Tag: learning

What I Didn’t Learn in Music School

Classroom

Classroom

If you’re earning a comfortable wage and living a happy life doing Exactly What You Thought You’d Do With Your Degree(s), I applaud you. Sincerely! I am among the many people in the music world who are not, but I couldn’t be happier with where I landed.

A brief history: I went to school for flute performance and, along the way, I learned a lot. Music history, how to maintain sanity after being in a confined, solitary room for hours on end, music theory, flute repertoire, patience (see “practice room”), a little jazz improv, pedagogy, large and small ensemble playing, and many other things that are specific to the field of music performance. Mission accomplished, right? Sort of. In the first year out of my master’s degree, my desire to win a full time orchestral flute job (What I Thought I’d Do) was diminishing at a rate that didn’t align with my increasing desire to lead a more diverse career and lifestyle.

So, what next? First, I’ll share a few things I wish I’d learned in school: marketing, web design, sound recording, grant writing, and public speaking. I’m delighted that some institutions are extremely forward thinking in training what I’ll call the “Whole Musician.” Exhibit A: Paul Taub at Cornish College of the Arts teaches a career development class to junior and senior music majors which covers representation and promotion, fundraising, music business, recording, and graduate school applications. Exhibit B: Brian Chin at Seattle Pacific University leads a quarterly series for all music majors called “Futures in Music: A lecture series providing vocational exploration through engagement with renowned artists.” Last week, students heard from Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw and Cameron Beauchamp. Up next will be New Music USA’s Kevin Clark, and later this year Seattle recording emperor David Sabee.

Awesome, right? I bet all former music majors out there are thinking, “I wish I had a class like that!” If you’re still in school and there isn’t such a course but you have some extra credits to fill, consider exploring the communications course listings. Volunteer or apply for internships. Looking for some extra cash? See if the recording engineer at your school is hiring student techs. Seek out an expert in one of these areas and ask to shadow them, or to have a coffee and ask them some questions. Most professionals will be willing and there’s nothing to lose by asking.

These seem like such obvious ideas to me in hindsight, but in the trenches of playing in at least one too many ensembles, practice time, class, papers, group projects, and more practicing, it was hard to stomach the thought of adding something else. If you’re like me and didn’t seek the aforementioned opportunities, you are not imminently doomed. I can offer some coping mechanisms and philosophies:

  • A creative and open mind is crucial to exploring career paths
  • Proactively continuing your education is strongly advisable (whether through formal courses or informal mentorships)
  • Timing and luck do account for some success

Those principles led to my current job as assistant program director at Classical KING FM where I co-founded Second Inversion and currently manage all it’s content and platforms. It’s a project dedicated to rethinking classical music through a 24/7 audio stream, blog, Seattle event calendar, and collection of music videos filmed in our studios and eclectic venues around town. After a year of four young KING FM staffers brainstorming, sketching logo designs, making contacts, and building the website and stream, it launched in 2014 out of our general manager and program director’s desire to reach a younger, more diverse audience for classical music.

Entrepreneurship and advocacy—two buzz words from a session at the 2016 New Music Gathering called “The ‘How to Be’ of Being a New Music Musician”—are foundational to Second Inversion, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot ever since. While many agreed that the E word can have a bit of toxicity attached to it in the music world, Claire Chase reminded us of entrepreneur’s Sanskrit meaning: inspiration from within. On advocacy, Claire went on to say, “It’s doing something for oneself and the community in the same in breath and out breath.” NANOWorks Opera co-founder Kendall A. added, “Advocacy is the rising tide that lifts all ships.”

Second Inversion began as a grassroots, entrepreneurial project and has grown into a thriving, active community joined together by and advocating for the common interest of new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. I didn’t learn about these things in formal ways in music school, but rather through trial and error (entrepreneurship) and relentless passion (advocacy). For new music to thrive, we need composers, performers, recording engineers, promoters, audience, donors, and advocates. We’re all in this together and none of us could do our work—whether it’s Exactly What You Thought You’d Do or not—without each other.

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Maggie Stapleton

Maggie Stapleton is the assistant program director at Classical KING FM and manager of all programming and platforms for Second Inversion. As an active flutist, Maggie plays regularly with the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the office and rehearsal hall, Maggie loves to cook, rock climb, run, bike, hike, and explore the beautiful city of Seattle and surrounding areas of Western Washington.

 

How Landscape Music Evokes the Natural World

fern notation

My previous column argued for the importance of Landscape Music—music inspired by landscape, nature, and place—as a pathway to learning about and connecting with the natural world. In this final installment of my series on new music as a catalyst for learning, I expand on the topic of Landscape Music by considering some cultural and artistic implications of making music that engages with nature. What is the role of nature in culture? Why use the term “landscape” in reference to music? How can music symbolize the natural world? Finally, what are some of the specific approaches composers have taken to creating landscapes in their music?

