Saturday, April 16, 2016

Composing in the Wilderness

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.”

1 comment:

Plinius said...

Postscript: June 2016

More new music in National Parks...

(1) The Britt Crater Lake Project

'Teddy Abrams will lead members of the Britt Orchestra in six concerts at the Park, with the dramatic panorama of the lake as the setting. The musicians will perform the world premiere of Natural History, by New York-based composer Michael Gordon, commissioned by Britt and inspired by Crater Lake. Gordon has visited Crater Lake throughout the past year, to draw on the park for inspiration for his composition.'

(2) A press release from the GVSU New Music Ensemble:

'The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is returning to the national stage to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park System. With a funding award from the National Endowment for the Arts, eight acclaimed composers were commissioned to create music that will be performed within the parks this summer. The music reflects the immense diversity of the parks while capturing their breathtaking and inspiring landscapes and wildlife.

Alexandra Gardner’s Vixen portrays the wild spirit of Yellowstone’s unpredictable Vixen geyser.

Molly Joyce’s Bite the Dust is based on the process of rapid erosion found in Badlands National Park.

Teewinot, composed by Betsey Biggs, presents a sonic time lapse of Teewinot Mountain, within Grand Teton National Park.

Patrick Harlin’s Wind Cave, based on Wind Cave National Park, captures the structure of the caves in addition to the emotional aspects of exploring them.

Rob Deemer’s Firehole Mists is based on the beautiful morning mist of Yellowstone National Park’s Firehole River.

Heat curls up from the dust, composed by Jeff Herriott, is based on the endlessly emerging details that reveal themselves when taking in the enormous landscapes of Grand Teton National Park.

Paula Matthusen’s on the analogical understandings of space treats the caves of Wind Cave National Park as a synthesizer, combining the sounds with the ensemble.

Finally, Phil Kline’s Dawn Chorus is based on the bird song of the Western Meadowlark, common to Badlands National Park.

In addition, music composed for the ensemble’s 2014 southwest national parks tour will be performed, composed by Ashley Stanley, David Biedenbender, and Thad Anderson.

The ensemble presents this program over a fourteen day, four thousand mile driving tour in summer 2016. Performing at both indoor and outdoor venues, they will perform concerts at four national parks—Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton'