Tag: environmental music

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Unexplainable Places

SoundLives Episode 24: Žibuoklė Martinaitytė. (NewMusicBox presented by New Music USA)

Growing up in Soviet-era Lithuania, where people were often afraid to express their real feelings, Žibuoklė Martinaitytė discovered early on that music was safer than language and that it could enable her to express her innermost feelings without self censoring. It ultimately led her on the path to becoming a composer whose music is performed all over the world.  Although Žibuoklė now divides her time between a democratic Lithuania and the United States, her formative experiences have led her to explore a sonic vocabulary, which though frequently inspired by nature and always deeply emotive, is completely abstract and open to multiple interpretations.

“Music is enough; not only enough, it’s more than enough,”  she explained to me during a Zoom conversation last month. “It surpasses words; it surpasses the meaning of words because it can go to unknown places and unexplainable places. The beauty of music is that if you are telling some story, some inner story that you don’t want to reveal the details of, you could still tell the story and the listener would relate to that story. … [T]hey create their own story in their minds because nobody’s telling them what to think. But they have the emotional components that come up, like physiological and psychological reactions to the sounds that they hear.”

This approach to narrative is an ideal modus operandi when creating an orchestral composition or a piece of chamber music, and Žibuoklė has made significant contributions to both of these idioms which have resonated with audiences both in the concert hall and on recordings. Horizons, a 2013 symphonic tour-de-force, has been performed in multiple cities and has been recorded twice. Starkland’s recording of her enhanced piano trio In Search of Lost Beauty was described by Richard Whitehouse in Gramophone magazine as “one of the most significant releases thus far” on that label, praising her music’s “potency.” Last season, soon after the Finnish label Ondine released the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra’s recording of her haunting 2019 Saudade, a work inspired by the death of her father as well as her immigration to the USA, the work received a performance by the New York Philharmonic causing Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times to describe her orchestral writing as “intriguingly agitated.” Bang on a Can’s record label Cantaloupe Music recently released her 2020-21 Hadal Zone, an immersive sonic experience for a quintet of low-ranged instruments and electronics evoking the bottom of the ocean. But how does this play out when composing vocal music?

In our talk, Žibuoklė described her reticence to use words when she first received a commission to write a work for the choir Jauna Muzika in 2010 from the annual Gaida Festival, the most prominent new music festival in Lithuania. After feeling more drawn to the vowels of words in certain texts than the actual words, she ultimately decided to eschew text and set only vowels.

“When I made that choice of not using language, I felt, once again, very liberated,” she admitted, which makes perfect sense considering her life’s experiences. “Music was the way to have that freedom and music was the way to express myself in an absolutely free way and nobody could stop me from that. … That sense of freedom, I think, stayed with me to this day. That’s why music is so precious to me. And that’s why I don’t want to use narratives and text because I feel they would put me into some kind of perceptional prison.”

That first choral work, The Blue of Distance, which was subsequently performed and recorded by the San Francisco-based choir Volti, has led to two others thus far: Chant des Voyelles, which was commissioned by Volti in 2018, and Aletheia, a 2022 work created in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which was premiered by the Latvian Radio Choir during last year’s edition of the Baltic Music Days. All of these pieces were without words although that does not prevent her from conveying a visceral narrative, as she acknowledged in describing Aletheia. “I was thinking … about voice being the first and the very last instrument that we might have in our lives and all those people in the war, how they still have their voices with them and they could express themselves in this rage or scream, even as they are being killed.”

However, Žibuoklė confessed that the piece she is working on right now, a half-hour song cycle for female voice and orchestra, will actually have words. “Yes, I know, it’s quite unusual for me, but I must say I’m enjoying working with it, although I have mixed feelings about how I feel about text. But I will insert some vowel singing without text because I can’t go without it. But it’s this text by this very, very old female poet from more than 4,000 years ago called Enheduanna. … It’s fascinating how the poetry that was composed such a long time ago still contains the same subject matters that are very much today’s topics, like war and migration of people and environmental concerns and catastrophes and gender bending identities. It’s just incredible how all the issues remain the same over and over.”

Lei Liang Wins 2020 Grawemeyer Award for Climate Change-Inspired Piece

An AAPI man posing in front of a wooden background

Chinese-American composer Lei Liang has won the 2020 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for an orchestral work that evokes the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity it offers for redemption. Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned the winning piece, A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams, which premiered in 2018 in Boston’s Jordan Hall with Gil Rose conducting. Recipients of the 2020 Grawemeyer Awards are being named this week pending formal approval by university trustees. The annual $100,000 prizes reward outstanding ideas in music, world order, psychology, education and religion. Winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on their winning ideas.

“Liang’s piece, which explores a huge range of emotions and ends with both hope and ambiguity, has a forceful, convincing arc and wonderful orchestral colors,” said Marc Satterwhite, music award director. “Like some of our other winners, he challenges people inside and outside the field of music to ponder important things, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so.”

“I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually.”

“The world we live in today is dangerous,” explained Liang. “Our very existence is threatened by global warming, which is causing violent disruptions to the living things on our planet and being made worse by human irresponsibility. When creating the work, I wanted to convey the importance of preserving our landscapes, both physically and spiritually, to sustain a place where we and our children can belong.”

Lei Liang

2020 Grawemeyer Award winning composer Lei Liang (Photo by Alex Matthews, courtesy University of Louisville.)

Lei Liang (b. 1972) is a music professor at University of California, San Diego, and research-artist-in-residence at Qualcomm Institute, the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. He has composed more than 100 works, including pieces addressing other contemporary social issues such as human trafficking and gun violence. Xiaoxiang, his concerto for saxophone and orchestra, was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2015.

Schott Music, a company founded in 1770 in Germany now with offices worldwide, publishes all of Liang’s compositions. In 2018, BMOP/sound record label released a recording of his Grawemeyer-winning piece which also includes Xiaoxiang. Click here to listen to a complete recording of A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams and to look at a perusal copy of the full orchestral score.

Additional comments by Lei Liang on the inspiration for A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams

“I came across the writings and landscape paintings of Huang Binhong and fell in love.”

A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams is a musical landscape that I painted with a sonic brush. The journey of this work started about 25 years ago when I was a college freshman. While immersed in the study of Chinese shanshui (mountain-stream, or landscape) paintings, I came across the writings and landscape paintings of Huang Binhong (1865-1955) and fell in love. I hand-copied Huang Binhong’s essays, visited Hangzhou, China, where he had his last residence, and went to museums to search for his original paintings. Since those first discoveries, his paintings have never ceased to inspire me.

In 2009, I met the Berkeley-based scholar and connoisseur Jung Ying Tsao (1929-2011). A particular album in Mr. Tsao’s collection caught my attention. It was painted by Huang Binhong in 1952, when he was nearly blind from cataracts. The master painter (then aged 87) continued to paint in blindness, and even created some of his most magical works during that time. It is an inner landscape, the magical projection of an internal vision. This orchestra piece is the culmination of a project that took shape over several years, and developed over several stages, mainly during my research residency at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego. The first phase, Hearing Landscapes, was the sonification of a Chinese traditional landscape painting by Huang Binhong (1865-1955), painted during a time when the artist was blind (in 1953).

From 2014 to 2016, I had a further opportunity to continue my research into Huang Binhong when I became the composer-in-residence at California Institute of Information Technology (Calit2) and Qualcomm Institute at the University of California, San Diego. With a group of scientists, we created a collaborative project that sought to conserve and explore Huang Binhong’s art through creative processes in musical composition and data visualization. Through the courtesy of Elna Tsao and with the support from the Mozhai Foundation, Huang’s album leaves were loaned to us, captured digitally, then reconstructed for high-resolution projection, revealing to viewers details of the work that have never been seen before. By using audio software technology, the intricate world hidden within the paintings’ brushstrokes are rendered sonically in an immersive space. Our project enables a viewer to fly through this painting, as if riding on a drone, and draws us into the landscape of microscopic elements – a fiber in the rice paper, the trace left by a single hair in the brush.

“Around the same time as China’s Cultural Revolution, the world was just starting to experience the catastrophic effect of what we would come to call global warming.”

In the 1950s, the cultural-political landscape in China began to change dramatically. Soon, China was to witness and undergo its most violent self-destruction – the Cultural Revolution – aiming at the annihilation of its own heritage through unprecedented brutality against its people. Around the same time, the world was just starting to experience the catastrophic effect of what we would come to call global warming. The harrowing effects of this era, induced by the emission of greenhouse gases, began to cause what we now know is the inevitable consequences of climate change: the sea will rise, the icecaps will melt, cities will flood, and whole species will be wiped out. The landscape we inhabit will forever change.

In 1952, in a darkness both literal and metaphoric, the blind Huang Binhong envisioned a luminous landscape that seemed to arise out of the shredded fragments and ashes. It transcended the brutal reality, offering a glimpse of a landscape to come, perhaps a place our children can call home.

Below is a link to a documentary, Deriving Worlds, about the research Liang conducted with scientists and sound engineers.

Deriving Worlds from Keita Funakawa on Vimeo.

Music and a Sense of Place

Have you ever been arrested by sound—music, a bird call or even a siren?  You might even notice, in an Ivesian sort of way, the polymetric pulse of a city or the rhythm of footsteps on the stairs (and their canon with your own). These rhythms say something about the life that created them. How different they’d be in Bali.

A sense of place can be the impetus for a piece, motion can be the catalyst.  Beethoven often took long walks, I imagine both to clear his head and to stir his thoughts.  When I walk down the streets of New York City, I’ll sometimes find myself humming a bass line vamp that accompanies my pace and mood. It’s unconscious at first.  The soundscape around me fits on this grid, often in syncopated counterpoint.  The movement suggests music by its weight, duration, tempo, direction and rhythmic patterns. Everything is part of the music.

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen”

I think of those times when we harmonize with our urban environment as “citi-zen” and earlier this year I wrote a piece for electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit and a pre-recorded audio track titled Citi-zen.

The recording that accompanies the piece is my vocal improv with the New York City night, vamping and riffing into my phone’s recording app as I walk down Broadway at a tempo of about 100 to the quarter note, responding to the sounds I hear around me. In the course of my walk, a bus whooshes by, a dog yaps, sirens wail, there’s theater talk, a trumpet plays across the street.  Live instruments play along in a game of hide and seek/cover and reveal. The recording is unedited; I wanted it to express a natural occurrence, the polymetric counterpoint of life.

The recording gave me the form of the piece.  I wanted to do a five-minute piece, and so I stopped recording when the time was up. But I felt it needed something more, so I started recording again for another minute. Near the end of that coda a woman shouts, “It’s a full moon!”  That was the ending I needed!  It happened to have been October 4, the Harvest Moon, 10-4, the old ham radio code for “got it!”  I welcome the random occurrence, the synchronicity, improvising with life, making the best of what’s come before as best I can.

My current work in progress is The Universe of Grand Central for any solo instrument and a two-minute cellphone video with improvised commentary, filmed during “off-peak” hours in Grand Central Station.  A solo instrumentalist plays along with the video. We begin with a view of the ceiling, the cosmos in all its astrological glory.  Following the arching windows, the viewer descends into the hall and its inhabitants, and follows them in their crossings through the Grand Hall, their individuality more pronounced in this quiet hour, after the herds have already passed.

The ceiling of Grand Central Terminal

Sometimes a place can affect the music more indirectly.  I lived for a time in the mountains of Northern California.  The wide open spaces and majestic beauty filled me with a sense of reverence. The “emptiness” of the wilderness provoked a fullness, the stillness roused my inner life.  As I wrote, I looked to the mountains. Did the music ring true?  Sympathetic vibrations between saxophone and piano evoke this resonance.

Sometimes a place can affect music more indirectly and the desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst.

The desire to remember the feeling of a place can also be a catalyst. The Beauty Way for soprano, tenor, and bass viols (2009) is inspired by my residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.  In Taos, 8000 feet above sea level, closer to the heavens, I observed the mercurial play of light and shadow and experienced a sense of wonder that I never wanted to forget. Time slowed down. I was off the clock; there was only morning, afternoon, and night.  I was in the Timeless Zone.

I was fascinated by the place. It’s a cultural crossroads of Native American, Mexican, and Spanish influences, and then in the 20th century, the artists colonized it.

Debra Kaye in the desert

There, for the first time, I had the opportunity to walk on one of the few places in the United States that is still nominally acknowledged as “Native” land, and which is also completely off the electric grid.  With beauty all around me, a Navajo blessing came to mind.  You may have heard it.

Now I Walk In Beauty

Now I walk in beauty
Beauty is before me
Beauty is behind me
Above and below me

Returning to New York City was culture shock at first. Walking through crowded Harlem streets, I could envelop myself in the aura of those summer walks by singing the Navajo tune.  I was soon discovered. Through the sirens and screeching cars, I heard a man singing a gospel version of “This Little Light of Mine.” We smiled at each other, each continuing our song.  Integrating these experiences (and these tunes) became the impetus for the piece.

I later found that the beauty way is described as a feeling of joy, bliss, and safety, a state of grace.  There are no battles with people, nature, or our own nature. It recognizes those times when we are in harmony with all that is.

The Native melody is very similar to the traditional English round, Hey Ho Nobody Home, and I wondered if these tunes had ever met and influenced each other.  It seemed interesting that the words of the two songs seem to be opposites and represent a positive and negative aspect.

The Beauty Way is in rondo form. It begins with the original Navajo tune in canon. The B section is a fantasy on the original material that leads to a darker aspect and the return of the Beauty theme in combination with Hey Ho Nobody Home.  Next, again, there is a development section, but this time it leads to a more positive aspect, culminating when the Beauty theme returns, this time in combination with This Little Light of Mine.  The goal of the piece is to establish the feeling of the beauty way, to fall out of harmony and to find the way back.

Saving The Earth–Artist/Activists for the Environment

It’s obvious that our physical world is in deep trouble.  Old and new technologies are out of control—polluting our air, water and soil, poisoning our health, heating up the climate to extreme weather changes, and destroying the ecosystems upon which our lives and all living things depend.  What is it that we, ordinary people, can do to force our governments to stop this rape and murder of the earth?

We are six women artists. Since we are artists, we will try to help through our art.

In 2016, composer Alice Shields collaborated with composers Sheree Clement, Eleanor Cory, and Nina C. Young to design a concert of new works dedicated to the earth, all created by women.  The concert would be presented by The Association for the Promotion of New Music in New York City (APNM) and would be performed by the musicians of Ensemble Pi.

Idith Meshulam Korman—pianist, artistic director of Ensemble Pi, and one of the most vibrant social activists in classical music—was already a friend of several of the composers and immediately got involved. Ensemble Pi was indeed the perfect ensemble for this project: an outstanding contemporary performing ensemble, with a celebrated history and ongoing commitment to human rights and environmental protection.

With Idith and Ensemble Pi’s roster of musicians in mind, several of us began writing new pieces about the environment that would be performed at the proposed concert.  As plans developed, we decided to explore what visual artist we might bring in to enhance the experience of our audience.  Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM, suggested we might want to ask the prominent environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan, whom he had known as a fellow student at New College, if she would be interested in participating.  Passionately committed to environmental protection, Lynne has documented climate change and water issues across the United States and around the world in places such as Patagonia, Iceland, the Falkland Islands, Antarctica, and Bangladesh.

We contacted her, and Lynne quickly became the sixth member of our artist-activist alliance. A dedicated environmentalist, she has photographed natural phenomena around the world, working for environmental organizations such as Waterkeeper Alliance, as well as with indigenous people.  Lynne’s beautiful, often disturbing photographs of the current state of the earth are riveting. Not only do they document the actual physical phenomena of streams, rivers, oceans, trees, and landscapes, but they are also works of art, radiantly detailed and shining with natural light.  Lynne’s environmental photographs will be shown throughout the SAVING THE EARTH concert, matched with the mood and world view of our different compositions. Our concert audience will not only be hearing music inspired by the environment, but will be experiencing visual art representing environmental issues as well.

Is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world?

We considered what else might elevate the audience’s experience.  We were not environmental scientists or biologists: is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world? Don’t we also need someone who can speak with authority about the perilous state of the environment?  We asked Lynne what environmental organization we should invite to speak at the concert. Lynne suggested we contact Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to clean water around the world which she knew well.

The Waterkeeper movement was started by fishermen on New York’s Hudson River in 1966 because industrial polluters were destroying their way of life. Their environmental activism led to the Hudson’s inspiring recovery. Waterkeeper Alliance now unites 300 Waterkeeper organizations around the world, tracking down polluters, enforcing environmental laws in the courts, advocating in town meetings, and teaching in classrooms.  They speak for the waters they defend. We contacted them and are pleased to say that Waterkeeper’s Executive Director Marc Yaggi will speak during the concert.  Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, Marc, a specialist in environmental law, was a senior attorney for Riverkeeper, Inc., where he worked to protect the 2,000-square-mile watershed that provides New York City’s drinking water.

The concert program we have designed together—four composers, a pianist-ensemble leader, and an environmental photographer—is called SAVING THE EARTH – Two operas and two meditations for our Planet. It will be presented by the Association for the Promotion of New Music on Nov. 20, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. Below, each one of us speaks a little about the concert and our hopes for the preservation of the earth.

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement
About Swimming Upstream (2018)
for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano , violin, cello and video
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Projection design by Ross Karre
NYC premiere

Swimming Upstream, a one-act chamber opera, explores our emotional connection to water and rivers and streams. The main character is a retired biology teacher from Rumford, Maine—and/or a water goddess. You get to decide.  Imagine her reaction to what we humans have done to the water on our planet – dammed streams and rivers, upended ecosystems, and even contaminated our own drinking water.  The piece incorporates projections and pre-recorded audio with field recordings and texts about water, the Androscoggin River, and migratory fish. With a minimal stage setting, it weaves together science, politics, regional history, and family history.

Upstream Fish

An image of upstream fish that will be projected during Sheree Clement’s Swimming Upstream.

The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

In four scenes, the heroine Mary Beth Davis comes to terms with the defilement of the Androscoggin River and the ramifications of the devastation it caused. Many of her family members worked in the Oxford / Verso paper mill, and many died of one kind of cancer or another. In reflecting on the river, Mary Beth’s science background leads her to consider the 2014 tap water crisis in Flint, Michigan and more. This drives her to ideas of retribution and extreme measures, but who is actually responsible? The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young
About L’heure bleue (2013)
Roberta Michel, flute; Ah Ling Neu, viola

I was trained as an ocean engineer at MIT and my work as a composer has often engaged with topics and sounds that address human interaction with technology and the environment.  In 2017 the American Composers Orchestra premiered Out of whose womb came the ice, a work for baritone, orchestra, electronics, and generative video commenting on the ill-fated Ernest Shackleton Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.  The composition is built upon sourced texts from the journal entries of the crew, visual manipulations of Frank Hurley’s photographs from the expedition, and recordings of ice floes and glaciers obtained from the PALAOA Ocean Acoustics Lab.  The glacier recordings resurface as the sonic and harmonic structure of Rising Tide, a work commissioned for the Milan Expo that comments on human agency and rising sea levels.  I’m currently collaborating with vocal bassist, writer, and community organizer Andrew Munn on an evening-length, multi-media ritual opera, titled Making Tellus – An Opera for the Anthropocene, which addresses the current socio-political conversation surrounding human intervention and earth’s rapidly changing geology.

For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.

All of these larger projects stemmed from one of my first attempts at tying together concepts of natural phenomenon with organized concert music: L’heure bleue, the work programmed on APNM’s concert.  For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.  L’heure bleue evokes with sound the earthly transition from day to night, the unique glow of the mysterious blue hour that fades into darkness.  The flautist and violist are two individuals in a partnership—conversing, arguing, and admiring their surroundings as they try to find a union between themselves as singular, together, and in counterpoint with the liminality of their surroundings.  The piece also contains an easter egg: play L’heure bleue alongside Steven Wilson’s song “Harmony Korine” and you may discover an unexpected connection.  (If you are interested why, come and chat with me after the show!)

Eleanor Cory in Straus Park

Eleanor Cory (Photo by Molly Sheridan)

Eleanor Cory
About Reverie Interrupted (2018)
Aexis Gerlach, cello; Idith Meshulam, piano
world premiere

I grew up summering on the far end of Long Island. We lived at the top of a hill away from the surf, but many summers our yard was flooded with waves which came up over the dunes during hurricanes. These were frightening experiences for me as a little child. The waves felt enormous, and surmounting their ire made me strong. Looking back, I experienced extreme vulnerability, but also a sense of power. I think the extremes of environmental events have some relation to writing music. We need to be in command of notes which can have the power to present listeners with everything from beauty to complexity, fear and anger as well as sensitivity and vigor. The environment has often inspired me with images which I have translated into notes.

I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people.

Writing music is a very solitary activity. For years I composed and taught composition to college students.  When I retired and was alone with just my music, I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people. Eventually, my pieces began to refer to political events like Occupy Wall Street or the experiences of people in prison.

Recently I have been concerned about the threat to the American environment, which led me to write Reverie Interrupted for cello and piano. The music alternates between supple lines and chords expressing the beautiful panoramas of wide U.S. landscapes, and agitated, more dissonant sections, which depict the environmental damage that humans can cause.  At the end of the piece, a quiet equilibrium allows the two musical extremes to co-exist expressing my optimism that people can end environmental corrosion.

Alice Shields

Alice Shields

Alice Shields
About Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World (2018)
for soprano, baritone, flute, oboe, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello
Sharon Harms, soprano; Jeffrey Huw Williams, baritone;
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Directed by Ashley Tata
world premiere

In early childhood I lived for a while in the Sonoran Desert, and saw Spring come on the desert, with thousands of cactus in bright blooms, radiating color under the enormous skies. Later, as a child growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I saw more and more asphalt being laid down for roads and malls, covering over the woods and meadows. As the number of cars increased on those roads and malls, the fresh air changed to something less alive. Since that time I have felt increasingly estranged from the natural world, and have tried to draw it near to me in my work. A recent piece in which I have held nature close to me is The Wind In the Pines, a commission from Chamber Music America for singer and six instruments. In this piece, based on the Noh play Matsukaze (“Pine Wind”), a pine tree speaks of the doom of the earth.

Joining these pieces is my new opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World, a one-act chamber opera. The plot is based on stories about Wang Zhaojun, who created peace between Mongolia and China two thousand years ago and is still celebrated in China today. Zhaojun had been given by her former master, the Emperor, to the Mongols as a sexual peace offering. But in the opera, to stop environmental destruction and create universal peace, the sex slave Zhaojun steps out of ancient times into the 21st century to confront the Emperor, the modern ruler of the world.

The costume for the Emperor of the Future

The costume for the Emperor of the Future in Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution. The plot unfolds: Zhaojun three times tries to rip away his guns, money, and garbage, but fails to trap him. Nonetheless, he stumbles and falls into his own toxic environmental garbage, smothers, and dies. She brings him back to life, and teaches him to sing a liturgy of caring for others, and immerses him in Indra’s Net, the connective tissue that connects each cell in the universe. He is overwhelmed with the beauty and profundity of the universe until there is no narcissism left in him, and he finally feels compassion and the urge to protect all living things. Nearer to enlightenment, and almost happy, the Emperor’s Soul is released, and he dances together with Zhaojun, dedicating his new life to caring and compassion for all things.

Idith Meshulam Korman playing the piano

Idith Meshulam Korman, pianist and artistic director of Ensemble Pi

Idith Meshulam Korman

Ensemble Pi, a socially conscious new music group, strives for activism through music by presenting concerts focused on such policy matters as mass incarceration, media suppression, Black Lives Matter, and protecting our environment. The last subject is the most alarming one, especially under the current administration, and encompasses issues of racism, economic injustice, greed, inequality, and media presentation.

For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations.

In my personal observations of environmental shifts during my lifetime, I would say that the most conspicuous change I have seen is the compromised health of the younger generation. For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations, afflicted with new, debilitating, undiagnosed, and misunderstood chronic diseases. The cause of this alarming and painful situation can be nothing other than that we live in a soup of environmental toxins. Our water, air, food, oceans, and mountains need our protection—and are not getting it.

And because we live in a male-dominated society that allows this to happen, it is time for  women to connect, collaborate, create a new movement, and launch a revolution to effect significant environmental change. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), cites the need to hear from more women scientists on the topic of climate change, and she notes that the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle at Standing Rock was initiated by women and children from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Ensemble Pi rehearsing

Ensemble Pi rehearsing Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World

I believe this should be our model, and that “Change the System to Change the Climate” should be our motto.

The question is: How do you stay hopeful or engaged in the present, dire political climate? The answer: by getting out of our homes and off our screens and coming together with like-minded people to share our concerns and pain and to call for change. This concert is part of that movement: women for environmental change.

Lynne Buchanan on the Kapitan Khlebnikov

Environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan on the legendary Kapitan Khlebnikov, one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world.

Lynne Buchanan

For the last 15 million years, Antarctica has been a frozen desert under ice.  My interest in water naturally led me there, as the Antarctic contains somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the earth’s freshwater in frozen ice sheets.  According to Andrew Shepherd, the lead author of a recent study on Antarctic ice loss, Antarctica lost 3 trillion tons of ice between 2002 and 2017, with forty percent of this loss in the last five years.  In addition to glacial land ice, there is sea ice, which is also declining and resulting in alterations to the food web and habitat loss.  The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix, which is causing changes in the ocean’s chemistry, ecosystems, and biodiversity.  It was fascinating to observe some of the changes that are happening with my own eyes, as I watched glaciers the size of city blocks move past the icebreaker.

The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix.

The sea ice is what really spoke to my soul though.  To study it was to watch geology in motion, something that is not possible on land.  Fast sea ice attaches to land masses and is less prone to seasonal melting, and this is what we walked on to visit the emperor penguins, which are the only creatures to lay their eggs on sea ice.  (Sadly, studies have predicted the rapid decline of these species as the sea ice diminishes.)  Floating sea ice can be multiyear thicker ice or thin ice that freezes each winter.  The winds and currents blow icebergs and sea ice around in the ocean, and it is easy to become trapped. Helicopter reconnaissance missions were performed regularly to make sure we would not get stuck. Sheets of sea ice often crash into each other and form fracture lines. I loved when finger-shaped pieces of ice were superimposed on layers below, or when frost flowers dotted the surface, or when the ship churned up thick chunks and you could see the krill and algae on the underside.  Glacial ice is devoid of life, but sea ice is a platform for it. The intricacies of how the sea ice behaves reminded me of the human psyche–the “armor” or artificial walls we often construct and how our personalities evolve when we are triggered or when aspects of our inner selves erupt. To me, Antarctica embodied the interconnectedness of existence. The sea of whiteness was a blank slate at times, but when you looked closer it wasn’t blank at all. There were traces and records of being in nothingness all around…

When Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM and a fellow New College alum, approached me to see if I was interested in participating in a “Saving the Earth” concert of works by female composers, I was honored to share my images.  Having worked with indigenous women on water and other environmental issues, I instantly knew the value of having a program with this theme designed and composed by women. Then I learned of the opera by Alice Shields that will be performed in this concert.  She describes the penultimate scene as being Indra’s Web, in which the female character Zhaojun immerses the Emperor’s body in the interconnected web of atoms that reflect all the other atoms in the universe, and teaches him to serenely sing with her the Bodhisattva’s guide to life. I was a yoga instructor before I began photographing water and interdependent ecosystems, so this spoke to me on a deep level.  My worldview is also greatly influenced by Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in the 12th century and believed in a web of life. The theme of Alice’s opera is a reminder that women throughout history have been advocating for the need to connect with the earth and share her resources for future generations.

Music and (Social/Cultural) Resilience

Not only is music an important conduit for ecological awareness, it is also a powerful expression of resilience. This final post is anchored in the Caribbean, where music’s ability to instill hope and joy in spite of difficulty is affirmed time and again. Affirming the value of such music within global environmental politics may not be easy, but—if achieved—it might be precisely what we need to turn this proverbial ship around.

“Afro-Cuban dance is the dance of slaves. When they danced, it was their only time to feel free. So they could be a bird, or do a flamenco step and make fun of their owners, or just be in the sea instead of on an island far away from home. It is a dance about being exactly who you want to be in that moment. It has to look, and feel, as natural as the waves.”

So says Javier, the male lead in a film that was so poorly rated that for years I’ve been embarrassed to quote it. In many ways, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights fell out of my favor by its name alone. But despite this, this quotation is one of the most apt descriptions of Afro-Caribbean music I know.

Resilience is in the bloodstream of people of African descent in the Caribbean. And it is no coincidence that Caribbean musical genres such as reggae and bomba inspire such joy in those who listen to, play, and dance to it. And as Javier implies, this music has always been deeply connected to the patterns and rhythms of nature—which, of course, stand in stark contrast to the oppressive system of plantation slavery which brought so many people to the Caribbean in the first place.

These forms of music and dance have also served as powerful forces for coexistence. Today, they continue to bring people of diverse profiles together to celebrate life, often outdoors in shared public spaces. They have also served to affirm humor, culture, and dignity in the face of a wide host of social, economic, and political challenges. At times, they serve as conduits for grief. And—crucially for the topic of climate change—they underscore the importance of place and shared space, for resilience and solidarity.

Musical practices remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts.

In the Caribbean and elsewhere, musical practices—participatory traditions in particular—remind us that community, ecology, and strength can come together through the arts. These are important in any time and place, but now, in this age of climate change, they are indispensable.

Even if we have not memorized the statistics around climate change, we are certainly familiar with them. And we are equally familiar with the images that accompany them. Let’s take sea level rise: news outlets which trade in non-alternative facts tell us that sea level rise is one of the clearest and most disconcerting consequences of climate change. In the coming years, people living on islands and along coastlines are expected to lose their homes. Shocking photos have been taken to illustrate that these losses are already taking place. For many of us “island people,” the mere suggestion that sea level rise could wash away our neighborhoods is too much to handle. As always, I turn to music.

In internationally visible ways, music has been used to mobilize support for disaster relief efforts in the past. For instance: Music for Relief is a nonprofit founded (to my surprise) by Linkin Park in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It has since responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents, in each case using its position within the music community to raise funds and awareness to aid those affected by these ecological crises. The organization has also planted 1.3 million trees to help mitigate climate change.

Such efforts are wonderful and well publicized, as they should be. Yet mainstream media does not give nearly as much attention to the music of the regions affected by climate change. This puzzles me. If traditions of social and cultural resilience through music have developed for centuries in the “global South,” and if many of these contain deep ecological elements, then why is it that existing global climate politics fail to recognize and mobilize this power?

Music for Relief, a nonprofit founded by Linkin Park, has responded to more than 25 natural disasters on four continents.

Leading global relief institutions such as the Red Cross regularly conduct studies on human resilience in the face of ecological disasters, but music rarely figures into these investigations. We must honor the practices of resilience through the music that exists in our world, and do what we can to support them, so that the world’s people are able to mobilize their formidable musical resources for social and cultural thriving.

Throughout this series, I have highlighted the need for the musical and ecological wisdom of the “global South” to be more deeply recognized within global environmental politics as a whole. As difficult as this can be to talk about, the topic of resilience reflects many of the themes which unify these posts. Here are a few.

In diverse geographies around the world, the connections between music and the environment have long histories and deep implications. Music has been used in countless settings as a means by which humans can attain an intimate relationship not only with each other, but with their natural surroundings. While these practices never originate within or center around international bodies, institutions like the United Nations can play an important role in supporting music-based environmental initiatives. Within universities, international institutions, and community organizations alike, the links between music and the environment can and must be more deeply explored.

As readers know by now, the regions most deeply affected by climate change are (and will continue to be) islands and coastlines. Many of these places possess rich musical and ecological resources which could both reinforce activist initiatives close to home and inspire others to work for climate action as well. Yet in keeping with the geopolitical narratives that most of us grow up with and often internalize, these islands and coastlines are presented as “marginal” places, removed from the centers of power and thus (by some peculiar logic) also removed from the social, cultural, and ecological resources and expertise that are necessary to promote environmental awareness and action. Within the arena of resilience, this disconnect feels particularly unsettling.

In my view, for both music and climate action to thrive together, a “centering” of these so-called “margins” is essential. The living traditions of “music and the Earth” must be respected, humbly supported, and learned from. Musical and ecological wisdom in South Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and beyond can point the way towards all of the qualities that we must cultivate for truly sustainable living—from listening to collaboration to resilience.

For me, the subject of music and the Earth links directly to a deep conversation about who we are as human beings—what we live for and how we define a peaceful world. If each of these pieces probes these questions just a little bit, then I may fall asleep to the sound of the waves and be content.

Composing Interdependence—Songs Along the Nile

In recent years, transnational musical collaborations have emerged, in which musicians from different countries have joined forces to promote awareness of shared ecological challenges. This article will discuss one such collaboration, the Nile Project, which has brought together musicians from throughout the Nile Delta. I will use this example to briefly discuss the alternative vision that such music can pose to our current, highly unsustainable forms of globalization.

The borders between our futures have never been so porous. Globalization and climate change have already illustrated—with startling clarity—that our wellness depends not only on ourselves and the people around us, but also on the individual and collective actions of people thousands of miles away.

We live in a time of unprecedented ecological change, in which the habits that human beings have developed over the course of the past five hundred years or so, with the advent of industrialization and “modernity,” are manifesting in unpredictable and devastating ways. The present and potential impacts of climate change are greater than any of us can easily take in. Changes in temperature, sea level rise, and disruptions to precious webs of interdependency between the world’s living beings: all of these have implications for our homes and loved ones that we cannot bring ourselves to engage with. We must—and yet we can’t. Some might say that this conundrum lies at the heart of our global inaction on climate change.

Taking action on climate change—especially when we live in places where the powers-that-be have little concern for the issue—can be painful and overwhelming. And in spite of the fact that we have more avenues for communication—and across longer distances—than ever before, we still suffer from a crisis of communication. Do the latest online platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp, make mindful and empathetic conversation easier? Some would say yes, but I am inclined to say no. Amidst all of the changes that globalization has brought into our lives, it seems that we have not yet figured out how to bring such essentials as dialogue, music, and ecological consciousness into our rapidly expanding array of communications options.

Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement.

Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement. Often, our common ground is based upon the expanding reach of narrow expressions of popular culture, exported from the world’s most powerful centers for commercial media (such as Los Angeles and Mumbai). Wealth is distributed more quickly (though not more equitably) than before, through inscrutable networks of finance based in places such as Singapore and New York. And (some) human bodies are more mobile than ever, traveling on airplanes that emit colossal amounts of carbon. The wealthiest of these people travel from London to Paris to Rome, and vacation in tropical islands whose rainforests and shorelines are threatened by our shared, global disregard for the ramifications of the lifestyles that we endorse. Biodiversity, in all its myriad definitions, is put at risk by the narrative of globalization that we tell ourselves and enact: that we live in a world in which diversity, communication, and an enjoyment of the world’s beauties are more available than ever before. Yet more often than not, this globalization does not translate into new forms of transnational collaboration for environmental awareness.

The above is quite a dismal view of globalization, connection, and culture in our times. However, for the past few years, a group of musicians and educators along the Nile River are offering a new example. The Nile Project is an ambitious project in the best sense of the word. Its stated mission is to “inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river.” The Nile is the second longest river in the world, and it quite literally gives life to eleven African countries. The Nile Project engages with people in every one of these countries—from Egypt to Tanzania to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bringing people together is not a “side benefit” of the Nile Project. On the contrary, it is its primary goal. Exposure, curiosity, learning, understanding, empathy, trust, and engagement (in that order) are the pillars of the Nile Project. In dramatic contradiction to the dynamics of global environmental politics discussed so far in this series, common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

Common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

As is the case with the connections between music and climate change in general, the precise links between common humanity and sustainability tend not to be explored in the scholarship, media, and everyday attitudes that those of us in the industrialized (or industrializing) world commonly encounter. The brevity of this post does not permit me to elaborate the ways in which our humanity and our ecological futures depend upon each other.

Simply put, however, the qualities that true sustainability requires are the same qualities that form the bedrock of a truly humane society. Sensitivity to the beauty and the needs of others; an ability to engage honestly with friends and strangers, in the interest of a common good; a willingness to learn and test one’s preconceived notions about other people and places; a desire to imagine a future which celebrates and protects the well-being of all life: These qualities are the cornerstones of healthy humans, and a healthy Earth. In the Nile Delta, conflicts over water already take place. Thus, the men and women involved in the Nile Project emphasize the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding for both spiritual and deeply practical reasons: If we are not able to resolve our water conflicts now, they say, how on Earth will we get on when population grows and droughts become more common?

Music offers its answers

Musicians and educators are particularly well suited to carrying out the Nile Project’s mission. It’s no surprise, then, that musicians lead a significant portion of the Project’s initiatives, and also garner a great deal of appreciation and publicity for their efforts. The musical branch (tributary?) of the Nile Project consists of “an expanding collective of artists from the eleven Nile countries, redefining principles of cross-cultural musical collaboration.” It also includes a “series of community choirs applying the same principles across the Nile Basin.”

In the past five years, Nile Project musicians have recorded two albums (one studio and one live), both of which are rich and inspiring expressions of unity in diversity. The artists hail from Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt (to name a few). Their first album, Aswan, was recorded after ten intensive days of creative collaboration, in which the musicians taught each other their respective musical languages, and then wove together a unified tapestry. They performed this co-created composition in two Egyptian cities—Cairo and Aswan—only four days later. Their second album, Jinja, brought in new musicians from countries such as Burundi, Kenya, and Rwanda. The mood of the album is as varied and wide-reaching as the instruments and styles that created it. For instance, the bluesy opening track, “Inganji” strikes me as a blend of the singer Fatoumata Diawara and the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen, both from the West (not East) African country of Mali. The track “Tenseo,” meanwhile, sounds closer to the Nile’s Project’s geographic center: a haunting dialogue between the vocal style of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, and spare Ethiopian jazz.

Throughout the album, a variety of instruments from across the region—the enanga, a zither native to Uganda and Rwanda; the ikembe, a thumb piano; Ethiopian vocals and Egyptian drums; the adungu, a harp from Uganda—convey the profound human collaborations that were involved in producing the album in the first place.

The Nile Project musicians are currently on tour in the United States. Their itinerary is intense—averaging at one, sometimes two concerts per day. The Nile Project also continues to support ongoing programming closer to home. For instance, they have created a Choir which uses storytelling and song to illustrate some of the region’s most enduring ecological challenges. The Project also offers a Fellowship Program for young people in Nile Basin countries who wish to create “Nile Project Clubs” on their university campuses. In this sense, the Nile Project is both deepening and broadening its scope. And as always, the interconnectivity of the Project’s musicians serves as a powerful sonic metaphor for the sorts of social and cultural collaborations which are necessary for border-crossing, positive change.

Many of us take for granted what we hear about globalization. We assume that the only form which contact across borders can take is economic, commercial, and—in some cases—neo-colonial. Expanded markets, cultural homogenization, and environmental disregard are, unfortunately, some of the hallmarks of the kind of globalization that is popular among the world’s wealthiest. However, other initiatives are taking place which affirm connections across borders in a much more vibrant and sustainable way. As the Nile Project has demonstrated, a dialogue between music and the Earth provides a solid foundation for these alternatives. We would do well to support intersections between music and the environment where they exist, and advocate on their behalf where they are absent.

The international policy landscape that I discussed in my previous post doesn’t allow much space for the sensibilities, or participation, of ecologically minded musicians. By consequence, the avenues for initiatives like the Nile Project to directly inform climate-related political decisions are far and few between. Yet the spirit of this post, as well as the others in this series, is not necessarily to highlight the ways in which music already inspires climate debates, but rather to introduce the possibility that they could do so more deeply. In order for transnational collaborations such as the Nile Project to inspire policy-making, the cooperation of a whole host of professionals—from diplomats to educators to lawyers to the public—is required. A paradigm shift, if you will, is necessary. Globalization and ecology, as expressed through music, must be “written” into the ways in which we talk, write, fear, hope, and converse about the climate landscapes of our day.

Ecological Wisdom, Living Soundscapes

A photo of a boat buoyed at the edge of a river and a the buildings in a town on the other side of that river juxaposed with a photo of a hennaed hand taken at the hilltop Rabari village of Bhadroi.
Affirming nature through music is not a new phenomenon. Cultures around the world have been practicing environment-based music for millennia, and many of these traditions continue to the present day. Using an example that is both ancient and contemporary, I will illustrate how much can be learned from musical traditions which anchor spiritual, romantic, and/or social life in the rhythms of the Earth.

The first post in this series opened with a description of the urban culture of Washington, D.C. Given that D.C. is one of the world’s most powerful political and economic centers, perhaps this is not surprising. Many explorations of social change, whether in writing or in speech, anchor themselves in cities like Washington or New York or Brussels. After all, these are the places in which so many influential decisions (including those related to both cultural policy and climate change) take place. Yet often, discussions about critical topics such as culture and climate do not extend beyond the borders of these cities and the institutions that they house. That is to say, debates about the proper course of action in the face of pressing issues rarely consider the insights that people in other places on Earth have developed over centuries and have enshrined in their social and artistic practices. For instance, while prevailing cultural forces tend to prioritize noisemaking over listening (as was explored in the previous post), there are countless places on Earth which have developed profound cultures of listening. They have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.

There are countless places on Earth which have affirmed “eco-soundscapes” in which both music and landscapes are approached with mindfulness and appreciation.

Our methods of solving global problems (specifically, climate change) sideline musical and ecological wisdom, rendering them neither “advanced” enough, nor “relevant” enough, for the task at hand.

The geopolitics of our time frequently divides the world’s people and ecologies into two categories: “center” and “periphery.” With some exceptions, the “center” is typically understood to include countries in the “global North”: the United States, Canada, parts of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, as well as active centers of commerce in countries like China and Singapore. Though not all of these places are actually located in the northern hemisphere, they share political and economic characteristics that qualify them as geopolitical “centers.” The “periphery,” by contrast, is comprised by countries in the “global South.” And the label “global South” encompasses pretty much everywhere else: Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

In spite of the astonishing ecological and musical diversity that has developed in these enormous swaths of land, political and economic decisions made in the so-called “center” are often premised on the easy assumption that the solutions to global problems are most likely to originate in the “global North.” This assumption is convenient for those making sweeping decisions on tight schedules; perhaps this is how it acquired so much traction in the first place. However, it is wildly problematic for many reasons—not the least of which is that it automatically denies the wisdom that has developed in the global South, and continues to define the worldviews and lifestyles of millions, if not billions, of the world’s people.

The world of global environmental politics is not particularly appreciative of the musics of the “periphery”—or of music in general, for that matter. The overarching framework which governs climate-related decision making on a global scale has recently come under criticism for several reasons. All of these reasons are relevant to those of us who believe in the power of music to mitigate environmental crisis.

First, technology seems to rule the roost in climate negotiations. Many high-level decision-makers assume that technology will provide the solutions to most, if not all, of our climate-related concerns. The tech wizards of today have developed solutions to many seemingly intractable problems; surely, then, they can solve our ecological challenges. This emphasis on technology tends to sideline arts and culture, distracting both policy makers and the public from the power that arts and culture often have to inspire, comfort, and unify people in the face of shared challenges. Music, of course, is one of humanity’s most ubiquitous artistic and cultural phenomena. Climate change, I argue, is humanity’s greatest challenge. That the two rarely come together in high-level negotiations is more than a little unsettling.

Second, much of climate-related problem solving in the “centers” is premised on a certain conception of science. (Though often, as we are seeing now, even science itself is discredited by our most powerful leaders—but this topic is too unreal for this particular post.) The methods and metrics of “Western” science are seen as more valid forms of environmental insight than, for instance, traditional ecological knowledge systems that have been maintained for centuries by societies around the world. Many of these knowledge systems incorporate music, with ecologically derived instruments, compositions, and performance norms reinforcing the links between humans and the eco-soundscapes which surround us. These two cultural characteristics—ecologically minded resource management and ecologically minded music—accompany each other too frequently to be mere coincidence. Though these connections are rarely probed by mainstream music lovers, they exist and could possibly yield essential insights if observed.

These features of global environmental politics marginalize ecological knowledge in the global South and music in general. This is unfortunate, because when these two come together, we find some of the wisest expressions of both sustainability and musical culture in existence.

Take, for instance, Vedic chants. Vedic chanting is an oral tradition from the Indian subcontinent. Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedas constitute the earliest body of Sanskrit literature, as well as the oldest Hindu scriptures. Vedic chanting is often considered the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence. And it is a living tradition, as relevant and sacred to the world’s Hindus as it ever was.

One of the most acclaimed albums of Vedic chants in recent history is Chants of India, directed and arranged by Ravi Shankar and produced by George Harrison. In an interview several years later with Krista Tippett, Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar (who also worked on the album) discussed the relationship between these ancient chants and the natural world. She explains that most Hindu gods—to and for which these chants are typically sung—are connected to natural elements such as water, fire, or earth. She goes on to say that “om,” the primordial sacred sound, is supposed to contain “the full power of the universe.” These features of Vedic chants are not merely points of conceptual interest. On the contrary, they are inseparable from the actual vibrations that are produced by this music. This music has been engaged in the practice of attaining harmony with the universe from the very beginning. We might say, then, that this tradition comes to us today with thousands of years of ecological nuance in its history.

Here we see that if we celebrate the ways in which music and ecological knowledge have co-evolved in our world, then this could open up not only a new policy arena in the world of climate change. It might allow us, for instance, to broaden our conversation about how ecological awareness might be promoted to a wider public. At present, most people associate climate awareness with statistics and photographs too sad to recount. But ecologically oriented music could inspire the artistically and culturally minded among us to participate in a wider process of consciousness raising, with creative possibilities we may not have considered before.

The resonances between music and ecology also create space for a new worldview. This worldview affirms the capacity of art, and humanity, to generate the insights required to change our unsustainable lifestyles at their foundations. With all due respect to technology and Western science, I believe that wisdom, a change of heart, and cultural joy are required in order to turn this proverbial boat around.

Centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South.

In my view, the lesson to be learned from this is that centers of power need to recognize the cultural expertise (ecological and musical) contained within societies in the global South, and defer to their leadership in the world of climate mitigation—particularly its social dimensions. Amplifying the message of organizations and collectives that are currently affirming these connections (one of which will be explored in the next post), and doing everything in our power to ensure that they have the resources and global platforms necessary to continue their work, are possible ways to support such leadership.

Because in all honesty, which is a more enlivening expression of humanity’s power and beauty: a morning raga or one of those diagrams depicting how geo-engineering is supposed to work?

I, for one, have my answer ready in case policy makers ask. And I hope they will.

Listening in a Time of Climate Change

A composite of three Washington DC photos--cherry trees, the Kennedy Center, and a red cardinal
Some (myself included) would argue that one of the primary contributors to our current ecological crisis is the fact that so many of us have forgotten how to listen. Daily soundscapes (especially in the world’s urban spaces) are becoming increasingly cluttered, and very rarely are we encouraged to pause and consider the beauty of other voices—birds, streams, crickets, ocean waves. The first post in this series will propose that if we wish for sustainability, we must consider the musics of nature. The musics of nature can anchor our conversations about the environment.

For more than a decade, my favorite spot in Washington, D.C. has been the rooftop of the Metro station closest to my home. When I was a teenager, friends of mine and I would sit in its stairwell, taking turns reading poems by Rumi and Hafez, as the dusk showed us its deep colors. Some of the most transformative conversations I have had with other people, with myself, and with the world in general have taken place on that rooftop. Recently, I have begun to venture there alone. It is one of the few places in the city where I feel safe standing in silence, listening to the ins and outs of my own breath. Urban sounds are barely audible on the roof of the Metro. It is an excellent place to breathe, to sing, and to listen to the sounds of the sky.

Washington, D.C. is a curious place to begin an article on the art of listening. It is one of the busiest cities in the world, filled with distracted people who are generally unreceptive to the sounds of nature. It is a powerful political center, where decisions are made which affect countless people, for better or for worse. At present, it is undergoing a change in its political climate which does not bode well for the well-being of our planet. Amidst the stress of these changes, many of us (whether in D.C. or elsewhere), turn to music. Perhaps it is music—the music of nature in particular—that can help us understand the practice of sustainability, and the means through which we can all participate in the co-creation of a more sustainable world.

Culturally, we live in times that have made a fetish out of noise. Many of us are encouraged to be busy at all hours of the day, and distractions are now available to take us away from every moment of our lives. This lifestyle has a history in the Western world, dating at least to the Industrial Revolution (if not before), when noise-making machines were seen, quite literally, as the engine of progress. Prior to this, colonialism, which was premised on acquisition and on asserting superiority over cultures which possessed deeper levels of ecological knowledge, laid the foundation for a mentality that lives with us today. As a result of all this, the most powerful politics and media in our world tend to imply that connection to the environment is strange. It is a departure from the rhythm of everyday life, and signals a lack of connection to the pulse of the day.

This sense of disconnect manifests itself not only in the broad arcs of our everyday lives, but also in the way we engage with music. “Nature sounds” are often considered the domain of spas and yoga studios, and many people do not consider the sounds of rivers, breezes, and rainfall as “valid” forms of music. Certainly, no such music would ever garner the distinction of winning a Grammy or acquiring Top 40 status. The very idea seems ludicrous. And yet, might such disregard for ecological sounds shed light on the depth of our shared, contemporary ecological crisis?

If the most basic thing we do, listening, is hardly ever anchored in the environment, how can we possibly engage in an enduring conversation about environmental sustainability? Put differently: If our predominant culture of music listening does not engage with nature, then where is the anchor for a lifestyle of sustainability? What would a culture that affirms the validity, beauty, and lessons of listening to nature look like?

Singing is, for me, a powerful complement to the sort of criticism I just shared with you, and an important source of insight into the questions I’ve posed. The most profound lessons I have learned about music have come from singing a cappella in particular, accompanied by nothing more than my natural surroundings at the time: the twitter of birds in the early morning, the chirp of tree frogs at night, the rush of the waves at any time of day.

Not surprisingly, it is in these settings that I can hear myself most clearly. I can be present with the depths of my own being, find silence, cultivate patience, and listen to the way that mountains, meadows, or the ocean fill in the space between lines of music. And crucially, I restore my relationship with breath and become newly aware of the fact that without the prana (a word used in the Indian medicinal system Ayurveda, which means “life energy”) conferred by the air, I would not be able to live, let alone create music, at all.

Which brings me to another observation about our present moment: those of us within cultures of busy-ness do not have a chance to spend time—real time—with our own inner landscapes. Through social media, we can externalize anything we want (our desires, our moods, our choice of breakfast); but it is harder to spend time with our own spirits, discover our own peace, and learn how to live our lives anchored in our most sattvic selves (another Ayurvedic word, used to describe inner clarity). And in addition to supporting us in absolutely fundamental ways (as I will explore in later posts in this series), nature offers a beautiful companion to those inquiries. Though there are many musicologists who do not consider the sounds of nature to be a form of music, I would say that it is a profound inspiration for many of the musical cultures that have developed in our world.

Ecological sustainability is a conversation between our outer and inner lives. In other words, it relies upon policy change, to be sure, but it can also be supported by changes in our lifestyles, our sense of place in the world, and the cultures that emerge from these concerns. And one of the most profound cultural shifts that we require at this point in time is a movement away from busy-ness and towards simplicity. We must consider adopting lifestyles which are guided by the rhythms of nature, which asks us not to speed up, but rather to slow down and appreciate the musicality of the non-human world.

As readers of this publication know, music has always been one of humanity’s most important catalysts for change and equally, for preserving the status quo. We are what we listen to. We are how we listen. And by extension, we are how we speak. We are how we create. We are the music we choose to listen to, and we are the music we develop. Whether we are listeners, musicians, or both, our life choices are shaped by the way we engage with the inexhaustible variety of sounds that are available to us today.

Our environmental crisis invites a global social movement on a vaster scale than the movements of the 1960s, or the decolonizing movements that took place throughout the world in the 20th century. And to begin, we must listen to the sounds that bring us peace, the sounds that humble us to the limitations of our own music, the sounds that make people the world over smile softly, sigh with relief, and cry their confusion—by the shore of the sea, under a big sky, or beside a patch of grass.

The next post in this series will broadly explore the ways in which human musics in diverse regions of the world carry important ecological lessons, with direct cultural ramifications. But for now, I meditate upon the first and last music—the sounds of nature, which has inspired musical systems since the dawn of humanity. In these times, when not only global ecology but also global humanity is at stake. Surely there is no better soundtrack.

Priya Parrotta

Priya Parrotta is a writer and singer committed to fostering empathy, curiosity, and responsibility across geopolitical divides in the interest of our shared, brilliant planet. She is the author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World, which brings light to what is arguably the Caribbean’s greatest gift to the world: Centuries of experience in living together. Her current project is titled Music & the Earth.

Laura Kaminsky: Every Place Has a Story

A conversation in two parts:
in her office at Symphony Space in New York, New York;
and at her home studio in the Bronx
October 9, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Photos and video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

Back in the 1970s when John Duffy created Meet The Composer (now merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA, the organization which produces this web magazine), the term “composer-in-residence” gained currency in music parlance. The idea of having a living, breathing composer around—not only for audiences to see but to actually influence the programming at musical organizations—was an extremely important one and one which could arguably be credited with creating our current, more accepting climate for new music in all its stylistic variety. Being cognizant that composers are among us is a much healthier paradigm than thinking of composers as folks from faraway lands who are long dead.

Some composers, however, have taken their citizenship role much further. For thirty years, in addition to writing her own socially and environmentally charged music, Laura Kaminsky has worked behind the scenes allowing other composers to have an opportunity to get their voices heard. In addition to teaching at SUNY Purchase and at the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, she has served as the artistic director of New York City’s Town Hall, director of music and theatre programs at The New School, the associate director for education at the 92nd Street Y, and director of the European Mozart Academy in Poland, as well as vice president for programs at Meet The Composer. For the last four years she has served as the artistic director of Symphony Space.
Admittedly these administrative positions have been vital for Kaminsky’s livelihood, since living exclusively on commissions and royalties is extremely difficult, but they are hardly “day jobs” (she seems to be on call practically 24/7) and for Kaminsky they are as important to her personal identity as her own musical compositions. In fact, witnessing her at her office plotting out a concert season with color-coded charts or hearing her describe how the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination became the theme of a multi-media program she is presenting at Symphony Space on November 21 is not all that different from hearing her describe a piece of music she is working on. Because of that, I thought it would be fascinating to talk with her both in her office and in her home composition studio. For the most part, the conversation at Symphony Space focused on her work as a presenter and the conversation in her apartment dealt with her own music, but inevitably there was some bleed through. Although over the years she has learned to, as she puts it, “compartmentalize her life,” she also has come to realize that her own identity is an amalgam of her various roles:

When I was younger, I felt very much more schizophrenic and bifurcated. You know, now I’m a this; and now I’m a that. Now I’m being creative; now I’m being productive. But it’s just one thing. This is who I am. I spend part of my day in the world of presenting other artists and helping them realize creative innovative projects. And I spend part of my day in my own mind with my own projects. Some of my own compositions are solitary in their birthing and others are collaborative and are inspired by place, or the work of another artist.

The fact that she is a presenter seems to have helped her to craft particularly vivid and compelling descriptions of each of her compositions, and the fact that she is a composer has made her curatorial methods somewhat—for lack a better term—compositional. Rather than getting excited about another composer or ensemble and merely booking them as a result, she works with them to carefully construct a program that will have greater impact and relevance. And because she is a composer, she understands the importance of making new work the focal point rather than an add-on. As a result, she has been one of the best composer advocates in the presenting community. In fact, one of the highlights of her tenure at Symphony Space has been an annual 12-hour marathon devoted exclusively to music by living composers, an initiative that has now become the inaugural event of a month-long living composer celebration throughout New York City .

Full disclosure: I’ve known Laura Kaminsky professionally for more than two decades. We first met when she was Town Hall’s artistic director and I wrote press releases for their events. Over the years, we’ve continued to orbit the same circles. I was very appreciative to be among the many composers asked to have a piece of music included on one of her 12-hour new music marathons a couple of years back. I was also honored to write the booklet notes for the first all-Kaminsky recording, a 2-CD issued on Albany Records released earlier this year. Laura and her wife, the painter Rebecca Allan, have also become personal friends and I treasure the meals and conversations that my wife Trudy and I have shared with them. But the fact is that Laura Kaminsky is a friend to all composers, interpreters, artists, and people who care about the arts, which is why I wanted to share this multi-faceted discussion I had with her here on these pages.


Part One: The 24/7 Day Job—Being the Artistic Director of Symphony Space

Laura Kaminsky's desk

Laura Kaminsky’s desk in her office at Symphony Space is filled with various charts and graphs as well as music submitted for consideration.

Frank J. Oteri: Almost every composer these days has to wear a variety of hats to make ends meet. Composing is an all-encompassing activity, but most of those other jobs composers take on in order to pay the bills have a precise beginning and end. However, your other principal activity besides composing is also a lot more than a day job. It’s an all-consuming thing to which you could easily dedicate your entire life. So, how do you balance your life when both of the things that you’re totally immersed in are 24/7 kinds of activities?
Laura Kaminsky: Days are much longer than 24 hours, aren’t they? What I have found in my own life is I need to be always acting creatively. My composing life, which I do in the privacy of my studio, is all about taking ideas and giving them depth and breadth and life. Being a composer is a very personal expression. As a presenter and producer of cultural events—and they’re not just musical events, because I oversee film and literature and family programs, and arts and education programs—at Symphony Space, it’s my thinking about the arts and giving a lot of other voices a stage, a place to express themselves. It’s all kind of integrated in a weird way. The balance is sometimes a challenge. I think over the years, I’ve learned to be very focused and disciplined so that I can—as Bill Clinton did so well—compartmentalize my life.