What Does “Nature” Have to Do with Culture?

Most of the words and concepts we have for “nature” in English emerged from the opposition between human civilization and everything else. In the book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash traced how the term “wilderness” was transformed in America over the centuries from an essentially derogatory indicator for uncultivated, uncivilized areas, to its current positive associations with environmental conservation. Gary Snyder explored in The Practice of the Wild how even the popularly held conception of “nature” is itself paradoxical. Despite the common and seemingly unavoidable usage of the word to refer to the “non-human” world, we humans and all of our activities—from walking the dog to browsing Facebook—are a part of nature.

Furthermore, when thinking about interpretations of “wilderness” or “nature” within any art form, it is inherently impossible to avoid human-imposed lenses. The interpretation of nature through art is, by definition, the very representation of human perspectives. This, I believe, is not a bad thing. In Landscape And Memory, Simon Schama argued eloquently for the importance of understanding that “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature” and that culture is “not the repudiation, but the veneration, of nature.”

In this spirit, as both a composer and an advocate for music inspired by nature, I seek to acknowledge and engage with culture-based perceptions of nature as the ways in which we humans necessarily make sense and meaning from the world around us, whether it’s through an Albert Bierstadt painting or a children’s cartoon.

Yosemite Valley

Bierstadt’s paintings epitomize the Romantic idealization of nature in 19th-century America. SOURCE: wikipedia

I feel “landscape” is the term that best embodies this overall idea. This word was imported from Dutch into English in the 16th century and has been used historically to refer to the aesthetic appreciation of nature, especially in the context of visual art. “Landscape” may be applied to bucolic scenes (the word’s original application) or cityscapes, as well as to wilderness locales that have been less obviously modified by human hands. That having been said, as both a creator and a listener I’m interested primarily in art and music that act as a pathway to fostering a greater empathy with, and connection to, the natural world beyond humanity (a topic I explored previously).

In my view, music can never present a purely objective representation of nature, or even provide a medium through which to concretely evoke a world beyond human perception and involvement. I would argue that the creation of music inspired by nature is an inherently humanistic act that affirms the intrinsic value and importance of the non-human natural world to the human experience.

How Does Music Evoke Landscape?

One might argue that, with the exception of music that explicitly mimics the sounds of nature (or incorporates field recordings), connections between landscape and musical elements are seemingly arbitrary: projected by the composer or the listener onto the music. True, whether a particular melody played on the flute signifies or “captures” the experience of sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree, for example, has far more to do with the composer and/or the listener than it does with sunlight or trees themselves. This does not devalue the flute melody’s symbolic importance, however: a musical idea can be a highly effective conduit for communicating, understanding, and encapsulating human experiences of the natural world. In this way, the musical and verbal languages—in the case of nature essays or poetry, for example—are alike.

So what are some of the specific ways music, arguably an abstract art form, has been used to evoke or relate to experiences of nature? Scholars working in the relatively young field of ecomusicology have been exploring this and related questions through an interdisciplinary lens, combining approaches from musicology with the related literary field of ecocriticism (e.g., in the writings of Denise Von Glahn, who was previously interviewed by NewMusicBox). I’m attempting to contribute to the conversation about music and nature by exploring related questions from composers’ own perspectives: through essays and interviews for Landscape Music about music by contemporary composers, with an emphasis on members of the Landscape Music Composers Network, as well as composers of the past.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon in Utah was one of Olivier Messiaen’s inspirations for Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the canyons to the stars…). Photo by Luca Galuzzi via Wiki Commons.

In my article “Evoking Place Through Music: Three Modes of Expression,” I considered three general approaches composers have taken to the problem of representing nature: 1) music as aesthetic response to place; 2) imitation of place-based sound; and 3) allusion to place-associated music and musical styles, citing examples of these modes of expression in the music of Charles Ives, Olivier Messiaen, and John Luther Adams. Within these very broad categories, a great variety of perspectives may be represented.

Furthermore, some nature-inspired works seek to evoke specific locations, plants, animals, etc., while others respond to fundamental concepts of nature. John Luther Adams has written about how he has come to avoid overly specific extra-musical associations in order to allow the listener to “complete” the music through their engagement with it, without being limited by the composer’s intentions. With Become Ocean (2013), he presents “ocean” as a universal experience, rather than composing a piece that references a particular ocean at a particular seashore—rooted though the work may be in the time he spent in a specific place. Adams writes: “…I’m not interested in sending messages or telling stories with music. And although I used to paint musical landscapes, that no longer interests me either. The truth is, I’m no longer interested in making music about anything…Though a piece may begin with a particular thought or image, as the music emerges it becomes a world of its own, independent of my extra-musical associations.”

Adams’s recent approach clearly results in powerful and effective work. But music inspired by nature that presents specific extra-musical narratives and associations can also be powerful. Such works do not necessarily limit listeners, but ideally will provide them with points of entry into new realms of experience that they would be unable to access without that imaginative “push.” For example, I’ve never had the opportunity to travel to Alaska, but many of Adams’s earlier works from his Alaska period allow me to enter into the “Alaska” of my mind. Knowing that this music was directly inspired by a place I’ve never been, and lack strong prior associations with, does not limit my ability to connect with the music or find my own meaning within it.

Many (though not all) of the composers in the Landscape Music Composers Network express extra-musical inspirations from specific places or species through their works. Christina Rusnak has described the divergent approaches she took to writing several pieces inspired by parks and wilderness areas, exploring the physical characteristics of landscapes as well as their “cultural geography.” By contrast, Stephen Lias seeks primarily to capture the “spirit of adventure” and the “emotional and physical experience” of being in the wilderness through his series of works inspired by national parks. Stephen Wood often composes from a naturalist’s perspective by responding to individual plant species and their ecological contexts. I’ve written about my own process for “translating” my experiences of Point Reyes National Seashore, and a woodblock print by Tom Killion that depicts it, into an orchestral tone poem. The other members of the Landscape Music Composers Network (Linda Chase, Rachel Panitch, Justin Ralls, and Alex Shapiro) have each taken inspiration from nature in their own, distinct ways.

Although there are as many approaches to representing experiences of nature through music as there are composers and pieces (and listeners, for that matter!), I continue to attempt to shed light on these processes. My goal and hope in doing so is to encourage greater appreciation of new music inspired by nature and to help composers and performers improve their ability to make increasingly insightful, effective, and impactful work that catalyzes audience learning and changes people’s perceptions of the natural world we’re all inextricably a part of.

Why Landscape Music is More Important Than Ever

ocean with headphones

In my previous two columns, I argued for envisioning new music as a catalyst for learning and I suggested how this might be accomplished through music inspired by visual art. This week I’ll continue this theme by focusing on learning in the context of music inspired by nature, landscape, and place, which I call “Landscape Music.” The intrinsic power of music to facilitate reflection and reinterpretation of life experiences makes creating Landscape Music a compelling approach to improving and deepening our connection to nature—a goal which is more important now than ever.

While some composers may approach their music as a platform through which to advocate for specific environmental and conservation causes, others are driven to express purely aesthetic responses to nature. For composers who are passionate about having a positive impact on society’s attitudes towards the natural world, I think there is room for both approaches.

Earlier this year I founded the online publication Landscape Music—and the affiliated Landscape Music Composers Network—to investigate and promote diverse contemporary concert music that seeks to increase appreciation of nature and to provide a venue for composers’ ideas on this topic, both online and through concerts (planned for 2016). Artists featured on this website have created work ranging from a piece for contrabass flute and electronics composed around field recordings of whale song (Below, 2008, by Alex Shapiro) to an orchestral depiction of a ten-day backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Gates of the Arctic, 2014, by Stephen Lias).

Similar to music inspired by visual art, creating and presenting Landscape Music may bring new music to new audiences while simultaneously leading listeners to expand their awareness of topics including conservation, ecology, the value of parks and wilderness areas, and the integral role of landscape in culture.

The Need for Landscape Music

Hubris, shortsightedness, and overall alienation from nature are leading us towards catastrophic instability and mass-scale environmental imbalance, already resulting in climate change and dwindling biodiversity. Many sense that a massive paradigm shift is necessary to reconcile the human species with our existence as a part of the larger fabric of life; to move our society towards perceiving nature as more than a resource merely to be “utilized” and used up. Justin Ralls explored this need for reconnecting and rebalancing in an article for NewMusicBox.

Artists who are concerned with the global environmental sustainability crisis are faced with the question: how can I best utilize my skills and insights as an artist to help my audience reconnect to the natural world? This may have many political implications—and I’ve argued elsewhere that investing time and energy in making music for noncommercial purposes and pursuing contemplative experiences in nature are inherently subversive actions in a materialist, capitalist society. However, the question does not inevitably imply that music must take the form of “art as activism.” John Luther Adams, who has been both a composer and an activist, emphasizes the crucial role of art in an age of crisis. Music is not less “important” than activism, nor should we use music as a platform for activism at the expense of artistic integrity. But art, like activism, can change people’s perspectives: “If my music can inspire people to listen more deeply to this miraculous world we inhabit,” Adams writes, “then I will have done what I can as a composer to help us navigate this perilous era of our own creation.”

