marti Keller, poet. Bottom: Tim Crump, saxophone; Jessica Sherer, flute; Nick Johns, piano/Corey Denham, percussion; Eric Fontaine, saxophone.

Photographs from the 2014 Wilderness Act Performance Series at the Outdoor Activity Center in Atlanta, GA. Proximity to Nature by Shawn Taylor and Proximity Viz, LLC. Left to right, middle: Stephen Wood, composer/director; Marti Keller, poet. Bottom: Tim Crump, saxophone; Jessica Sherer, flute; Nick Johns, piano/Corey Denham, percussion; Eric Fontaine, saxophone.

Stephen Wood is an Atlanta-based composer, performer, and naturalist who creates classical and jazz music in conversation with wilderness advocacy and environmental education.

Stephen Wood in Nantahala Wilderness Area.

Stephen Wood in Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area.

I asked Stephen, who is a member of the Landscape Music Composers Network, to share some of the ideas and experiences behind his innovative concerts and educational programs, in particular, and to elucidate his vision of how music acts as a catalyst for reconnecting us to our environment.

Stephen writes: “My current work as a composer, educator, and environmentalist is concerned with advocating for our National Preservation System and awakening our human connection to Earth. I do this first by composing music in different genres inspired by these natural themes. Additionally, I participate in and create Artist Residencies for our National Wilderness Preservation System, producing site-specific concerts and “Art Hikes” celebrating human connections to Nature, and presenting my educational workshop “Inspiring Stewardship” in music and science classes.” Continue reading

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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

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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

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

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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/

The ecocentric rationale for wilderness

Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Frazier NashI 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

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