This week I thought I would highlight a website called Landscape Music and the associated Landscape Music Composers Network. They are run by a Brooklyn-based artist and composer, Nell Shaw Cohen, who writes of having tried 'to achieve the sonic equivalent of what visual artists accomplish with landscape art. I coined the term “Landscape Music” to communicate this ideal and philosophy.' Among the projects on her CV is an app, Explore John Muir’s Yosemite. Looking through the biographies of the Network composers on her site it becomes clear that California, the American National Parks and John Muir are recurring interests. The soundcloud above, for example, is Jenni Brandon's The Sequoia Trio, 'inspired by the Big Trees in Sequoia National Park and the words of John Muir'.
In this video clip you can see Rachel Panitch, another of the Network composers, playing the fiddle in Zion National Park. The film also provides an insight into the way the National Parks' artist-in-residence programmes facilitate this kind of work. Such schemes are welcome and it will be interesting to see what kind of music they give rise to in future. I can't help thinking though that the way the park authorities pay for an artist to reside in a cabin is a little reminiscent of the way wealthy eighteenth-century landowners employed hermits to occupy huts on their estates. These hermits would sometimes have to make themselves available to speak to visitors, just as the modern artist in residence needs to give occasional talks or performances. One composer, Stephen Lias, has been taking advantage of several of these residencies to build up a body of work that responds to the parks' rivers, forests, mountains and storms. Some of this music has been collected on a CD, Encounters.
Stephen Lias calls himself an 'adventurer-composer' and some of his research sounds quite arduous. For the Gates of the Arctic National Park residency he was required to prove his fitness beforehand on a 10-day backcountry patrol. He has led a regular field seminar with other composers in Alaska, 'Composing in the Wilderness'. Its website advises applicants that they'll have to make do with pen and paper (no electricity) and notes that 'it is important that all participants are comfortable “roughing it” in close quarters for a few days.' Another Network composer, Justin Ralls has described being a participant on the first of these trips, reflecting on his need to get away from city life and wondering to what extent he was being a 'creative tourist' in the wilds of Alaska. It would be easy to find historical precedents for this kind of activity too in the Romantic period. Nowadays, wilderness expeditions organised for the benefit of artists are an alternative to the residency model - I have referred here more than once to the Cape Farewell trips which included composers and sound artist like Jarvis Cocker and Max Eastley.
John Muir & Theodore Roosevelt above Yosemite Valley, California.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
When it came to making a work about Yosemite, Range Light, Stephen Lias chose to work from photographs by Ansel Adams rather than his own direct experiences of the National Park. Justin Ralls has written an environmental chamber opera, Two Yosemites, about the famous camping trip that President Theodore Roosevelt took with John Muir. His Tree Ride, for orchestra, was 'inspired by Muir, backpacking, and listening to the breath of the world in California.' He has also composed a string quartet, Tree Wavings, which derives from a beautiful passage in John Muir's The Mountains of California.
“We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travellers in an ordinary sense. They make little journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journey, away and back again, are little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.”