But I pretty much try to start every day in my composing studio. Jessye Norman said to me once, “But of course darling, you have to start the day with you own creativity.” I feel like that’s the most personal expression. I get up very early. I try to swim, or do yoga to get my mind and body moving. I head into my studio early in the morning. It helps that I live with a generative artist. My wife is a painter, and so there’s no tension around that. We’re both very happy to say, “Good morning and see you later.” We’re off in our creative worlds doing that which is most close to us. Then we venture out into the world, and I come down to Symphony Space. Sometimes that transition on the subway ride is hard because I’m still in that third iteration of the main material of my oboe concerto, which is what I’m working on now; it’s playing itself out in my head and I’m scribbling notes. But I know I’m about to go into a marketing meeting and talk about two shows that are coming up, one of which isn’t doing as well as we had liked, so I have to start being strategic about that. That’s my personal wrestling match, but it’s all to the good.
FJO: So a typical day in the life: You said you wake up very early. How early?
LK: Well, in the summer, it’s easy: 5:15 a.m. In the winter, the alarm goes off at 5:15, but the stumbling out into the world doesn’t usually happen until 6.
FJO: And what time are you here?
LK: This morning, I was here at 8:00 a.m.; it was not a real productive morning for me in my studio because we had a board meeting. I accept this and think, “O.K., during the next few weeks, where are the pressures? Where are the constraints?” My season opened here this week. Last weekend, I had to work a lot. The minute I wasn’t here working, I was in my studio. It’s this constant juggling act. My files have to be very organized so I can reach for my music paper and there’s nothing else there. And I can reach for my marketing report; there’s nothing else there. Otherwise I would probably have a nervous breakdown of some sort. I was here at eight in the morning, and we have an event tonight, so I’ll probably get home around ten.
FJO: How does a typical workday here carve up? What kinds of activities are you doing? You mentioned marketing meetings, but I imagine a lot of what you’re doing is planning and thinking through future programming. I noticed the papers on your desk with all different colors on them that represent different programs.
LK: It’s not so dissimilar to when I’m just in my studio all day as a composer. I have a short attention span in the moment, but a very long attention span [overall]. This pile of material here is a project that I conceived and developed with Bruce Rodgers, the director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat Center in Florida, called The Day Before: November 21, 1963. This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and we already have seen the books that are coming out, and the commentary that’s happening, and I think there’s a movie that’s coming out. And it’s always: Camelot, assassination, the world changed. Everybody forgets about what life was like before the world changed. So I posed that challenge to the Hermitage Fellows in all disciplines, and about 50 artists responded: filmmakers and screenwriters, video artists, composers, poets, and playwrights. They all submitted works of up to three minutes answering that question, and they’re very different kinds of works: some are political, some are nostalgic, and some are fantasy pieces. My job now is to take all of this and organizing it into what I think is going to be a really fascinating evening. Every three minutes you’re in a different world, with a different view, in a different medium or collection of media that looks at this re-imagination of a world that’s now lost. I have all of their submissions—there are DVDs, printouts of visuals, scores—and I’m trying to wrap my head around the theme of each of these pieces, plus who’s being asked to present and perform each of them, so that I can build, not just show each little fragment off to its best advantage. How will this feel for those performers? There are two singers, two actors, and a pianist, as well as some of the creators who are presenting their own works. So how do I negotiate the stage? When does John Guare walk onto stage and walk off, and is that a big moment because he’s such an important writer? Who’s also on the stage? How much disruption is that? I use color coding for everything, maybe because I live with a painter, so I track things. I don’t like working at the computer. A lot of people use a computer screen to manipulate. I like to cut and paste with Post-its until I have it right.
FJO: So in terms of R & D, this is an idea you came up with, and then you presented it to a group of people who then executed it.
LK: Just to be totally clear, I was in residence as one of the fellows at the Hermitage with Rebecca, my wife. The director, Bruce Rodgers, who himself is a playwright, asked me to meet with him because they had made a decision to invite an artist to be on their board of trustees. They’d never had an artist on the board, and they wanted me to take that position. Boards are generally about providing funding to secure the future of the institution. So I said, “My hope is that I can participate in a way that creates visibility for the artists and the work that they do in this special space, so that it’s a secure place for artists for all time.” And he said, “We’re coming to New York in the fall, because two of our fellows were involved in an important project [Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’s opera Two Boys]. So we want to do some kind of an event to celebrate the wealth and breadth of Hermitage artists. Do you think we could do something at Symphony Space?” And I said, “Great. Let’s figure something out. But I don’t want this to be a show and tell, because an evening of works by artists from the Hermitage is only going to sell tickets to those artists and their significant others, and it won’t be a public event. We need to find something interesting and provocative that will be an inspiration to the artists to create new work, and will have interest to a public.” And so I said, “When are you guys coming for the opera? What’s happening this fall? What can we latch onto?” And that’s when I came up with this concept: rather than looking at the 50th anniversary of the assassination, let’s re-imagine a world before. It really touches on personal stories, a lot of pieces of innocence, childhood for many of the artists. It’s just been phenomenal.
FJO: This project really demonstrates your level of detail in putting together a program. You’re involved with an organization and so they came to you saying they want to do an event, but then you came back to them and said here’s the frame that can make this happen. It’s a really collaborative process. It isn’t like you heard an amazing string quartet and decided that you had to book them six months from now.
LK: Many presenters do exactly that. They go to a lot of events or they go to booking conferences and they find out who’s out there that has done well or has recommendations from other presenters and then they book them. I sometimes will say I think this is a good group, let’s hire them. But that’s not that interesting to me. What’s really interesting to me is finding the creative energy in everybody. So if I like string quartet X or jazz trio Y, I’ll contact them and say, “I’d like you to be part of our season. These are things I’m thinking about. Here are some questions I’d like you to consider. How would you respond?” And we begin a dialogue to then build a program. Or I might say, “I think you guys share a sensibility with this composer. Could you meet and talk?” Maybe there’s a new piece there. Maybe we’ll end up commissioning it, which we’ve done. I’ve also sometimes had the intuition that this soloist and this ensemble could work together, so I’ve approached them and let them go figure it out. And we’ve had some successes. For example, the Cassatt Quartet and Ursula Oppens had never played together. From the ways that both Ursula and the ensemble think about music—they’re both free and precise and have this passionate commitment to new music in an open, life-affirming way—I just had a sense that maybe if it worked, it would be a good thing. So we put them together about three years ago for one program. They’ve been performing regularly ever since. Not just here; they tour now. I feel like I made a match. But it was just this gut feeling: these are artists who could bounce off each other and good things will come. Now they make their own programs and they come to me and say, “We’re doing this tour, but would you consider this project.” And I say, “Well this is interesting, but would you consider that?” And we build it together. I tend to like the collaboration; I feel like there’s more investment all around.

Symphony Space Exterior

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford, courtesy Symphony Space.

FJO: So the $50 million question: How does somebody get on your radar in the first place to even be considered for these kinds of conversations?
LK: A lot of people send me stuff. I have stuff behind you and underneath my desk. People show up and say here’s my CD. It takes a long time for me to get through all this stuff. Between my own creative work and need for quiet, so that I can deal with my own voice and the demands of the day, it sometimes may take me two years to get through all the things that come through. But I generally take the time and find my way through. And people introduce me to people. I do go and check who’s out there. I’m not living in a closed world. I’m curious and eager. I sometimes am artist-driven: that person is a performer whom I respect and I would like to engage in a dialogue with that person or that ensemble. Sometimes it’s composer-driven: I’m interested in so-and-so’s work. What are they up to now? Oh, they’re doing a project with these people. Sometimes there really are surprises: people I don’t know but somebody recommends them so I check them out. I give them a chance to do something small at first. If it feels good, like this belongs here, there’s integrity to their music making, there’s an idea behind what they do, I usually find a home for them here.
FJO: In a conversation we had years ago you said something about the way you program that I have always treasured: What you program isn’t about your personal taste.
LK: Oh, absolutely not. It’s not about my tastes. Maybe it’s because my tastes are rather catholic. I like a lot of different kinds of literature, a lot of different kinds of visual art, and a lot of different kinds of music. My taste is broad and that gives me a big playing ground to start with. But it’s not like, “Wow, I can’t wait to hear it because I like it.” It’s that I believe in the integrity and the quality of the work. I may not like it, but I respect it. I feel and think that it’s an honest artistic expression that has merit and that our society is better for it being shared. And if there’s a diversity of voices, it’s even better. We’re a polyglot culture, so lots of voices with honest expression saying interesting things is what motivates me. And it’s intuitive; it’s not scientific. It gets down to a chart with colors where it’s like, O.K., these are the building blocks now, but it’s intuitive and I trust the intuition. I may not like something, but I like its place. Then there may be things that I love that I don’t really think necessarily have a place on the season and I have to separate that out. I juggle all of that. Just like when I’m composing. I could be in the middle of writing something—I think I’m in that place right now—where I really like this material and I’m working on it and there’s a little voice telling me: This really doesn’t fit right here in this piece; you’re probably going to end up editing it out before you get to the end of the piece.
FJO: But then that material will wind up somewhere else probably.
LK: I used to save all my little scraps. I don’t do that anymore. My feeling is if it’s meant to live, it comes back. There have been a few fragments I have held onto in my sketchbooks that I do look at again and again. I don’t think I would ever take those and use them exactly. But I think that the reason I haven’t thrown them away or said I’m done is because there’s something in that material that still is at play someplace deep in me. And it will find its way to be expressed.
FJO: So to take it back to the presenting part of this equation. Let’s say something doesn’t work for this season or something doesn’t even work for this space. Is there a place where you put that away and ponder, “Where could it work? Maybe something else could work to make that work.” Also, are there other things for which you’ll think, “Much as I love this, this just isn’t going to work no matter what.” What are the things that wouldn’t work and why?
LK: It’s not like “O.K., I want two string quartets and three pianists, and two jazz ensembles.” I don’t do that. I think about things that are interesting to me now and that will be an undercurrent in the season. Sometimes I think it’s very subtle and maybe it’s my private little conversation with myself. But it creates a through line, so if people come to this one they might come to that. There’s something that links them, although they may seem on the surface to be quite different.
I think fairly conceptually and thematically, and I program thematically. In the winter, we do “The Music of Now.” That’s about as broad as you can get, but not everything that’s the music of now necessarily will fit for me. In the fall, we do something called “In the Salon,” which tends to have contemporary music in many forms, but not always. It can sometimes be “dead music”— you know, dead composers—but it has to be re-contextualized in some way. There’s usually a conversational aspect to it. For example, this year’s the Britten centenary, and much as we would like him to come, he’s not available. But we’re doing an evening of all of his works for tenor and guitar, which he wrote for Peter Pears and Julian Bream. Well, none of these people can come and talk about it, but there will be a conversation. In this case, I’m doing the presentation to the public about what’s important about this body of work. So, it’s not just come and hear this great music. It’s part of history, but it still has relevance today. In my talk, I’m going to hopefully craft a journey for listeners so that they get something beyond just the momentary experience of listening that they might not have had otherwise.

Whereas sometimes, and I just had to do this to an artist—I’ve been talking with a particular artist who has a really interesting project that conceptually I love, and I’ve been trying to find the fit for it, and I finally had to go back and say, it doesn’t fit with the theme that I’m developing for this program and for this series for next year. But I really want this project, so now let’s re-open the conversation and look at the next season and can you start to think about it in these contexts. And if we have the “a-ha” moment, it will be in the fall of 2014.

Again, it’s just this sense of honesty that’s really important to me as a human being and as an artist—and I mean being an artist as a subset of being a human being. So it’s really a very basic human answer. There are some artists—and I’m not going to name any names—for whom a big career may exist, where I think it’s about the career and not about the art. For me, if it doesn’t ring true from why that art got made originally, and why it’s being presented, I just don’t go with it. But if I trust it and respect it, I find the right place. It’s got to be in the right home.

Laura Kaminsky at Symphony Space

Laura Kaminsky at Symphony Space

FJO: So how far ahead do you plan?
LK: Well, usually nine months out. I’m now looking at next season. But I’m also looking at the season after—conceptually. It’s important for us as an institution to be looking longer term, mostly because some artists are booked that far ahead. And we have to raise money further out. Those are practical considerations. But we’re also opportunistic. If you came to me and said, “I have this great project and it has to happen in March,” and our season’s already budgeted and booked, if it really is great, we’ll figure out a way to welcome it in if it fits with what we believe we’re supposed to be doing. So, it’s slightly loose, but we have budget approval deadlines and marketing necessity deadlines that kind of dictate a time sequence for all of this. I’d like to be planning nine months as a kind of norm, and two years ahead for the big festivals that we do, so that we can get people coordinated and get money in place.
FJO: Theoretically, however, there are open days where something could be slotted in relatively last minute if it’s so major.
LK: Yes, we do like to be nimble that way.
FJO: This brings me to something that you’ve alluded to which we actually haven’t yet addressed head on. You were talking about the program you are doing with Hermitage Fellows. You said if you had called it a celebration of the Hermitage Center, only the fellows and their families would show up. So you came up with this idea about the day before the Kennedy Assassination and suddenly it’s an event. Then you mentioned thematic through lines—maybe somebody who came to this will come to something else. There is a lot about enrichment in the programs that you put together. It’s about giving people aesthetic rewards and, ideally, enlightening them and taking them to a higher place. But it’s also about getting them there to begin with and entertaining them, the horrible presenter cliché of putting butts in seats. So when you’re thinking of how this fits with that, how much are you thinking about whether or not there’s an audience for it? Or if it could be marketed a certain way, could there be an audience for it?
LK: It’s a piece of everything that a responsible presenter has to do. I think about it like energy. The artists are going to do their work, whether there are 12 people or 1,200 people or 12,000 people in the audience. But if they’re going to do that work, wouldn’t you rather have more people come and appreciate it? I know that some of the shows that I want to put on have a limited appeal for the general population. “Who’s that? I’ve never heard of so-and-so.” Sometimes I have to stick up for some of those programs and say, “It’s part of this ecosystem. We’ll have this other show that’s going to sell out easily, and it will sort of subsidize that show, but that show’s really important.” The other thing I always have to point out is that some of the most important musical events in history that are now iconic in our imaginations didn’t involve throngs at Madison Square Garden. When I was in St. Petersburg, Russia—I think on my first trip, which was on a fellowship doing research on Soviet music to do a Soviet music marathon festival here—I was taken to the House of the Composers’ and Musicologists’ Union. And I was like, “Oh my god, isn’t that the place where the Stravinsky concert happened when he came back to Russia for the first time?” And they said yes. I remembered reading about this. People were pushing to get through the windows; it was a mob scene. So I was thinking of this cavernous stadium and thousands of people pushing and shouting and struggling to get in, but it’s a tiny little hall. It’s an intimate chamber hall, but it looms so large as an important cultural, historic, musical event. The Schubertiades were twelve guys drinking and playing music for each other, but it helped create an outlet for this body of work to be developed. So sometimes it’s really O.K. if there are only 60 people in the audience. It’s not great financially, and it’s a little bit upsetting that we couldn’t have had a hundred and fifty or even have filled the house. But maybe it’s part of the ecosystem and it needs to be protected. I have to balance all of that.
FJO: At the other extreme of it, you mentioned things that don’t necessarily press your buttons because, as you described it, you believe it’s more about the career than about the work. For things that are doing really well out there, might you think that it doesn’t need you and therefore you wouldn’t present it?
LK: I don’t know that we’re an institution that can say that, because we’re a smaller institution. I think we have an important place in the whole cultural landscape of New York and—because of our radio program—nationally. But we’re still a small institution. So, I think that we actually serve a particular level. Every now and again, somebody who really is better suited for a bigger, splashier venue has a special project and we become their home. For example, I think it was two years ago when Tim Fain, the violinist, was doing a project with Philip Glass, Benjamin Millepied, and Nicholas Britell. It was a personal project. You’d think Philip Glass would go to BAM or a bigger venue. But they wanted to do it here, and we made it happen. It was really exciting. That was a big event for us, but a small event for Philip Glass.
FJO: I want to take it beyond Philip Glass because we still think of him as part of the new music ecology. Sure, he’s super successful, but he’s nowhere near as well-known as someone like, say, Miley Cyrus.
LK: Right. We can’t afford Miley Cyrus.
FJO: But I know that you’re completely open-minded in terms of what you listen to. So I wonder if there would be certain kinds of music that you might say are too mainstream in the popular culture for a space like this or not?
LK: This is a conversation I have with my president and our board. Should we do a regular mainstream classical music series? That’s a good question to ask. Should we expand world music offerings? That’s a good question to ask. This past week we opened our season with Kurt Weill on Broadway, and we had some really amazing people from the Broadway theater world here who generally don’t do such small spaces. Would they come here and do just a concert of their own? We’ve had some of that. So, you know, we’re opportunistic and we’re creative. If Elton John wanted to do a concert here, I’d say, “Yes, that’s great.” It’s very open-minded here.

