Tag: nature

Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness

Hikers in a foggy mountain range

I moved to Phoenix in 2008 to start my master’s degree in music composition. Almost every year since then, I have made it a mission to escape the heat at least once during the summer. I have made these efforts in spite of my financial situation and—although I am ashamed to admit it—in spite of my relationships. This year, 2019, has been my “year of doing less”—so far a grand and failed effort to take stock of what I have, get to know my Phoenix-based friends and musical companions better, and dig a little deeper into what it means for me to have a very full day job and do music “on the side.” To alleviate my annual wanderlust, I applied to Composing in the Wilderness, a program founded, built, and coordinated by composer/adventurer Stephen Lias. CiTW takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.

I was woefully unprepared.

Map of Alaska


Before I left, I described Composing in the Wilderness as this:

It’s a program where you hike during the day in Denali National Park in Alaska, then after a few days of outdoor observation, you are thrown into a cabin to write some music, then you get a performance. Pretty cool, right?

I knew we would be interacting with scientists and park rangers, but I had no concept of the scope of that interaction. It is a similar situation to people who come to Phoenix and decide to hike Camelback Mountain in the summer, thinking it will be an easy climb. From a distance, it looks like a good day hike, but if you are not familiar with your new relationship with the sun here, it is a far different experience than expected.

“Composing in the Wilderness is not a class or a workshop, but a shared wilderness experience.” – Stephen Lias

While my casual summary is technically correct—the CiTW experience is hiking in Denali for four days, composing in cabins for four days, then rehearsals and performances in Fairbanks and Denali with Corvus, the new music ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival—it is not what I expected. When I arrived at our campsite and saw the diversity of our group and the intense knowledge of our leader Christina Rusnak and Alaska Geographic educator Suan Adams, I knew that my usual trajectory and internal compass for being in a group of composers for an extended period of time would no longer work.

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “The creativity of exploration and motion. The incredible calm and sharpness found in wilderness. The fuzzy joy feels of humans.” – Andy Israelsen

Observation and Reevaluation

“I feel more focused in my life. My experience with CiTW has given me a confidence and sense of determination/ direction that I haven’t had before.” – Jordan Stevenson

I have been to a number of summer music festivals and experiences. My plan was to keep my engagement to a minimum so I could have my quiet and my solitude. My much deserved respite in nature from screen time and nonprofit administration. How I thought this would be feasible with nine other composers (eight participants plus our Christina Rusnak) is a mystery in hindsight. I came with prejudgements about the loose factions that would form based on who took what too seriously.


At first, I tried to experience Alaska in the way that I thought I had earned. I was quickly plucked from my ego and reminded that the earth does not belong to me, it is not here for my pleasure or artistic exploitation, and taking joy in discovery is far more fun than worrying about my musical knowledge and professional trajectory seeming more noble or interesting than another’s.

When I challenge why I would come in with such childish assumptions, I know it was out of fear that I would not belong or be taken seriously. I am now on the older side of the typical summer music experience participant and I want to say it doesn’t affect me, but that would not be the truth. As the group skirted around icebreakers and “where are you from?”-s, the flow of my attitude began to echo that of Anchorage-based composer Andy Israelsen, who on our last night claimed “I came for solitude, but instead I found family.”

Listening at the river

Photo by Christina Rusnak

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “Value of unplugged time, connection with the real—people, community, people, what lies under the superficial.” —Margery Smith

Connection to the Landscape

Regardless of the connotations “landscape” holds for you, it is a larger picture or format that has the potential to reveal multitudes if you take the time to observe. The scientists, Alaska Geographic employees, and park interpreters—who very literally led us into the wilderness and peeled back the layers—allowed us to make connections to scale, sound, and history outside of the scope of music. It was entirely up to us to make our own, very personal connections to the stream of information given to our group.

Most of us honed in on the scale of the landscape (be it cricket-sized or Denali-sized) and the visual and physical limitations the wildfire smoke had on our relationship to the wilderness. I realized that I was doing myself yet another disservice by not appreciating the bug flying past my ears and the grass tickling my wrists. Every small moving part is more essential to the whole than I ever knew. Davyd Bechtkal, a leading soundscape specialist for the National Park Service, opened our ears to the physical limitations scale and landscapes place on natural sounds and the way we experience them. Listening intently to the landscape around me gave me a better understanding of how small my role in the world is, but also how to find empowerment and joy in that role, regardless of scale.


Photo by Christina Rusnak

“NYC is a place where you don’t hang out so much. You just go and do stuff, then go and do different stuff with different people, or just hang out at home waiting for the next ‘go and do stuff’ moment. CiTW was a small compact society. We were thrust onto each other but united in orientation—we’ve all had fairly deep relationships to making music. It was fun to share the personal aspects of that to see where it matched others.” – Skip LaPlante

Natural Resources

At the end of a 24-hour Alaskan summer day, the people I met and the friendships that were forged were the most impressive resources I found. If you look back on the history of Composing in the Wilderness, you will notice a significant age range in the participants. I could have simply watched Skip LaPlante give a lecture on his repurposed musical instruments crafted in a loft in the Bowery or read an article by Christina Rusnak in an IAWM publication, but the knowledge gained would be superficial compared to having these individuals and eight other composers from separate walks of life in a space together, not distracted by technology or schedules, swapping stories.

Without this specific wilderness/composer experience, I know I would have remained very unaware of the life and career opportunities that lay bubbling in our national and state park systems. Although I’m a good 30 years younger than Skip, I fully agree with his sentiment: “I didn’t know there was such a webwork of composer residencies in wild places. … I think I’ve discovered a new society to be part of and have to work out how deeply to participate.”


Photo by Angus Davison

Continuing the Climb

“[H]aving the experience of being out in the field as we were, with such expert guidance interpreting what we encountered, and—more importantly—contextualizing them within the larger picture of the landscape of Alaska raised my consciousness of the interdependence of natural life, from very small to very large scale, to a level which I have never before had.” —Andrew Simpson

“I haven’t traveled much, and only within Europe, so I was shocked by how different both the wildlife in Denali and the culture in Fairbanks were to what I’m used to. It really was a little like walking on another planet when all the grass was different, all the trees were different, and the Sun was a different color in the smoke.” – Luciano Williamson

Without a doubt, the experience transformed me personally and will have lasting impact on my personal life and career. And I can only assume that when founder Stephen Lias came to Denali for the first time and began to formulate what would become Composing in the Wilderness, he knew exactly how transformative such and experience would be.

Before leaving for Alaska, I kept insisting to my co-workers that I was not going on vacation. Again, a true statement, but one that turned false after my experience. My sentiment was “I am not going to have time to relax, I am going to be working very hard while I’m gone. I am not going on a cruise.” Yes, I worked hard, we all did. But I found the things that a vacation allegedly brings: mental relaxation, reflection, and unforgettable new experiences. I came back refreshed. I came back not bugged by small things. The world is so big and people are so different, it doesn’t make sense to get caught up in the minutiae. We are human and it will still happen, but I find it easier to pull back and see the true scale of something. I feel more satisfied with what I have and am more ready to allow events to happen in their own time.

Composing in the Wilderness

Photo by Angus Davison

A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness

  1. Minimize your interaction with technology.
  2. Find a friend to adventure with you.
  3. Select at least two new places in nature (as your available time frame and resources allow) to visit. A public park, a plant nursery, a different neighborhood, a botanical garden, etc.).
  4. If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
  5. Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
  6. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
  7. If you are tired, take a nap!
  8. Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.

Reading List

Andrew Simpson: Silence by John Cage

Particularly on that first full day in the field, as we were taking our meditative time, I kept coming back to his essay on silence, and how he says that you can never find true silence anywhere in the world: there is always sound of some kind.  In a place which is so quiet, I found myself thinking about that boundary between sound and silence, and becoming more attuned to the sounds which were there—the wind traveling through the spruces (coming from a long way off somewhere to my left, then crossing the place where I sat, and then continuing onward and out of hearing to my right)—the occasional bird, and such.  That wind moment eventually made its way into my piece, but the experience of being in such a quiet place and feeling its weight, punctuated by sound, made each sound more special and noticeable.

Christina Rusnak: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

[A book] that has to do with a way of “seeing” is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As we spoke about the indigenous Alaskans’ tie to the landscape, this one kept coming up in my mind.

Jason Gibson: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It’s a concentration camp survival story that focuses on the psychology of those in the [Nazi] camps. It sticks out to me because I found myself searching for meaning and legitimacy during the entire experience.

Margery Smith: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer

This was one of Davyd Bechtkal’s books that I found very interesting and made me think [I can] still hear those crunchy chips from Denali lunch breaks!

Andrew Israelsen: Silence and Walking by Erlin Klagge

Silence was written after a solo walking trek to the South pole. The book is hardly about Antarctica, rather it is a winding journey on mindfulness and a wide variety of ruminations on silence. Walking has a fantastic narrative arc as Kagge explores poetry, philosophy, and personal experiences.

Skip LaPlante: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schaefer and Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The first is about the sonic environment in general, really understanding what you are hearing and the second is about observing and drinking in detail.

Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a sci-fi novel that addresses how language and views of the land and gender affect culture. It focuses on a visitor to a cold, ice-filled planet who is unable to grasp the slow pace of the people and lack of technological advancement. The visitor misses the technology they do have because it does not look like the technology he is used to. This scenario echoed with me as we learned more about how Western cultures have viewed and related to the Athabaskan, the indigenous people of Alaska.

Luciano Williamson: Musicage by Joan Retallack

It’s a collection of interviews with John Cage at the very end of his life, talking about words, art, and music, after being John Cage for a lifetime.

Jordan Stevenson: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

“…to get you in the spirit of adventure.”

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).

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?

Become Listening

singing bird

Image by Caroline Granycome, via Flickr

After discussing in my previous posts the role of the creative act as a revolutionary force and the role of nature as a possible means of recovering our elemental imagination, I’d like to delve deeper into the natural world to consider the soundscape. Coined by composer R. Murray Schafer, the soundscape has become something of a cultural and scientific phenomenon. Composers such as Schafer and writers such as Bernie Krause urge contemporary listeners to take off their headphones and venture into the sonic environment of nature where the natural soundscape is a “tapestry,” an “orchestra”—or, in the words of Schafer, “a huge composition going on all the time.”

Here in North America, our initiation into natural sound often begins with birds. However, while listening to individual sounds in an environment, we cannot take for granted that every sound is present within a larger, holistic entity. This “biophony” is nested within specific environments. It was on walks and hiking trips listening to birds that I first imagined the possibilities of music growing out of the soundscape, of nature as some kind of musical utterance. It was while immersed in natural sound and experience that I came to believe that by engaging with the soundscape we may make an honest contribution to restoring humanity’s relationship with the natural world. It was while listening to birds that I came to believe that the origins and evolution of human music reside within the landscapes and soundscapes of the animate earth.

As composers, our creative existence draws upon elements of our own sonic worlds, metaphors upon metaphors, translating experience upon experience. Our experience in these sonic environments shapes our auditory awareness and guides our creative journey as sound artists. Some composers abstract sounds from their original source, manipulating them into wonderful textures and meanings. Others use sound in a more primal form, performing in the soundscape or using natural sound that has been carefully integrated within human-generated sound.

At this point, the idea of listening to our environment as music can be considered a venerable tradition within our musical culture. From Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète to Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noises, John Cage’s radical ventures into the aesthetics of sound to R. Murray Schafer’s egalitarian and ecological philosophies: deeply listening to the world around us has established itself, in the words of Barry Truax, as a “useful, if not absolutely necessary condition for living in a sonically balanced environment.” And in this balance, the voices of women have provided some of the best role models for engaging with nature. Pauline Oliveros points out that “deep listening is a lifetime practice…deep listening involves going below the surface of what is heard and also expanding to the whole field of sound…this is the way to connect with the acoustic environment and all that inhabits it.” Composers such as Hildegard Westerkamp and Emily Doolittle creatively inhabit the natural acoustic worlds of birds, animals, forests, and human communities. All share a sense that the soundscape is a place where the cultural and aesthetic boundaries between music and nature, and nature and humanity, are blurred—where listening can change moral, spiritual, social, and environmental conditions. Like all aspects of the Anthropocene, we have come to sonically dominate our environments, silencing many voices. Rachel Carson articulated this in the sonic metaphor of Silent Spring. More than fifty years later, many bird populations around the United States are again in decline. Olivier Messiaen famously considered birds the greatest musicians. How many of their songs do you know? How many would you miss if they were gone?

As musicians, our ability to spatially discern sound, mimic and create sounds, hear relationships between sounds, and to devise metaphors and meanings in sound are all drawn upon the sonic geography of the earth. Author Steven Mithen hypothesizes the possible evolutionary origins of music by suggesting that language was preceded by something neither wholly linguistic nor musical but represented by an anagram he coined: “Hmmmm”—holistic, multimodal, manipulative, musical, and mimetic. The last two, I believe, have special significance. Many indigenous traditions around the world from Papua New Guinea to the Central African Rainforest to Oregon and Alaska incorporate holistic, multimodal, and mimetic approaches in their musical cultures. Author Ellen Dissanayake argues in her book Homo Aestheticus that art and music are fundamental to human evolution. Neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel writes of the Pirahã, a small tribe in the Brazillian Amazon, explaining, “Members of this culture speak a language without numbers or a concept of counting. Their language has no fixed terms for colors. They have no creation myths, and they do not draw, aside from simple stick figures. Yet they have music in abundance.”

If the worlds experienced by humans are so diverse, creating such distinct cultures, how much more diverse must be the worlds of other species, of birds and whales and the beings beyond our own sensory perception? Yet, just as we share genetic and elemental origins and characteristics, we too must share cultural characteristics and elements. These are what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia, the connections human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life. It is not a coincidence that our word “culture,” which signifies human spiritual, intellectual, and creative growth, also signifies biologic and organic cultivation. Ecology goes beyond linear causation; it is about complex relationships, infinite connection. Song may not evoke meaning on its own; it, too, is about relationships, contexts, and connections.

According to phenomenologist Merleu-Ponty, our immediate experience in the world is an experience of reciprocal encounter—of tension, communication, and commingling, a process that draws us into relation. Just like any organism, our bodies and our senses have evolved in interaction and reciprocity with our environment and the other-than-human life world, what we call nature. Just as our bodies have co-evolved themselves in union with our surroundings, so too has our consciousness co-evolved out of the sounds of the living world.

It is with these understandings that we depart on our journey of discovery. Our environments resonate deep within us. The rich diversity of music around the world is a result of people living for millennia in harmony with their own physical and cultural geographies. The sounds of the animate earth—the birds, the wind, the animals, the water, the air, and the people—all contribute to the music of place. Even in places where musicians have little or no intimate experience of the natural world, there are still qualities of music unique to specific places, regional musics that speak to cultural environments. But how did the sounds and rhythms of the earth influence the birth and growth of these traditions? How does our experience of particular natural environments influence the music we make? And how might a closer listening and examination of traditions within nature contribute to a renewal of our own culture within the nature world? We are ready to rediscover these questions with renewed perspectives and fresh ears. In a world saturated by sounds, genres, gizmos, machines, and numerous “electronic hallucinations,” our capacity to truly step out of the world we’ve created can be daunting. It takes incredible courage, concentration, and discipline to meditate and deeply listen. John Muir recommended we take long, quiet walks in nature, frequently employing the metaphors of music to describe his sensual experience in the natural world. As composers, if we bring our innate skills into the experience of nature we realize, as Muir said, that going into nature is like going home.

Imagine the cultural transformation that could unfold if all composers made a conscious effort to listen deeply to nature and formulated their own imaginative response. The world of the soundscape is a wellspring of creative knowledge and potential. Perhaps, Pauline Oliveros, leaves us with the most enigmatic, yet inspiring advice, citing the holistic and symbiotic aspects of the “life practice” of deeply listening: “It’s an offering and a possibility…It comes back to listening again. If you’re listening, you’re not wandering; when you’re listening, you listen. You are listening. You become listening.”

Recovering Our Elemental Imagination

Old growth forest

Landscape is the culture that contains all human culture. — Barry Lopez

Imagine a city where every rooftop is a garden, every building a home to different plants and animals as well as people. A city filled with monumental parks, where agriculture and recreation are combined. The rivers in this city teem with life and the sky is filled with birds. Now imagine in this world, this garden city, what music would be made—ringing out amidst the soundscapes of birds and animals, winds and waters.

Everything we have in our civilization is grown or extracted from the living earth. This includes our ideas, our culture, our arts, and our music. No matter how removed from the living, dynamic non-human world we feel, we will never escape this truth. How this truth influences our creativity, and how creativity influences our capacity to live this truth is a pivotal question.

From an animistic perspective, the imbalanced relationship between human civilization and the earth is the clearest source of our social ills and distress—climate change, resource depletion, chronic and epidemic illness, and all forms of structural and physical violence. Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our culture tends to hypnotize itself, reflecting us back upon ourselves. It is all too easy to forget the landscape which contains us. This ecological crisis then becomes a cultural crisis.

This past spring I had the opportunity to stay as an artist-in-residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Founded in 1948, it is the most studied forest in the world. Sponsored by the National Forest Service, Oregon State University, and copious grants, the goal in the Andrews forest is both complex and utterly simple: study the forest ecosystem over time and use this knowledge to inform our relationship with it. This mandate has illuminated vast scientific insights and controversial ideas of policy and purpose. The Andrews forest is home to some of the last remaining old growth forest in the world (500-800 year old trees), and it inspires many long-term studies and programs as a result. One such program is the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER), an international project documenting how “humans and the forest change over time.” The LTER project in the Andrews Forest, which began more than a decade ago, is scheduled to last 200 years, from 2003-2203.

Being part of a creative project that will outlive you is deeply humbling but not unfamiliar to a composer. Our education is steeped in cultures of the past, informing our own creations. Staring up at a tree whose life spans nearly the entirety of Western music history does make one wonder. To be present in a forest is to be present in a place of primal creativity. When we are in nature, we infuse ourselves with the creative energies of the life around us. Many composers have embedded this energy within their work. Beethoven, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, and many others all held the natural world as an integral part of their creative journey. Takemitsu even said, “Music should have a profound relationship with nature,” and you need not be in Yosemite or an old growth forest to commune with it. The natural world is all around us. Like any practice, the more time and energy you devote to it, the more insights, experiences, and visions you will receive. The more we infuse the energy and experience of nature into our own imagination and music, the more vibrant and nourishing our cultural relationship with the earth will be.

Like music, our experience in nature is often intuitively understood. I’ve noticed while hiking or just meditating in the forest, ideas and potentials come to me with inspiring clarity. Whether they are creative solutions to a piece or life-long career projects, ideas enter lucidly into view. These are visions. In the presence of ancient trees it is easier to remind myself that I am merely a “vessel” (to quote Stravinsky). These visions do not originate in me nor am I the end of their journey.

Old growth forest

Trees in an old growth forest in some ways never die, spending half their existence as slowly rotting logs. Here the ancestors are not in the sky but among the living. These are nature’s epic poems, they are what scientists call “biologic legacies”—they are the culture from where we originated and, once our exhausted civilization finally collapses, like the tree we too will sink back into the earth. Theodore Roosevelt said that when he heard of a species gone extinct it was like “some great work of art had been lost”; when we lose a species, we lose the ability to learn from and grow with that being. Just as the arts speak to us across time with wisdom and insight, so does the natural world. When we deny ourselves the experience of communing with the natural world, we sever our connection to this creative potential and story.

In the forest we find a metaphor for our own relationships; art itself is a receptacle of experiences and relations passed down over generations. The composer creates a mythical sonic landscape, places which inspire and enrich our experience. Composers inspired by each other interact in communal creativity. The same is true when we experience nature. The indigenous peoples of the Northwest sacrificed a tree and carved into that tree animals stacked on top of one another—a clear metaphor for the ecological relationships inherent in the culture of the forest. Art and nature combine to tell a communal story. When a tree is transformed into a totem pole, such a tree is an honorable ambassador between human culture and the natural world.

Imagination, scholar Harold Goddard observed, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

Could music be such a mediator to heal and reawaken our senses to the greater culture of life? Shall we create music and art that reinforce the values of the civilization we have now or a different one we shall create? It was Orpheus who led the trees and beasts with song, and whose lyre soothed the fiercest spirits, whose music swayed the Argonaut’s ship away from destruction. Seek out your own elemental imagination, create the music of your own garden city.

A Very Long Walk: Time, Distance, and Creativity on the PCT

Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass

When I initially started walking the Pacific Crest Trail as a mobile residency, my usual daily concerns–tea, the garden, my cat–were immediately swept away, and so was the work-related concern: composing. Finding myself in the middle of a windy, dry, hot desert in Southern California those first couple weeks, I primarily spent my time figuring out how to meet my basic human needs in order to stay alive. Acquiring water became a particular obsession; when the weight of carrying 5-6 liters at a time is coupled with only coming across water once or twice a day (every 10-20 miles), for me thoughts about it simply became all-consuming.
Needless to say, composing while hiking the PCT has been a radically different experience than at my usual studio pace at home. My normal routine is something like this: 6-7 a.m.–wake up and see what the more easterly time zones are up to and read emails. Between 7 a.m.-12 p.m. is when I get pretty much any creative sort of work done; really much after 11:30 and my brain is toast! Afternoons are the time I reserve for doing most of my communicating and handling the business side of things and that may or may not trickle into the evening, which I generally reserve for attending music or art events or just cooking and socializing. Breaks for tea, exercise, or gardening, etc., punctuate the day.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

So, composing on the trail was necessarily going to have to be different. Initially I was really weight conscious. I got rid of my trusty yellow legal pad and moleskin within the first couple days and instead began writing everything on the backs of my topo maps as I went through them. Without instruments at my disposal for notes, I now occasionally use a dinky little keyboard app when I’m lucky enough to have some spare charge in my phone (it’s fueled by a solar charger out here). When at home if I have a nuanced question about an instrument that my reference books can’t answer, I’ll just jump online and tweet out a question or text a friend who plays said instrument. However, most of the time on the trail there’s little cellphone coverage and even less possibility of enough reception to use good ol’ Google. So, I spend a lot more time thinking through ideas and trying to figure things out on my own, writing things out the best I can and carefully recording queries to pose to Google or musicians when I reach a town or happen across reception.
Highway-like sign on the PCT
As you can tell, composing on the trail is a pretty solitary and isolated activity! In fact, I have attended zero concerts since starting my trip and haven’t really had time to get into any new music when briefly in towns either. At the time of my writing this, I’m taking three days off the trail to go to a new music event of mine at the Soundwave Festival in San Francisco and I’ll see a friend, sound artist and occasional collaborator Chris Kallmyer, then. He’s the first fellow in our community that I’ve seen in person since May! So, this self-created residency takes on new levels of isolation not just from general society but from our community as well–something even most rural or remote artist residencies don’t do. Instead of working at a desk, I work out ideas in my head all day, then spend time in the evening after dinner writing things down.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

In short, I’m just, well, out there. Even though my wife has joined me now for a couple of months, we still usually only see a few people a day out on the trail. So, though my days are spent meeting basic human needs, making field recordings, and doing a lot of walking, for the most part I have endless time to just think and few decisions to make. Besides composing, I’m making many field recordings for my project so it’s my job to spend endless hours simply listening. In Dave Grohl’s 2013 keynote address at SXSW, he returns frequently to the idea of the creative process for himself being the product of simply being left to one’s own devices without anyone telling you what to do. It’s an almost archetypal stereotype (whether it’s true or not) of childhood–that one has nothing really to do, no big responsibilities, and an endless amount of time to mess around, get bored, make trouble, and just play. That very same day-dreaming drifting time is the luxury that I have out on the trail. Instead of my usual pattern of working on four or five things at once, I work on just one piece, mulling things over sometimes for days before actually writing them down. I’m not distracted by emails or petty bickering on social media. This is just one very long period of time to think about sound, and to organize a little of it for folks. My legs have just healed from having several dozen mosquito bites after being swarmed, and I’m sure there will be another unexpected physical hurdle soon, but I wouldn’t trade the luxury of so much time left to my own devices to work on music and sound for anything…well, except maybe for having some Chinese food delivered on the trail.

Where’s Nat at?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Listening to the Journey: Hypersensitive Hearing on the Trail

Sun on the Pacific Crest Trail
Since I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail seven weeks ago, I’ve undergone a number of physiological and mental changes. Living outdoors and walking somewhere between 10 and 20 miles a day has made my feet stronger and more agile (along with the rest of my body), my idea of what tastes good and my desire to eat is in constant obsessive flux, and my sense of time has expanded, too. One of the biggest changes that has occurred, however, relates more specifically to working with sound and music as a composer—an alteration in my sense of hearing.

Over the last few weeks, my hearing has changed dramatically. Sounds are much sharper and clearer, as well as more complex. I take time to analyze what I’m hearing and to react to it. This shift in perception is also part of an overall greater alertness in all my senses, such as vision—spotting the tiniest of things moving on the hillside or being able to make out a friend’s shoe print amongst others. A sea of sagebrush has greater relief and detail and parsing out the different shades of gray in clouds is easier—they seem infinitely more complex than any clouds I’ve seen before. Birds I may have disregarded in an everyday city moment now alert me to look up and see a rattlesnake on the trail. At other times, the perception of sound becomes downright psychedelic—hearing becomes not unlike the experience of certain ethnobotanicals. Occasionally voices seem to arrive out of water, echoing off a rock face; the particular way the wind sounds in trees will strike me as funny and I’ll chuckle endlessly at it, or a birdcall will echo in my head, morphing and becoming almost like a series of sine tones until I’m no longer sure what part is birds, what part is sounds in my head, and what’s happening in real time.

Part of this new sense of alertness in hearing comes simply from not being in a city environment for a prolonged period of time—the current, though ever-shifting sonic surroundings are for the most part without too much human intersection. That is to say, I have the luxury of experiencing one sound at a time usually—just the infinite sounds of the natural world that are all around us without the trappings of cars, refrigerator humming, phone buzzing, music in the distance, etc., that our busy sonic landscape is filled with in contemporary life. However, this new sense hearing also comes from a physiological alteration of my brain becoming better at picking out sounds, which stems from the pure endurance of what I am undertaking by walking great distances for days on end. When under duress our bodies pump a cocktail of hormones into our brains, a primal reaction meant to help us simply survive. These two factors intertwining are what is creating my current state of sonic perception.

This altered mental state finds a home in other arenas of endurance as well. Since the 1960s in Occidental culture, we find many people hunting that “runners high” or a similarly psychedelic perceptual brightening that comes from rock climbing or even roller coaster rides. In Japan, an esoteric sect of Tendai Buddhism utilizes running as an ascetic form of meditation—running for 100 days followed by isolated meditation for several days. Once when speaking to a monk, he described to me the sound of the ash falling from burning incense during the final days of mediation sounding like thunder. In my own Zen practice during a retreat once, I heard a thud behind me, but upon inspection later I discovered that it was simply the petal of a tulip that had fallen. So, perhaps endurance events and meditation, when intertwined, affect our hearing in similarly expansive ways.

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

Part of my project while on this hike involves attempting to instill bioregionalism via field recordings that I’ll surely use in the music I’m writing all summer, but more specifically through the music that my series of West Coast collaborators are writing. When we listen to field recordings, at least a small amount of this heightened awareness that I’ve been talking about occurs, and it opens up those doors of perception. Scott Worthington is the second of the eight composers to receive and work with my field recordings, and he had this to say about hearing, field recordings, sense of place, and his writing process:

I had never composed with field recordings before and making this piece gave me two strong impressions. First, I immediately noticed that, when played continuously, the recordings made me imagine being at the site of their creation. For example, in my piece, when I hear the birds fade in around one minute in and continue for a few minutes, I imagine sitting in a dense forest just after dawn. This isn’t a daydreaming kind of imagination; I am both transported and completely aware of my actual surroundings. Second, during and after writing this piece, my own local surroundings—in my apartment and walking around town—literally sounded different. I noticed the same kind of bird calls from the recordings. I heard sounds I’m positive I’d been hearing for the past year as though for the first time. Even traffic sounds different. I didn’t hear these “new” sounds as music, but they made me feel more attached to my surroundings in an aural sense (which is a sense I’m quite fond of).

Being a little less than halfway into the hike, I’m curious what other physiological changes will occur in relation to my senses—certainly an unknown factor, and one I’m excited to embrace. Perhaps, to paraphrase Gary Snyder, this sense of hearing and alertness that comes with living closer to the natural world is a reminder that, as living beings, we are not only invited to the feast, but we are also part of the main course. In this deep sense of alertness and awareness, we find the root of simply being alive, and at the moment this feels to me like the place where language and music arise from in humans—making order out of the perfectly balanced chaos of the earth.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Read Nat’s previous post here.