So, why music inspired by nature? All effective music should potentially have meaning to listeners without any kind of “explanations” provided by the composer (especially hit-you-over-the-head political messaging), and music without any extra-musical connotations at all may, of course, have the very same effect that Adams describes. Even so, I think there is a significant place for music that presents extra-musical associations and reflections on nature, in the same way that there is a place for music inspired by visual art. Especially when you consider music’s potential to affect listener’s attitudes towards the world around them by expanding their emotional, spiritual, and intellectual horizons—not by convincing, but by facilitating understanding.

Learning through Music, We Connect with Nature

Our sense of connection with nature—and, more specifically, our awareness that we are animals living in a state of interconnection with, and dependence upon, the natural world—is formed through an accumulation of learning experiences (which might need to be revisited continually throughout life in order to maintain that connection). Such learning experiences might occur equally through very accessible activities, such as observing an animal or planting a garden, as they do through prolonged immersions like backpacking in the wilderness. These actions take on even greater substance and purpose through academic learning and scientific study.

While firsthand experiences of nature and scientific learning are irreplaceable, disparate “in-the-world” experiences can also become newly transformative and take on new coherence and meaning through the combination of reflection and narrative that music facilitates. Consider the ways in which memories, ideas, and emotions come together and how we “make sense” of our experiences through art—and how art can affect the way we interpret future experiences. The photographs of Ansel Adams showed new ways to see Yosemite Valley; the writings of Willa Cather gave life on the prairie an elevated yet accessible language; and the music of Charles Ives evoked universal experiences by threading together his personal observations and childhood memories of New England. Each of these artists changed how we encounter or imagine those same kinds of places today and how we understand the role of natural environments in human experience.

I wrote previously about music’s potential to impact learning. For composers, performers, and presenters who wish to improve public awareness of the natural world through music, one of the keys to accomplishing that goal may be exploring the interplay between music, emotion, memory, and learning, and how these may affect listeners’ perceptions. Ultimately, I believe that the potential for music as a catalyst for learning about nature has not yet been fully realized and may in fact depend on unconventional approaches and innovative thinking.

The Possibilities of Interactive Media

The project through which I’ve sought most directly to facilitate learning about nature was Explore John Muir’s Yosemite. This interactive installation for web and iPad app brings together my non-linear, synthesized score with original photographs and videos of Yosemite National Park and the neighboring Sequoia National Park to illustrate excerpts from the writings of influential conservationist John Muir (1838-1914).

With this project, I wanted to put a magnifying glass to Muir’s wonderful (and often dense) nature essays. I pulled out some of what I found to be the most evocative descriptions from his books—writing about the Douglas Squirrel, Muir states, “Every wind is fretted by his voice, almost every bole and branch feels the sting of his sharp feet”—and used them as starting points for building a multidisciplinary, multisensory experience.

Music, visual, and textual elements operate throughout eleven “scenes,” presented in a slideshow-like format in which a phrase of text is paired with an image and loop of music. Users advance through these slides at their own pace; they may also freely jump between slides out of order. In my “micro” film scoring technique, advancing each slide seamlessly triggers a change to the music loop—a shift in texture, instrumentation, rhythm, melody, or harmony—through which I attempted to underpin and impart greater vividness to the ideas and images being presented at that particular moment.

My goal for Explore John Muir’s Yosemite was not primarily to inform users about an influential historical figure. It was to present a “multimedia master class” on observing and contemplating the natural world through the eyes of one of history’s greatest practitioners of that art.

Screenshot from <em>Explore John Muir’s Yosemite</em>

Screenshot from Explore John Muir’s Yosemite (muirsyosemite.com).

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In composing and advocating for Landscape Music, I’ve begun encountering a fascinating constellation of aesthetic, intellectual, and political problems to explore—far beyond what I can cover here! It is my overarching hope that, by creating and presenting such work, we might direct the power of music towards stimulating listeners’ intellectual curiosity, enriching their emotional and spiritual life, and increasing their empathy with and awareness of other living beings and the infinite richness and variety of the non-human physical world.

Has music helped you feel more connected to nature? Has music ever broadened your awareness of a specific place, species of animal or plant, or some other aspect of nature? Has it helped you to interpret and observe more closely? And what, to you, are the greatest potentials and pitfalls of making music with this intention? What are the most successful examples you can recall—and how might we build on those examples moving forward?