Pete Seeger is going to be coming here in January. We just got that confirmed. We’re really excited about it. The one time that my knees actually buckled like I can’t believe I’m putting this man in my theater was when Chick Corea came. He’s been such an icon for me. I was not nervous when I had Jimmy Carter as my guest at the 92nd Street Y. I was not nervous when I had John Kenneth Galbraith as my guest. I was not nervous when I had Sir Edward Heath, especially when we started talking music. But when Chick Corea walked in, I couldn’t talk. I just looked at him, and I said, “I’m sorry, this has never happened to me, but my knees are shaking.” He just gave me a big hug.

But I think that only some big pop-type artists would come here, because again, if Leonard Cohen can sell out Madison Square Garden, why would he come here when there are only 800 seats? If we knew Leonard Cohen was in the process of developing some new work, and we had access to him, and [could] say, “You want to try it out here before you’re ready to go on tour?” That’s a kind of conversation that we can consider having. We’re open to everything. I’ll talk to anybody. As long as there’s honesty in the work, they have a potential home here.
FJO: And that honesty is determined by intuition.
LK: I just feel it. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a music major in college. I was a psychology major.
FJO: Wow! O.K. so one big, heavy, loaded, philosophical issue to ponder then. In our 21st-century digital environment, where everybody’s online and using social media 24/7, one of the big concepts is disintermediation, which is about getting rid of all the tastemakers. Let’s get rid of all the middle people and have it just be about the artist and their work directly reaching an audience. Goodbye critics. Everybody’s on Facebook and now everyone’s opinion can be on equal footing. Goodbye record companies. Stream it on Soundcloud instead. Goodbye book publishers. Upload a PDF. Goodbye film distributors. Just put it all on YouTube. I’m not sure the disintermediation works in these other paradigms, but in a live performance environment, you really can’t do that. It would be more difficult to have a disintermediated venue, although I guess a street corner is a disintermediated venue. But I’m curious—in the role that you’re thrust into by the very nature of being a presenter, of being a tastemaker, how does that make you feel, especially since you’re an artist yourself, that you’re somehow arbitrating between artists and audiences?
LK: You know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to answer this question, because I think it’s something all of us walk around thinking about. I mean, as an artist, I think about it. And as a presenter, I think about it. And as an audience member, I think about it. There’s something about a contract that’s being made, a trust-based contract of artist to presenter. Well, creator, the creating artist, the generative artist to the interpretive artist, then the interpretive artist with the backup of that creative artist to the presenter who provides the platform and then the presenter to communicate to the public—the public who has to be responsive to and open to the artist. It’s a contract of trust among everybody.

There’s something very exciting about the thought that everybody’s equal and everybody can be an artist and be an audience member all the time. There’s also something very exciting about being guided. So, the notion of curating, that’s the discernment that my job requires. I’m a voice; I’m not the tastemaker. I’m an open-minded art-loving, thinking person, and I’m very fortunate to have this position where I can take resources and try to bring different kinds of artists and different kinds of audiences together. I’m one of many voices doing that. There’s still a place for this structure. We don’t know exactly where things are going to go with the total democratization of art making and art consumption. I don’t like that term, “cultural consumers.” “Experiencers” is maybe a better word.
There’s a great New Yorker cartoon that shows a man holding a book and a man standing next to him with a scroll saying, “I don’t know how you’re ever going to be able to read with that thing; how can you let go of the scroll?” Here we are reading everything with our thumbs. People are creative. People want to experience ideas and feelings in a shared way. And the technologies will change, and that will change the structures and platform for it. But people want those experiences. I think we’re hungry for them. I think throughout history there have been different forms in which we’ve engaged in the arts, but people always do. And people always create. So I’m not that worried. We may have some crises of budgets in institutions, like how do we pay the rent and get people here. I think those are short-term issues. The honest truth is human beings are going to always want to engage in the arts. You want to have somebody who’s great touch you. I mean you really do. It’s great to see your kids in a school play, but it’s really amazing to see fantastic actors doing that play. All those experiences are valid.


Part Two: A Personal Composing Space That Embraces Many Places

Kaminsky's composition studio

Compared to her desk at Symphony Space, Laura Kaminsky’s work space for composing is much sparer.

FJO: We’re now in your home where, at least theoretically, you should be able to temporarily shut out the outside world in order to have your own space in which you can concentrate on your individual creative work as a composer. But of course, you can never shut out the rest of your life completely. So I wonder if you think consciously about how your work as a presenter seeps into your ideas as a composer.
LK: That’s a really interesting question, and I think what I’m going to say is really true, which is that everything seeps into my work: The neighbor you meet in the elevator—and the conversation you have—seeps into your work. What you read in the horrible headlines every day seeps into your work. And the music you hear through somebody’s really too loud ear buds on the subway seeps into your work. So in that sense, I’m just an absorbing sponge. It is all just there and it all informs what I’m doing as a composer. But when I’m really in composition mode, it’s like there’s this language and I’m just having this conversation with myself in that language. All that external stuff goes away. My protection against the rest of the world is that I have something to say and this is the sound world that I say it in. I don’t really bust out of that and steal from others. I’ve never actively quoted other music or composers in my work. But a separate piece of it is if there’s a problem at work, can I shut it out? Sometimes the answer is no. There’s very little down time. When I’m not composing, I’m conceptualizing what I want to do next, or putting pieces in place so that I can write the next piece. But I think what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, and the more pieces I write—maybe it’s a sense of maturity—is there’s no anxiety around not writing. If the external world intervenes—and I’m not actively working on a piece for a period because there’s a deadline at work, or a lot of nights in a row with events—I don’t panic. If I’m not writing, if there’s really an issue at Symphony Space or in my teaching job (which is something I also do), I just go. That’s what I have to focus on. It’s O.K.; I won’t forget how to be a composer. I can carry that thread. Every now and again, I’ll lose the flow of an idea because there has been a lag, or the real world has intervened, and it sort of disrupted my mood, and now I can’t quite reclaim it. But I trust that I’ll get there. Once you know how to ride a bicycle, you can always ride the bicycle.

I say this to my students, too, when I talk to them about being a composer: You’re learning the craft now. You’re still figuring out which note follows which note, what’s vertical and what’s horizontal, and what does it add up to. What is it saying? You’re still juggling that. So you have to put the hours in. You have to build up your muscles. Then once you really have that, you can lift the weights of being a composer; you just have to stay in shape. But you’ll always be a composer.

I do a lot of my composing when I swim laps. I believe it’s an important part of my process as a composer, because that’s a place where I’m weightless, which every woman wants to be. It’s timeless. I’m a terrible swimmer, but if I get into a good flow, I don’t hear minutes ticking by in my head. I don’t have external stuff going on. I’m just floating. I do a lot of singing through ideas, reiterating those in my mind and hearing them with different colors. I can really orchestrate that way somehow, being in that swimming pool for half an hour. Nobody’s talking to me; I don’t know what time it is. I tell my students, don’t do it in front of the computer playing with a program, but you don’t have to be sitting in front of a keyboard with a pencil. You don’t have to look like a composer to be a composer. You are a composer.
FJO: I’d like to play musicologist here. I think I can hear a through-line between the presenter and composer parts of your life. I can think of very few other composers who have such a well-defined sense of space that generates so many compositions. So many pieces of yours over the years have been inspired by a particular space and are about telling the story of that space through music. To my mind, this has been the way you hear music, as well as the way you respond to spaces because you’re so attuned to how music functions in a space.
LK: I never have thought about it that way, although I’ve actually thought about the fact that I’m very much inspired by space and place—whether it’s physical, cultural, or historic. I’ve always thought it’s because I’m a visual person more than I’m an aural person. Visual memory is filled with resonance for me, so I can evoke those memories and make that my way into a private world where I then tell my story in sound. But I never really thought about it in terms of the connection between the fact that I’ve been presenting events for 30 years. Wow.
FJO: Along those same lines, the kinds of things that inspire you to conceptualize programs also fuel your compositions. You were talking about how to construct a whole event around the night before JFK was assassinated and what that means. You went to Vukovar and experienced firsthand what happened during the Yugoslavian civil war, and that became your piano trio. You were in Ghana and you met people there who had AIDS, and that also became a piece of music. Not far from this apartment there’s a really beautiful idyllic spot, Wave Hill, which inspired your violin and piano duo. Sometimes things that could become concert programs or festivals become your own compositions.
LK: I never made that connective thread, but when I was younger I felt very much more schizophrenic and bifurcated. You know, now I’m a this, and now I’m a that. Now I’m being creative; now I’m being productive. But it’s just one thing. This is who I am. I spend part of my day in the world of presenting other artists and helping them realize creative innovative projects. And I spend part of my day in my own mind with my own projects. Some of my own compositions are solitary in their birthing and others are collaborative and are inspired by place, or the work of another artist. I’ve partnered with my partner, with Rebecca, to do a piece which was about place. It’s called Horizon Lines. It was a commission that I had from the Seattle Chamber Music Festival. She was in conversation with the Seattle Art Museum; they were going to give her a show. So we had this idea: What if they could time the show with the festival and we made the work to reinforce each other? So, everybody was thrilled, because in the history of Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Art Museum—which are catty-corner across the street from each other in downtown Seattle—the two institutions had never collaborated. So they thought, well, this is a nice idea. And then Rebecca went to make her body of paintings and I went to write my piece. But then I said, “Wait a second; this still isn’t a collaboration. All that’s happening is you’re having an exhibition and I’m having a premiere.” So we used my commissioning funds to commission a filmmaker, John Feldman, to make a film. He’s a photographer as well as a filmmakera and he’s married to a composer—Sheila Silver—so he’s very sensitive to sound as well as image. We commissioned him to make a film with Rebecca’s paintings, which are very abstracted landscapes, and her photographs and my photographs of place, as well as his. My piece then had a structure to it.

We chose places that were meaningful to Rebecca and me. I created soundscapes and she created paintings, and then John took all of the music and all of the images and made a film that was projected over the live performance. This is music of place which is very much rooted in the environmental crisis that we’re living in today—looking at a beautiful landscape and realizing how human beings in the anthropocene age are making an impact that’s not part of the natural flow, that’s affecting the climate. Our work is both about our own individual creative process and our shared belief system around paying attention to the fragility and strength of the environment, the ability to collaborate without messing with each other’s processes. Then bringing other artists into the process, and—here we go, my presenting life—bringing audiences together who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have gone to the museum or have gone to the concert. To me that was an incredibly satisfying project because it touched on all these things that I care passionately about.
FJO: That’s a very special case because it’s something an audience can see when they watch the film that accompanies the musical performance. That’s quite different from a piece like, say, the Vukovar Trio. If you know the program note, and you know the title, and you know something about contemporary history, you’ll immediately know what it’s about. But what if you just heard it on the radio and missed the title, or what if you had simply called it Piano Trio No. 1. There’s a lot of turbulence in that piece, but maybe someone would hear it differently. By your verbally associating it with Vukovar, listeners are primed to hear it in a certain way. So how important is it to you that a listener knows the back story?
LK: That’s something that I think about a lot. I’ll just give the background on the Vukovar Trio. When I was living in Poland and running the European Mozart Academy, we took small groups of chamber musicians throughout central Europe to give concerts. One of the concerts arranged was to go into Vukovar under Human Rights Watch protection and give the first live concert since the official end of the war at the fairly devastated Serb Cultural Center. Going into that devastated war-torn city was really eye-opening and very humbling for all of us. We were really quite taken aback by seeing the destruction. This was three years since the end of the war; people still had no electricity and there were food shortages. It was grim; you could tell that this was not a good place. When I say Vukovar, like I’m talking to you now, to this day I’m seeing this picture in my head. Somehow I had to deal with that picture. I knew I needed to write a piece, and I wanted to write a piano trio, partially because I was living in Eastern Europe and that sound world was so much what I was breathing and hearing every day. I felt like I wanted to write an homage to Shostakovich and his great trio which is such an iconic piece. Then I thought, his Eighth String Quartet is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war; I would dedicate my piece to the victims of ethnic cleansing. I hate to say this, but most Americans don’t read the headlines. It’s history already. I wanted to keep [in people’s minds] the fact that genocide is alive today, so I gave it that title. But I did think about just calling it Piano Trio.

In fact, when I lived in Seattle, I often lectured for the Seattle Chamber Music Society or the Seattle Symphony. The Society asked me to give a talk called “How to Listen to Contemporary Music.” With all due respect to the Society, I didn’t want to do that talk, because I don’t think it’s any different than listening to any music. So, I came in and I said, this is the talk I’m going to give: How do you listen to music? I chose to play my trio, and I said, “I’m not going to tell you who this composer is. I’m not going to tell you when this piece was written. I’m not even going to tell you the instrumentation. I’m not going to tell you if there’s any story behind this piece. I want you to listen. I want you to all take a piece of paper and a pencil while you listen and make notes to yourself as to what you think you’re hearing, and what the structure of the piece is. So you can tell me what you’ve heard.” And they all got it. They said this piece sounds like it’s about a war. Then there are these chorales, so it’s about mourning. But then there’s this more energetic, joyful music, so maybe there’s victory or peace. But the fast music isn’t really easy happy music, so there’s still a struggle. They all got it. So I believe it’s an abstract piece that tells a story. And you know, I think all music tells a story. This was a specific story. But even without them reading the program note or knowing anything, they got it.

Kaminsky Vukovar Trio

Kaminsky’s Vukovar Trio captures the anguish of war in the former Yugoslavia. © 1999 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: With your piece about AIDS in Africa, And Trouble Came, you included a narrator, so of course that helps to guide people. But people hear language differently than they hear music. There’s an instant comprehensibility for language. Even if you’re completely fluent in music, it’s still an abstract language. So there’s a directness to that particular piece that might not have been as possible to pull off without the narrator.
LK: I just came back from a tour in the Midwest. I was in Iowa and Illinois with performances and lectures around that piece, and it’s interesting to me because I wrote that while I was living in Ghana. I went to Ghana for a year, and I went with a commission to write a piece dealing with AIDS for a benefit concert in Connecticut, and I was given the configuration of narrator, viola, cello, and piano. It’s like, O.K., that’s my project. I went there without many books because we could only take so much stuff for the year. So I went to the U.S. embassy library, because there were no libraries or bookstores in my village. Most of the literature that was available was African American literature, and it makes perfect sense for the U.S. embassy to be a repository of African American culture in an embassy in West Africa.

So I devoured all of this, and I found some poetry that spoke to me, and I found some biblical texts that worked; since I’m not a believer of any sort, I had to really cull through a lot of reading of Psalms and Proverbs and Job just to find lines that spoke to me. But I couldn’t put it all together. It never connected until I met these two American nuns who had built a hospital in a village and most of the people they were dealing with were AIDS patients. They invited me to go across the country to visit them in the convent and meet their AIDS patients, and I read my texts to these two young men and I got their stories. And it was that night in the convent where I was like, now I can make this piece happen. I can incorporate a fictionalized version of my story, of meeting these people, and I can create what I called my diary entries to weave together a narrative that deals not with the specifics of AIDS and how it’s transmitted and how it ostracizes people, but much more conceptually, globally and metaphorically, so that it would be a piece that is specifically about AIDS and all of those issues, but also about compassion, fear of death, anger, loss, and community.

So I wrote the diary entries that were just spoken by the narrator, then set up for the music [underpinning] the text pieces that I had already selected. And the piece is a full story. It’s like a play with those diary entries, but if you took them all away and just had the other parts, people would still get the same message. This was in 1992. I wanted to tell the story because that year, living there and meeting these people, was before we knew about AIDS in Africa. We still weren’t paying attention to it in the rest of the world. So I had to tell the story. And I wanted it to be very encoded, so all the names are relevant to my experience in Ghana and people I loved and trusted and met there. I use the metaphor of this young tailor who thought he got AIDS because he pricked himself with a bad needle, because that was a metaphor for the intravenous drug use which was a cause of AIDS. I tried to use symbolic bits to tell the story that would be specific and universal. So that is a different kind of a storytelling than, say, Vukovar.

Kaminsky: And Trouble Came p.10

To further elucidate the plight of AIDS sufferers in Ghana, Kaminsky includes a narrator along with piano, violin and cello in her composition And Trouble Came. © 1993 by Laura Kaminsky (revised 1996). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But those two pieces bring to my mind the same issues we were talking about before in terms of presenting. It’s a tough balancing act between enriching people’s lives, and perhaps even enlightening them and giving them this really transcendent experience, with people wanting to be entertained. No matter how effective these pieces may be, they’re a hard sell. Imagine someone who has not heard these pieces before wondering if this is something to check out—hmm, I’m going to pick up this recording about AIDS in Africa or I want to listen to this piano trio about ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.
LK: Well, I’m not a salesman. I’m a composer. I think one of the great pieces of chamber music of the 20th century is the Quartet for the End of Time and that is a hard sell. It’s an incredible piece of music, and you do have to work to get people to want to go hear it because it’s a hard, big piece and the back story is incredibly intense. But it’s worth it. I know that I have this problem. I care about the fate of humanity. I care about the fate of the earth. Probably underneath being my artist self, I’m just a utopian-activist-politico. My life is filled with activity to make the world a better place. Maybe I should have just been a union organizer or an anarchist or something. I’m an artist, so I make music, but my music is connected to the things I care about. I don’t expect, in all honesty, to get programmed in entertainment concerts for the most part. Now it’s interesting because the concert with And Trouble Came that just took place in Iowa about two weeks ago was, to me, one of those chilling moments of being an artist and knowing that it was worth it.

There’s one particularly poignant bit of text, and tears started coming down the cheeks of the actor as he was narrating it. It then led to a solo cello line, and all of a sudden, the cellist was crying on stage. I was like, “Oh god, I’m going to die.” I was a bit overwhelmed that they didn’t have the distance, that they were living that story while they were performing it. At the end of the piece, which is painful and powerful, there was dead silence. I looked on my watch. Two minutes of total, total silence, and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to get thrown out of town.” I was panicked, and all of a sudden, one woman stood up and just went like [claps twice]. The next thing, everybody stood up, and about a half hour later, people were giving me checks. Everything I earn on this piece since 1993, when it was premiered, I donate to my nuns in Ghana and their hospital. I don’t care if people don’t think this is entertaining. I’ve been sending kids who are orphaned in Ghana to school through what I earn on sales or royalties on this piece. Or when performances happen and people just spontaneously make contributions. So that’s valuable to me. That’s why I get up in the morning. And yes, sometimes I just want to write a nice piano piece that’s just about exploiting the piano, but when I need to write a piece that’s about a social or political issue that I care about, and it has an impact, that’s joy. So, it’s O.K. if it’s not entertainment.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that maybe you should have been a political activist, but you’re an artist, so you create pieces about issues you care deeply about. Although I tried to make the argument about music being an abstract medium that can usually only carry a larger meaning if you attach visual images or language to it, your story about what was essentially a blindfold listening to your Vukovar Trio in Seattle shows that sometimes these deeper meanings can come through. And people wrote you checks because of a performance of your music that will directly help people in Ghana. So there’s no doubt that you believe it is possible for a piece of music to change someone’s world view, to be moved by something to the point that it’s a transformative moment. Marc Blitzstein would have said, “Yes. They’re going to hear this piece, and they’re suddenly going to be marching on the streets.”
LK: Yes, that’s great. You can transform people. But they don’t have to march on the streets. Maybe hearing something so beautiful makes them want to be nicer. It could be as simple as that for a transcendent moment. That listeners were just totally surrounded by the beauty of that artistic experience, and it made them gentler, made them happier in their souls. That’s transforming the world. It may not be a political rally. It can be much more personal. We all have works of art that we go back to—read your favorite novel and you’re transported, you live again in that world, you feel happy or ennobled, or it reminds you to be a good person, or it reminds you to be upset about indignity. There are favorite paintings. Every time I look at certain paintings, I get transported. You know, if I write one piece that can do that, it doesn’t have to be entertainment. Again, you don’t have to like everything. It doesn’t have to be entertainment. It doesn’t have to be fun. It can actually just be powerful. If, in the end, people don’t come to Laura Kaminsky’s output to have a good time necessarily, but maybe to feel and think about why we’re here, how to be good, why we die, why does it matter—maybe that’s O.K. I’m not trying to be grandiose about it. Sometimes I wish I could just write a good pop tune, but that’s not where I live. If I can say something about paying attention to the beautiful environment, and it’s a nice piece of music that is compelling to listen to, and it makes people think about climate change, great. I feel like I’m serving through my art.
FJO: On the other hand, there are pieces that are much more inward. I’m thinking of Cadmium Yellow, which is a string quartet that is about trying to convey pigment and color through sound. It’s a very abstract idea. But once again, it connects to something visual. So hearing the piece might make people more aware of something in the world that’s beautiful, but it’s not necessarily political.
LK: No, but it’s also a metaphor in a way. I have another piece that deals with this in a different way called The Full Range of Blue, but Cadmium Yellow took the notion of this natural substance that can be very pale and very watery, and can be very intense, and it can either be transparent or opaque, and things can come through it or it can cover. It’s like, wow, this is such a rich concept to create a piece [out of]. That’s a metaphor about human engagement and interaction, for how we are as people. It’s about stronger and weaker. You’re bold and forthright and your voice outplays every other voice. Or you’re meek and you sort of insinuate yourself into a conversation; you’re kind of there, but you’re not there. These are all metaphors. So I had little themes that were weaving in and out. It was a game that I played with myself, basically. I’m actually not a composer who writes music because I want to show off my craft. That’s not interesting to me. I want to find something that’s not music, that’s an interesting concept, and then find a way to realize it through a narrative journey in sound. I live with a painter. I think about color all the time. I watch the paint being mixed, and every painting is handmade color. There’s nothing that’s squeezed out of a tube with Rebecca. I love the fact that she’s created her own universe of color, and nobody has that universe. Most great painters own their colors, like most composers own their voice.

Kaminsky Cadmium Yellow

Kaminsky’s string quartet Cadmium Yellow was inspired by the high hiding power and good permanence of cadmium sulfide which produces the pigment cadmium yellow, one of the most vibrant and varied colors available on a painter’s palette. © 2010 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: So it’s not about synaesthesia?
LK: It is in a way. Sometimes I think maybe I am synaesthetic because I actually see colors when I’m composing. When I think about Vukovar, I see those images. There’s one of an old woman with a babushka in front of a bombed building. When I say the word Vukovar, I see her. But what I’m really seeing are those colors. And those colors have sound to me. I don’t know if I’m officially synaesthetic, but to me, it’s all interrelated. My other piece that I mentioned, The Full Range of Blue, is another one that’s all about metaphor and layers of symbolism. When you like somebody, and you start to love them, what’s that moment when liking becomes loving, or vice versa? On that spectrum of human emotion, when do you say I love you for the first time? What happens? And I thought: How do I deal with that in sound? What would be an image for that? So I started thinking it’s kind of like the spectrum. You know, when is blue still green, and when is blue indigo? And when you are moving into purple, do we all say that this is no longer blue? So I started getting interested in this notion: Do we all taste the same? How do I make a piece out of that? So I came up with the concept of the full range of blue. O.K., where is blue? I didn’t think about paint at that time. I thought about nature—blue sky, blue rivers, blue-gray rocks, blue flowers. So I created a piece of multi-movements. And each one was a different expression of blueness in nature. But it was really not about the flowers, or the starry night, or the river, or the sky. It was really about the fact that I was falling in love, and how did I know I no longer was in like, but was in love. What’s the full range of blue? But it was all synaesthetic in the sense that I was seeing gray-blue, yellow-blue, green-blue, purple-blue.
FJO: So to get technical for a moment, how does this play out in the way you put your music together? I hear all this about a color gradually changing and no longer being the same color and I think about minor thirds changing to major thirds and all the infinitesimal gradations that aren’t quite one or the other, but I’m a microtonalist.
LK: I don’t work in microtones.
FJO: I know you don’t.
LK: It’s funny because I have a student right now who is and I keep saying, “Are you really hearing this? Because I don’t know how you’re imagining this. Sing what you’re hearing?” I don’t work that way. Again, I’m being kind of vague in a way, but it’s an energy thing. I feel the vibrations. I see what those vibrations feel like. That’s what leads me. It’s maybe intuitive again. Remember I’m not conservatory trained, so I’ve had to find my own way. I still have never taken an orchestration class. I haven’t really taken many theory classes. I was very lucky to have studied composition with Mario Davidovsky, but I didn’t go through an undergraduate music education. So when people talk about a lot of chord things, I didn’t learn that stuff. I had to figure it out. For me, it’s about the energy. I see it, and I hear it, and I feel it like that vibration. I struggle to find it, and that’s where my language comes from.
FJO: A piece of yours that just got released on CD, The Great Unconformity, which is about one billion years that are missing from the historical record, is a six-minute solo cello piece. How do you cram a billion years into six minutes?
LK: Well, if I wrote a billion-year piece, that would be a problem! I was invited by Rhonda Rider, a wonderful cellist. She had applied to be an artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon. Since she’s not a generative artist, she’s an interpretive artist, her project was that she was going to invite nine composers to write their response to the Grand Canyon. She would then take all these scores and do her residency, to learn them, and she’d perform at the Grand Canyon and record the project.
As somebody who loves natures, I was like, yes, sign me up. Thank you for inviting me. I was thrilled. I’d never been to the Grand Canyon. It just so happened that that summer, when she had commissioned me, Rebecca and I were going to an artist colony in California—the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony—and we flew right over the Grand Canyon. So that was where I got my inspiration for the piece—looking down on it and seeing all these layers from above, imagining being at the bottom, but trying to imagine it from swooping down. There are a lot of glissandi and a lot of pizzis, which are sort of like digging into the rock. Then the low is like getting down to the bottom. I was trying to find musical symbols for looking down on something that we can’t really comprehend, trying to chisel your way into something, but then finding your way at the bottom where there’s more history than we can ever imagine. I mean, nobody can imagine a billion. We can’t imagine the national debt. That number’s too big. We can’t imagine billions of years. How can there be that much missing rock between one layer and the next layer? What happened?
Here we are with climate change. It’s probably not so dissimilar. There was an ice melt or something. Rebecca was an artist-in-residence at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in the Hudson Valley. We went up to a lecture there one night, and the scientist had done research in the Grand Canyon about how certain fish species have changed because of what’s happening in the waters there. So Grand Canyon stuff was in my head. It actually became easy for me to think about the grandiosity of it and this layering of life and the mystery of it all.
FJO: As far as grandiosity goes, most of the pieces you’ve written are chamber music pieces. You mentioned that you’re working on an oboe concerto, and a few years ago you wrote a concerto for three percussionists and orchestra called Terra Terribilis, which was your first piece for orchestra, and that piece concerned climate change as well. But the only other full orchestra piece you’ve done thus far is a piano concerto. As far as I know, there’s no grand theme for that one.