Composing on the Pacific Crest Trail

A couple weeks ago I had just drifted off to sleep when I was awakened by a slow crunching sound and a sense of movement under me. A few seconds later, the ground on one edge of my tent gave way and the whole thing toppled over. The next morning (after I had moved my tent at 3 a.m.) I awoke and looked at the map, reminded that the next water source was 19 miles away. And so, I took off down Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California, walking for 12 hours on a trail from a sparse dry alpine forest at well above 10,000 feet that steadily transitioned into a sweltering desert—slowly descending 7,000 feet of elevation over that 19 miles—until I got to a small water fountain near a privately owned spring that feeds a gated community of 20 houses clustered together in the middle of nowhere, around five miles from a huge wind farm on the desert floor. After setting about hydrating myself and putting up my tent, I settled into a night of 80-mile-an-hour winds (apparently there was a reason that wind farm was there), once again having my tent toppled over, even while having all of my possessions in the tent with me.
Pacific Crest Trail: Wind
Despite life-long experience in the great outdoors, and a good long while as a composer as well, so far my self-created residency on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before on a backpacking trip, and also unlike any few months of time dedicated to simply writing music.

In a way, the concept of the Pacific Crest Trail in and of itself is rather odd. Other long-established sacred walking sites in traditional cultures are in fact part of the landscape for those who exalt it—think of circling sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet or the traversing of the Diamond-Womb trail by the esoteric Buddhists the Yamabushi in Japan, blowing conch shells and chanting—but on the PCT because of weather, water availability, and other things over a huge (but arbitrary) geographic area, you’re really only waving hello as you pass through myriad different types of landscapes or, previously, regions of different Native American tribes that used to fill and use the land in a very different way. The sheer ability to be able to walk it, though most of it is wilderness, is actually a product of the infrastructure of our society, and the reasoning for doing so exclusively individualistic.

Though I’m surely imbibing in this sense of individual exploration by walking and writing my own music, I’ve attempted to remove myself somewhat from this and tried to imbue my project with a sense of place by bringing in eight different composers along on this 2600-mile stretch. While walking I’m making a series of field recordings, which I then send to different composers living nearby. They then take a few minutes from a field recording and layer a brief musical response on top, which will be posted online. By doing this, hopefully my role becomes one of facilitator and collector as much as composer, and the project then is infused with a strong sense of bioregionalism. That is, the people who live nearby these sounds surely relate to them differently or more closely than I do, a tourist in a foreign land. For instance, Carolyn Chen, who received the first memory card filled with recordings as she is furthest south, knows the sounds of things like acorn woodpeckers or the Santa Ana winds howling through the trees, and therefore will think about them differently. By instilling bioregionalism into this collection of music and sound, people will be able to better understand the places they live, each other, how we relate to the natural world, and, perhaps, the arbitrary nature of the boundaries we’ve created for ourselves.

Beyond exploring our ever-evolving relationship to the natural world over tens of thousands of years, deep ecology, and humorous battle stories, 314 miles into my walk there have been a number of practical concerns and adjustments to make in my remote, mobile residency. I have a number of items with me that are needed to simply make the work, but even more items that are needed simply to live. However, since everything on my back weighs something, it became immediately apparent that I’d have to re-think how I was going to operate. My long-time standard yellow legal pad was the first to go as I opted to recycle the backs of my topographical maps instead of carrying extra paper weight, soon followed by my precious staff paper moleskin, spare writing utensil, and extra batteries. While walking I think about the direction of the sun not only to find shade if I need a mid-day siesta in the desert (the first 800 miles or so), but also where best to place my solar charger that is necessary to charge the batteries I use in my little Tascam recording device to make field recordings.
Pacific Crest Trail: Sculpture
Each month through September I’ll be posting more thoughts on composing while slowly meandering through the wilderness—exploring ideas central to my work and thoughts on simply being a composer who’s removed from traditional city-life experimental composing. What happens when, due to battery/solar charging life, you have to take time to decide which music you’ll listen to every few days? One’s hearing changes when in the wilderness for a prolonged period of time, so how does that effect a sound-based creative practice? What is the effect if one does not attend concerts, hear live music or much new music for a period of time? How does the current incarnation of man’s sounds intersecting with nature’s impact us as people? I’ll be thinking about questions like these and writing about them when I take a break and come into towns and cities. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go purify some water.

Where's Nat At?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Sounds Heard: John Luther Adams—songbirdsongs

Quite a number of years ago now, I spent a summer working for the Chicago Park District, which meant that I got to wear a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the Chicago Park District seal, including its motto—hortus in urbe, a garden in a city. Which is itself a clever inversion of the Chicago city motto, urbs in horto, a city in a garden. Which I loved: a civilized tussle over whether civilization itself is the insider or the outsider, whether the machinery of nature only acquires meaning if it has an empire of more obvious machinery to compare it with.

I mention this because it might go some small way toward explaining why I was almost constitutionally incapable of experiencing John Luther Adams’s songbirdsongs, in its recent recording by the Boston-based Callithumpian Consort, purely as a piece of music. Written between 1974 and 1980, songbirdsongs is very much a nature piece: birdcalls and the rustling ambience of their customary surroundings paraphrased into a nine-movement suite for two piccolos and three percussionists. But the simulation of nature is so particular, so intent on being perceived as faithful, that songbirdsongs becomes one of those nature pieces that gets me wondering whether the end result is supposed to be the aural equivalent of conservation land, or something more—which, depending on your point of view, might actually mean something less.

