MUSIC

Composer Justin Ralls: inspired by nature

Oregon composer's environmental chamber opera 'Two Yosemites' represents new direction for Opera Theater Oregon

In 2012, composer Justin Ralls was camping with his father and brother in Yosemite National Park, 12,000 feet up in the Sierras, when a lighting storm erupted above them. “I’d hear that thunder crack, and feel this primal fear,” he remembers. “Experiences like that make you change. My experience reminded me how small I am, how inconsequential we are” compared to nature’s vast scale and power. “Yosemite is a place of creative energy — I feel like music is dripping from the pine needles. I feel inspired by the soundscape and fully alive.”

Justin Ralls in Oregon’s H.J. Andrews National forst.

The California national park is famous as a place of transformation for visitors — including another nature lover: Theodore Roosevelt. Ralls’s new opera, Two Yosemites, which opens this weekend at Lewis & Clark College, tells the story of the 26th President’s 1903 Yosemite camping trip in the company of another American legend, Sierra Club founder John Muir, that inspired him to create the National Park System that preserved Yosemite and other crown jewels of America’s natural legacy. And if Ralls has his way, it will be the first in a series of new chamber orchestras produced by Opera Theater Oregon, the plucky insurgent opera company he and his colleagues now lead.

Inspired by Nature

Making music influenced by the environment is nothing new for Ralls, now a University of Oregon doctoral student whose compositions have been performed around the country, including by Portland’s Third Angle New Music. “The outdoors has always been part of my life,” he says. “I grew up in Oregon and spent every summer camping and hiking all over the state.” He even considered careers in zoology or paleontology before music gradually took precedence in high school, where he drummed in musicals and jazz bands and composed and conducted in Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.

But when Ralls went off to prestigious urban music conservatories in Boston and San Francisco, he experienced “cognitive dissonance,” he recalls. “How do I engage this sophisticated culture with the outdoorsy experiences I identify with? Composing these [nature-inspired] pieces bridged that gap. I feel most alive when I’m composing and when I’m out in the natural environment.”

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Making ‘Two Yosemites’

Oregon composer/naturalist Justin Ralls combines advocacy for wilderness and passion for music in new environmental chamber opera

By GARY FERRINGTON

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch is covering this month’s premiere of Oregon composer Justin Ralls’s new opera Two Yosemites with three stories. This one traces the opera’s evolution from college idea to full production. Stay tuned for profiles of Ralls and singer Nicholas Meyer.

Decisions shaping our nation’s future don’t always originate in the halls of Congress. They can emerge from conversations over a campfire, as happened in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir shared their common passions and differing viewpoints on the future of America’s wilderness while on a three-day trek through California’s spectacular Yosemite Valley.

Justin Ralls learned about that fateful encounter when he was studying at Boston Conservatory, and saw Ken Burns’s National Parks, the PBS documentary about Sierra Club founder Muir and the legacy of public lands and parks in American history. One other element stood out. “The addition of Teddy Roosevelt into the story was even more captivating.” Ralls told ArtsWatch. The two dynamic figures of the American conservation movement “agree on the moral and spiritual necessities of conservation but diverge on philosophical, utilitarian, and political grounds,” Ralls notes.

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point, 1903. Photo: National Park Service

Muir, the passionate environmental philosopher, strove to protect America’s lands and wildlife from the exploitative impulses of late 19th and early 20th century. President Roosevelt, cognizant of a growing nation’s need for resources, grappled with pressure from commercial interests in conserving wild lands for development.

The Muir-Roosevelt meeting clicked with Ralls as an idea for an opera in which he could combine his “passion for American history, as well as the environment, into a dramatic, mythic, musical story and landscape.”

Now, almost seven years later, his Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera premieres this weekend in Portland. This is the story of how the show evolved from idea to fully realized opera.

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William Byrd Festival finale: sumptuous beauty

Despite a less-than-ideal acoustic, closing concert of its 20th anniversary season continues the Portland summer festival's tradition of excellence

by BRUCE BROWNE

“There is nothing in the structure of the universe that demands these exist,“ wrote Jeffrey Tucker in New Liturgical Movement. “They are products of crazy dreams, impossible goals, relentless determination…that … changes the way we think and live and worship.”

Tucker was talking about Portland‘s annual William Byrd Festival and the choir that anchors it, Cantores in Ecclesia. The thing is, by the time I get through one of these concerts, I’m half converted to Catholicism. You just can’t listen to this level of ethereal music, without letting some of the residual religiosity seep in. Umm – well, almost.

Mark Williams conducted Cantores in Ecclesia in the final concert of the 2017 William Byrd Festival. Photo: Sarah Wright.

But regardless of your religious inclinations,  both institutions have attained a level of excellence and longevity worthy of veneration. This summer marked a major milestone. Sunday was the closing concert of the 20th anniversary of the William Byrd Festival, begun in 1998 by Dean Applegate and Cantores in Ecclesia.

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Composing in the Wilderness 3: song of beginnings

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by JENNIFER WRIGHT

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, who took these photos, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings, then over the next few days, compose new works premiered in Denali National Park and at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Read the first installment, by Christina Rusnak, and the second, by Brent Lawrence.

Composing in the Wilderness is a pressure cooker. The two-week program is a relentless mash-up of Survivor, Iron Chef, and summer band camp. It’s an incredibly odd thing to assemble a meeting of musical minds in the middle of the trackless, windswept wilderness. An unlikely mix of ages, inclinations and backgrounds, we nine composers ranged across the full spectrum of classical art music geekery: innocents, introverts, hipsters, professors, smack-talkers and church mice. The only real requirements were: be fit, and be ready to compose. And implicitly: no whining, not even when tundra mice clamber over your breakfast silverware.

Composers Jennifer Wright, Brent Lawrence and Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

The comedy of errors began as soon as I set foot on Alaskan soil. Experienced hiker though I be, on day one, I bashed my knee wide open on a rock like a rookie. I discovered that my sleeping bag somehow had been packed in a dry bag that my cat had peed in. I spent a king’s ransom on lattes in Fairbanks to self-medicate against epic work sessions fueled by blazing self-doubt.

What on earth was going to come of this? Was I going to be able to make any actual music here? This was not a holiday: we were in the wilds to do serious work. And, in truth, I didn’t know if I had it in me to write a decent piece of chamber music in only four days.

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Composing in the Wilderness 2: on distant hills

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by BRENT LAWRENCE

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings, then over the next few days, compose new works premiered in Denali National Park and at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Here’s Brent Lawrence‘s account. Read Rusnak’s report here and Wright’s next week.

Brent Lawrence, Christian Dubeau, Libby Meyer, Jesse Budel, Aaron Keyt, Christina Rusnak, Sarah Stehn, Dawn Sonntag, Corinna Hogan and Jennifer Wright at 2017 Composing in the Wilderness.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that three Oregonians happened to participate in this year’s workshop. In fact, I chose to participate in Composing in the Wilderness at the recommendation of three other Oregon composers that had been in years prior.

I’ll admit that I’m a pretty new to Oregon; I’ve only lived here a year. But one of the things I love about this state is the deep connection people have with the outdoors, our public lands, and the existence of wildernesses. Don’t get me wrong, Alaska is impressive no matter who you are, but from my view, as a new Oregonian, this trip gave me a lot of perspective on why people feel so connected to the wilderness. True wilderness, not something I experienced growing up on the east coast, where there are less protected areas.

Brent Lawrence at Composing in the Wilderness.

People seek out wilderness for a variety of reasons. Being a musician, I’m always interested in how things sound. What I found most striking is the silence. Upon moving to Oregon, the first time I got out of the car near the McKenzie Pass, I was shocked at the quiet—and also realized how noisy daily life is.

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William Byrd Festival review: small wonders

Opening concert confounds expectations with focus on English Renaissance composer’s small-scale, secular works

If you’ve attended William Byrd Festival concerts over the past 20 years, you might have certain expectations: sublime sacred choral music from English Renaissance, performed by one of the state’s finest large choirs, Cantores in Ecclesia, in a capacious church or cathedral, providing a spiritual balm that lifts you out of mundane present concerns like today’s discordant politics.

English conductor Jeremy Summerly (center) led a vocal ensemble at the 2017 William Byrd Festival.

None of that happened at the August 11 opening 20th anniversary festival concert. “Music’s Lore” featured its namesake composer’s secular, not sacred, songs and accordingly took place not in a sacred space but in The Old Church concert hall, which has been an un-holy performance space for decades. Both songs and concert (about an hour with no intermission) were short and sweet rather than extended or even epic like Byrd’s great Masses (performed later in the festival), and instead of the Cantores dozens, included only eight performers. And rather than transcending human concerns for more elevated spirituality, raw human emotions and divisive, even deadly politics were very much in the air.

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Composing in the Wilderness 1: tundra tapestry

Three Oregon composers journeyed to the Alaskan wilderness, and returned with new music and new perspectives

by CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Editor’s note: Now in its sixth year, the Composing in the Wilderness program led by adventurer-composer Stephen Lias, is a joint venture between Alaska Geographic, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Denali National Park, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Nine composers — three from Oregon this year — spend four days in Denali National Park, accompanied by scientists and naturalists as they draw inspiration from the wildlife, geology, scenery, and adventure of their surroundings. They are then flown by bush plane to the remote Coal Creek Mining Camp in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve where they spend four more days in intense composition. Finally, they are flown to Fairbanks where they join the other participants at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, where their pieces undergo a few days of intense rehearsals, and then are premiered in Denali National Park and in Fairbanks.

The final concert included Brent Lawrence’s On Distant Hills, Christina Rusnak’s Tundra Tapestry, and Jennifer Wright’s From the Darkness, We Sing the Mighty Land into Being. The three pieces, composed in less than a week, focused on the vastness of the mountains, the tiny detail of the tundra plant life, and the magical nature of the wilderness. ArtsWatch asked the three Oregon composers to share their response to this unique experience. Stay tuned for Brent Lawrence and Jennifer Wright’s reports next week.

When I decided to attend Composing in the Wilderness for a third time this year, many people asked me why. Mostly, I was going again because I needed to.

Portland composer Christina Rusnak at Composing in the Wilderness 2017.

At age 12, I wrote a song titled “A piece of Wilderness.” Who knew how prophetic that song would become for me? In college, a field botany class in Big Bend National Park literally changed my life. I gained a greater appreciation for nature and became a passionate hiker. So, when I met composer Stephen Lias in 2009 and heard his presentation of his first National Parks piece, River Runner – about the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, I realized that a significant part of my compositional path would be to compose for, and about, nature, wilderness and place.

When Lias launched Composing in the Wilderness in 2012, I eagerly signed up. Actually, I may have been the first to sign up. My blogs for that trip and for my second foray in 2013, are filled with nearly daily details of the my awe and adventures, of the weather, the scientists, their stories, and of the challenge to compose something meaningful in such a short time span. In 2012, only eight days separated our first step in Denali and the concert! The compositional process, with such a tight time frame, is arduous. Fortunately the Alaska summers are accommodating. (Editor’s note: Listen to Rusnak’s first CitW composition, Flow.)

Since then, I’ve composed for a National Monument, four National Parks and Preserves, a National Forest, a Wild and Scenic River and Oregon State Parks. My personal ethos and actions match my creative output. I’ve written articles and given presentations at the Intertwine Alliance and at the University of Iowa on the importance of Music, Place and Nature. Our public lands are a treasure that requires our care. But going to CitW for a third time? What was I looking for?

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