Terra Terribilis

In the 2nd movement of Kaminsky’s triple percussion concerto Terra Terribilis, glaciers are evoked through briskly moving music in septuple meter. © 2008 by Laura Kaminsky. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

LK: The piano concerto was commissioned by the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic in Russia, with a Koussevitsky commission. There was conversation about whether I should make this something about St. Petersburg, which is on a river. My studio overlooks a river. So I kind of played with that notion as sort of a back story. But, really, I just wanted to write a great concerto for Ursula Oppens; that was enough of an inspiration. I could have called it Music for Ursula, but I thought I’d just dignify it and call it Piano Concerto.
FJO: It seems that suddenly there’s been some long overdue attention to you as a composer, which I think ties into the fact that you’re now getting asked to write orchestra pieces. It’s much easier to get a piece of chamber music played and so that is mostly what you have written; for many years you actually had your own ensemble which performed your music, as well as the music of other composers. Of course, when you work ten-hour days at something other than composing, when you finally can carve some time for yourself, you want to devote it to putting notes on the page. You don’t really have time to promote your compositions the way others who might have more time are able to do.
LK: Yeah, I’m bad at that.
FJO: But I wonder if you learned some lessons from being a presenter. All this stuff comes into you and some of it stands out more than the rest. Have you been able to distill that and turn it back when you’re the person who’s pitching something to a presenter, or to a performer?
LK: You saved the hardest question for last.
FJO: Of course.
LK: I actually am not particularly good at selling my own work. I find it hard to do. And I have to be careful about my time. It probably takes as much time getting the projects out there as writing them. And if I have to choose, I’d much rather be composing than pitching a project. So I’ve not been so good at that. I finally decided I have to update my website because it doesn’t even have that my CD is out—and my CD has been out for six months! You know, that’s stupid. I’m not taking care of my work. I have to chastise myself in a way, because I believe in the best for these pieces. I want them to be played by other people. And I have to help that process along. I know that.
FJO: But you actually have an opera on the docket for BAM and the Kennedy Center. That didn’t just happen, or did it?
LK: What happened was I’ve wanted to write this opera for four years now, and it took a long time to put the concept and the team together. I started talking to Charles Jarden, who is the general manager of American Opera Projects, and he loved the concept. He decided to take it on, and it took me two years to find my collaborators. It’s an innovative concept for an opera; it’s this story of a transgender person. It’s a kind of monodrama for two singers who play the one person. It’s small in scale: two singers and string quartet. It’s for the Fry String Quartet with Sasha Cook and Kelly Margraf, because they like to work together. I already know we have a company. But it’s with interactive film, so it’s bigger in scope than just the live artists. But I didn’t know how to write the libretto and it took a while. I found my filmmaker and we felt we could do it together. Kimberly Reed is fantastic. I saw her film called Prodigal Sons, which is partially her transgender story, but it’s a much bigger film than that—I urge everybody to go see it. I said I have to find this person; I want to work with her. So I tracked her down and I told her I had this concept for this opera, and she said great, I want to be involved. I could hear music, and she and I together could begin to see it: the filming, the staging, the forces. Then we couldn’t get the words. It took until I was sitting on a panel judging grants for Opera America, and Mark Campbell was one of the panelists. He’s one of the great librettists in this country, and during a break, I went and said, “Mark, maybe you can advise me. I’m looking for a librettist. You know everybody out there. Could you suggest somebody?” He said, “Let me think about it. Tell me more about your project.” And I explained it to him. He said, “I have a perfect person for you: me.” I said, “Marc, I can’t afford you. This project is small.” He said, “I have to do this. This is wonderful.” I said, “You have to connect with Kim as well as me.” So the three of us met, and this has been the most unbelievable love-fest of three artists getting together and just talking, sharing, and building ideas together. And they have just completed the first draft of the libretto. American Opera Projects has been so supportive of this. They applied to BAM. The BAM-Kennedy Center-DeVos Institute is a development project, and they’ve supported this. So we’re going to be developing it, and hopefully in the summer 2015 it will be born.

Kaminsky at home

Laura Kaminsky at home.

FJO: So as a going away thought, being someone who has been on both sides of the fence, as a composer and as a presenter, do you have any specific advice for composers on how to get their work out there?
LK: I can’t say that I’m going to give the best advice, because I’m not a youngster and I’m just finding my place because I’ve always done so many different things. Now it seems like it’s coming into focus in a much better way. But it comes back to the earlier conversation that we had in my office today at Symphony Space. Be honest. It’s really important that you make the work from an honest point of entry and departure. And that you keep your craft honed. You’ve got to do your sit-ups. You have to make the art regularly, so that you know what you’re doing skill-wise. But if you have something to say, you have to say it honestly. If you do that consistently, you build a body of work over time, and if you get good people to play it and they become champions of the work, hopefully it grows. And all of a sudden, you have a bigger community, and more people listening, and more people trusting that you’re going to produce another good piece. I just think it’s got to start with being honest. I think art has to be honest.

Faithfully Re-presenting the Outside World

“It was then I first realised the difference between a painting and out of doors. I realised that a painting is always a flat surface and out of doors never is, and that out of doors is made up of air and a painting has no air, the air is replaced by a flat surface, and anything in a painting that imitates air is illustration and not art.”

—Gertrude Stein, Paris France

One seemingly unresolved issue in the realm of field recordings is the tension between authenticity and abstraction. One can view an artist’s work with “the field” as existing somewhere between these two different, though not mutually exclusive, concerns. On the one hand, some artists strongly adhere to maintaining the perceptible accuracy/authenticity of their location, whereas others simply take elements from it as necessary, unconcerned with the legibility of the source.
Recording in a field
Let’s imagine a composer who is enamored with the sound of the Swiss Alps and decides to make a field recording there. This composer wants to portray the most accurate, pristine document of the aural landscape as possible. Such a composer is motivated by authenticity, likely hoping to make the listener feel like he/she is actually there, or perhaps hoping to entice the listener to travel to the location. Generally this privilege of locational authenticity is assumed to be the driving force behind field recording work.

On the other end of the spectrum, we can imagine a composer who is interested in using something from the aural landscape, perhaps the canned music played by an ice cream truck as it travels through his/her neighborhood, simply as one amongst many other sounds. In this mode of working, one does not particularly care whether or not the recording’s location (or source) is intelligible. This locationally independent, or more abstract, mode of working is assumed to belong to the realm of electronic music, and furthermore assumed to be different than field recording.
Brandon LaBelle outlines the concern regarding authenticity in field recording work, specifically regarding the R. Murray Schafer founded World Soundscape Project, as follows:

The intention behind the WSP was based on capturing environmental sound in all its breadth and diversity across the globe, preserving important “soundmarks” and gaining insight into people’s understanding and awareness of acoustic environments…To cast a net of microphones across the globe sets our ears on finding the truth of sound, so as to arrive finally at the original soundscape.

Every time I read this quote, though, I have this nagging series of questions in the back of my head: how can one realistically expect to arrive at “the original soundscape”? Isn’t the motivation to record some soundscape fundamentally based on one’s personal interpretation and, therefore, an abstraction to begin with? Could one ever say that my experience of the sound of the Swiss Alps is the same as anyone else’s?

Herein lies the issue with this supposed opposition between authenticity and abstraction: as individual listeners, we each have a different experience of the outside world. There is no perceivable “ursound” (to use LaBelle’s terminology), no fundamental source of the aural landscape in the same sense that there is no perceivably definitive color “blue.” Similarly, the tools (or technology) that one uses to capture parts (or all) of the soundscape have the ability to shape (or abstract) the document of the field further.

Michael Pisaro’s writing on standing issues in field recording work hints at some of the inherent problems in attempting to document the totality of the acoustic environment:

A recording is a reduction. The immersive sensual experience of an environment will in the end be represented purely in terms of sound. It is possible that a sound recording device will in some cases hear more than we do, but it will obviously never capture everything that is sounding. It will be limited in time and in the perceptible borders of the soundscape.

Recording abstracts the environment. Microphones are designed to accept certain frequencies, reject others, as well as accept/reject sounds from certain angles of incidence. Moreover, the impulse to make a recording in a particular place, at a particular time, using a particular set of equipment, abstracts/limits the amount of the field to be recorded.

I am uninterested in starting a kind of “punk or not punk” debate here because, frankly, it is a waste of time (“[name of recording] is a REAL field recording because of [insert rationale regarding perceptible authenticity here]”). What is interesting, however,, is that there are many works that simultaneously present a clear picture of the location and employ extreme abstractions via compositional or conceptual moves. Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City and Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring) seem to typify this friction, and a more detailed analysis of these works will unearth what is unique about attempting to balance both extremes.

Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City

The complete Transparent City project spans four CDs (two double-discs) on the German-based experimental music record label Editions Wandelweiser. Volumes 1 and 2 feature recordings made throughout Los Angeles between December 2004 and August 2006, while Volumes 3 and 4 span October 2006 to February 2007. The liner notes explain:

Each recording is an unedited ten-minute take from a single location. Sine tones and mixing completed in Michael Pisaro’s home studio in Santa Clarita, California. Each ten-minute piece is followed by two minutes of silence.

In short, all four volumes of Transparent City feature three elements: recordings of urban environments in Los Angeles, sine tones, and silence.

Michael Pisaro

Michael Pisaro

The environment presented across these four discs is relatively similar sounding, filled with general city ambience and car sounds. However, Transparent City also features recurring instances of a compositional move that is simply magical: a particular sound will naturally appear/disappear out of the stereo field to reveal a soft, tuned sine tone as accompaniment. In one track, a high tone subtly fades in only to be joined by the sound of a passing car. The car and tone blend seamlessly for just a moment before the car disappears from the landscape. Sometimes the sine tone remains, sometimes it disappears with its environmental collaborator. At another point, a tone becomes a dyad when another one appears, offering a kind of chordal drone under chirping birds and air. When chords are present, the listener realizes that all coincidences of sounds in the environment can be heard as chords, that melodies are unearthed with a subtle shift of perspective across numerous sources.
Pisaro’s unedited field recordings authentically present the aural location but become something entirely other when combined with tuned sine tones. One could think of Transparent City as a kind of training regimen for reinterpreting the soundscape of Los Angeles. In a way, it is a digital proof of concept of Cage’s 4’33”: Pisaro adds simple, musical accompaniment to urban Los Angeles to assert the musical appreciation of the aural landscape. One is also reminded of Joseph Fourier’s theory that any complex sound can be divided into a collection of sine tones. Transparent City proves the utility of this theory, giving the listener countless examples of sine tones disappearing within environmental sounds.

The other significant move in Transparent City is the recurring two minutes of silence following each track. Transparent City retrains the listener’s interpretation of an aural landscape, and then confronts the listener with his current landscape, enticing him to imagine Pisaro’s sine tones flowing in and out of his surroundings. This recurring silence becomes more fascinating as one progresses through all four discs. The final appearance of one’s own landscape at the end of the collection, through ears that have been reoriented to atomize their surroundings, is shocking.

This idea that the aural landscape is endlessly divisible, and endlessly musical, is not a new one, but the sheer viscerality of its presentation, and augmentation, in Pisaro’s hands is truly unique. This extreme re-framing of the field would not happen without the abstracted sine tones or the raw, unedited recordings of Los Angeles working in tandem. Taken together, then, Transparent City is a work which depends on both aural authenticity as well as conceptual or compositional abstraction.

Toshiya Tsunoda’s O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring)

Toshiya Tsunoda’s work represents a truly unique mixture of extreme procedural discipline and vivid recordings of the outside world. His work runs the gamut from recordings made via a microphone inside a bent pipe to the sound of a subject’s biological functions (recorded via stethoscopes) while he sits outside listening to his surroundings. O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), recently released on his own imprint, edition.t, is another fascinating example of pushing a procedural operation to an extreme on field recorded source material.

Toshiya Tsunoda

Toshiya Tsunoda

Recorded on the Miura Peninsula (in Kanagawa, Japan) during the springtime, Tsunoda’s work here spreads across two CDs with a simple, recurring compositional device: randomly he loops a tiny fragment of sound for various durations. The first time this happens, it sounds almost like a CD skipping: lush jungle sounds are suddenly interrupted by a few seconds of a harsh, repeating, rhythmic glitch. Though a seemingly simple gesture, Tsunoda plays freely with the length of the loop, as well as how long it repeats and the time between instances of looping.

Throughout both discs, loops start and end without warning, and the lack of consistency across each instance of looping is jarring: a bird singing is suddenly interrupted by some tiny fragment of the background clicking rhythmically for several seconds. Sometimes the loop is long enough to sound like it actually belongs to the environment preceding it, sometimes it is so short it sounds like a drill. The effect is like freezing a tiny atom of time, or like viewing cellular behavior under a microscope.
From Tsunoda’s liner notes:

I decided to present the recorded materials as a composition with the least amount of modification, mainly by replacing one unit with another. This is one of my trials to present a “subject” as a piece of work—which can be called field recordings—that contains the accidentalness. We cannot manipulate the accidentalness. The only way for us to relate to the events is to closely observe what is happening there.

I love this quote because it typifies the give and take between intentionality and chance in field recording work. The only way that we can observe “accidentalness” or chance (or perhaps nature?) is to put the natural world under an extreme microscope. When doing so, we see that our normal fidelity when observing the world glosses over a tremendous amount of activity. Similarly, Tsunoda hints at the play between intentionally choosing a particular location, with a particular set of sounds, to record, but hoping to be truly surprised by what can be found there.

The title of each track allows the listener to zoom in even further on the sounds. Here Tsunoda is even more concerned with authenticity of source than is typical for an artist working in this domain. Tsunoda gives the listener a location (the Miura Peninsula), and then a subset of that location (“the sounds of ashes bursting in the fire built by fisherman”), and then repeatedly pushes the listener deeper and deeper into the sound. At a certain resolution, one is confronted with the grain of the environment (hence the title “Grains of Spring”), the endlessly divisible atoms that make up the outside world. Tsunoda loops the sound to allow one’s ears to adjust to the fidelity of the alien sound world therein, only to suddenly snap back to the normal fidelity of the aural landscape.

Similar to the Pisaro, Tsunoda’s work fundamentally changes our perception of the outside world. If the soundscape is as unstable, depending on our perspective, as it is presented throughout O Kokos Tis Anixis, at what point can we say that we have actually heard it? Does this atomization, this fragmentation, get us closer to understanding the fundamental nature of sound, or does it simply prove that a wealth of activity is occurring on endlessly deeper levels? The disorienting nature of listening to this seemingly random interchange between high alteration of a location, which is otherwise presented to us “as is,” is simply incredible.

Both of these works typify a fascinating interaction between conceptual constraints, or abstractions, and accurate portrayals of an environment. It is clear that a similar effect would not have been possible by simply recording the urban sound of Los Angeles or the natural sounds in the Miura Peninsula. Similarly, though, a sample-based electronic music piece would not have tied these sounds to their origin. It is truly the combination of both, seemingly opposed, motivations that yields a listening experience rarely encountered. They prove that a field recording does not have to merely document some outside landscape, and that one can still document the outside world faithfully while pushing further via extreme compositional procedures. The friction between holding authenticity and abstraction at the same level yields a truly productive experience. We will never hear the world the same after work like this.

Works Cited
Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, Brandon LaBelle. 2007.
“Ten framing considerations of the field,” Michael Pisaro. 2010.
Transparent Cities (Volumes 1-4), Michael Pisaro. Editions Wandelweiser.
O Kokos Tis Anixis (Grains of Spring), Toshiya Tsunoda. edition.t.