This is the third recording of songbirdsongs, following its original 1982 release on Opus One Records (with Adams himself among the percussionists) and a 1996 reading by The Armstrong Duo. The Callithumpian Consort’s version, directed by Stephen Drury, is bright and energetic, and, not surprisingly, sounds better than its predecessors: detailed and clear, even managing to conjure up a sense of acoustic space. But the piece was designed for big-room, scattered-about-the-perimeter spatial performance—and, even on headphones, that full-immersion, lost-in-a-forest experience is left to the imagination.

The music’s grammar might best be described as kaleidoscopically imitative: drums and winds aping each other, the layers building up to a static, busy landscape, melodic tweaks to each movement’s motives spreading from instrument to instrument. The transliteration of the birdcalls tends toward the diatonic, but then they pile up in competing, polytonal profusion, falling somewhere between Messaien’s chromaticism and the more poppy triads of other strains of minimalism. (It’s more far out than a lot of Adams’s later, more gently contoured music—such as Strange Birds Passing, which, in a performance by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, makes a dulcet pendant to this recording.)

In the notes for that 1982 recording, Adams wondered if he had “abdicated the position of Composer (with a capital ‘C’),” but, flattened from a spatial experience to a recorded one, songbirdsongs shows a notable amount of usable space between capital and lower-case composing. All the compositional decisions, the design of the rhetoric, if not exactly of the structure, seem to come to the fore when filtered through the microphone—and it was those sections in which the composer’s hand was most noticeable that I found the most arresting: the bright, Martinů-like busyness of “Apple Blossom Round,” or the bass-drum thwacks and furious twittering of “Joyful Noise,” the aviary having a go at a Sousa march. The marimba-roll drones behind “Mourning Dove” were such lovely sounds in themselves that I found myself wishing that the simulated doves, plangent as they were in their ocarina guise, would take a break.

It’s the complicated nature of such loveliness that is the source of most of the work’s drama, at least for me. The musical motion is constant—motives and sounds never quite come back or combine in the same way twice—but it is movement without a strong musical direction, except forward in time. But there’s a tension between the natural world songbirdsongs is meant to evoke and the artificial means of the evocation that gives the music an interesting texture. Lovely things happen in every movement of the piece, but in a way that is meant to feel accidental and found, rather than designed and anticipated. At the same time, while the natural sounds are presented in a more organic way than, say, Ravel’s pre-dawn Daphnis birds or even Messiaen’s collections, the translation into instruments is palpably inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on earth, flutes and vibraphones and even ocarinas are, after all, pretty advanced technology. I kept thinking back to another warhorse, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with its obbligato of nightingale-on-phonograph-record, and the more I thought about it, the less I could say whether one captured birdsong was more “real” or more “fake” than the other. Had the garden invaded the city, or the city the garden? The more songbirdsongs left that an open question, the more I got lost in it.

Expanding Horizons

A view from the beachI spent most of my formative years dividing my time between Los Angeles and Idaho. The jagged mountain peaks and ocean waves of these Western landscapes shaped my ideals of natural beauty. As an adult, I’ve lived exclusively in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest, which has forced me to begin to reconsider my relationship with the world around me.

While there are mountains above 5,000 feet in the middle of the city of Los Angeles, the highest point in the entire state of Illinois (where I lived for over a decade) is actually the top of Chicago’s Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. I’ve compensated by spending more time looking closely at the subtle details around me, learning to distinguish between the behavior of the various bird species found in my local parks and nature preserves, teaching myself to cherish my sightings of warblers the way I formerly treasured mountain tops. I’ve replaced the Pacific vistas of my youth with the more confined aesthetics of lakes, bays, and rivers.

These new obsessions have largely filled my need for natural beauty, and have shaped much of my music from the past several years; however, I recently began to feel hemmed in by the world around me. After a great deal of thought, I realized that this visceral sensation derived from my lack of recent exposure to wide open spaces. Since the Eastern U.S.—with its older and more rounded hills—has no mountain peaks that remotely replicate the youthful terrain of the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas, or even the Los Angeles Mountains, I quickly settled on the idea of a vacation on the Atlantic coast.

My recent week staying on the island of Chincoteague, with daily trips to the neighboring Assateague Island National Seashore, alleviated all the pressure that had been building for many years. I was calmed by the mere act of standing on the coast looking out into waves with the knowledge that this vista extended as far as Portugal. I sensed my horizons expanding, recalibrating back to their original settings.

I am uncertain how this period of personal renewal will change my compositions, or even whether it will have any effect at all. But I am hopeful that this releasing of what has functioned as a pressure valve within my life will allow me to reconsider some of my recent musical obsessions. And since the ocean visit was so effective for me, I’m starting to plan towards a mountain trip as well. Hopefully, I will be able to keep this sense of expansiveness and boundless horizons as an active part of my life.