Landscape Music

The environment inspires today’s composers who write music advocating its protection 

By CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Places, and increasingly wild landscapes, are inspiring, even compelling today’s composers to create a diverse array of new music in a wide breadth of styles. From chamber music to inter-media pieces, from major orchestral works to sound art installations, new music is engaging audiences in compelling ways as composers seek to connect with the world around us — not by replicating the sounds of nature, but by interpreting the landscape and expressing it through sound.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Landscape music has lately been a growing part of Oregon’s musical landscape. For example, Third Angle New Music has showcased sounds of nature in recent shows, including last year’s “Afield” concert featuring composers Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel and Nayla Mehdi; a 2013 concert featuring Northwest composer John Luther Adams’s Earth and the Great Weather; and another show with Cappella Romana in A Time for Life, University of Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s “environmental oratorio.” Crazy Jane Composers have often featured environmentally oriented works, including an entire “Inner Nature” concert in 2014. Many Cascadia Composers concerts have featured music celebrating the Northwest’s natural beauty. You’ll find plentiful other recent examples in the ArtsWatch archives.

Other works celebrate our national environmental treasures. Stephen Lias’s orchestral work transports me to the gates of the Arctic. I can feel the cold tidal waters through Northwest composer Alex Shapiro’s string quintet, Current Events.  Michael Gordon’s Natural History, premiered in July 2016, immerses us into Crater Lake’s multilayered geological and cultural landscape. On September 14 at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, Eugene composer Justin Ralls will present a reading of Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera that he says explores “a pivotal moment in the history of the American environmental movement.”

Crater Lake, during the July 2016performance of Michael Gordon's "Natural History." Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Crater Lake, during the July 2016 performance of Michael Gordon’s “Natural History.” Photo: Christina Rusnak.

By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, composers expand our musical palette. Today’s composers are innovative—not merely in musical practice but also in exploring different approaches to new music, by examining the roles in our society, civic engagement, our connection to nature, and in celebration of heritage. They are connecting with audiences in musically new ways.

Perpetual Transition

Our environment — the physical landscape — has influenced musical creation for eons. For centuries, people have orchestrated their lives by the chaotic and transitory nature of the sea, the landscape, and its arteries. The environment is not a merely a rigid, static location, but a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements: buildings, natural spaces, waterways, transportation and commercial systems, and our shared human experiences. Whether we are walking, biking, floating, or driving, the nature of experiencing place is also transitory.

The landscape shifts and transforms before our eyes and under our feet, changing by season, by day, even by hour. Weather changes quickly and dynamically impacts all it touches. We perceive our world differently in scorching sun, filtered fog, or the howling wind. Like the old adage says, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”

Rogue River. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Rogue River. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Are the whales migrating, the salmon swimming up stream, the bees pollinating? Is the forest swaying, is the wind blowing nuts off the trees? Are the flowers glistening from a morning rain, or are the grasses dry and brown from a month without? Are the waves crashing, the dogs barking? Are new buildings rising, trains passing through, children laughing, cultures clashing?

All of these have sound. This is why music is the perfect artistic medium to express the essence of the grandeur and the minutia (and everything in between) of our natural and wild places. Sound is a fundamental element of the Earth’s ecosystem. Like us, sound and music require air. “Music breathes,” writes composer John Kennedy. “Giving it breath and beauty is what we call music making.” Music is what composers create to reflect our human experience.

CSR Blk Crater 2

Composer Christina Rusnak at Black Rock Crater in Central Oregon. Photo: John Rusnak.

From Evocation to Advocacy

Composers can be powerful ambassadors for the places they write about. Landscape music itself can act as an advocate for the places we are composing about. Our musical expression “can be a conduit for communicating, understanding and encapsulating human experiences of the natural world,” writes Nell Shaw Cohen, founder of landscapemusic.org.

For John Luther Adams, music and place are inextricable. His 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean evolved both out of his concept of music / place and the understanding that all life on earth emerged from the ocean. Outside their point of origin, musical works inspired by our landscape can function as it best advocates because they take the time to convey the essence of the place and translate it into sound.

Lisa Ann Marsh and Bonnie Miksch performed music inspired by humanity's adverse effects on the environment at Crazy Jane in 2014.

Lisa Ann Marsh and Bonnie Miksch performed music inspired by humanity’s adverse effects on the environment at Crazy Jane in 2014.

Composers are ardently responding to harmful practices affecting our environment. In Anthracite Fields, awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in music, Julia Wolfe created what the jury called a “powerful oratorio for chorus and sextet evoking Pennsylvania coal mining live around the turn of the 20th century.” Cellist Kari Juusela composed PBBP Blues, a searing response to the British Petroleum oil spill that devastated the Gulf coast in 2010. These works are sobering reminders of the fragile nature of our ecosystem and the inextricable ways we are tied to our landscape.

Cottonwood River

John Day River in Cottonwood Canyon State Park. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Creating music about place and in particular wilderness intersects my greatest passions—hiking, exploring and composing—and enables me to advocate for the ecocentric value of our natural heritage. My landscape music originated with Cloudburst, a rainstorm of sound in 2007, and includes 2012’s Free Land, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act, and six pieces celebrating distinct natures of Denali and Yukon Charley, and North Cascades National Parks, and the Wild and Scenic Rogue River. Canyon Voices was commissioned by Oregon State Parks for Cottonwood Canyon State Park along the John Day River.

For the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I composed The Life of Ashes, built from the language of the Act itself: “A wilderness…is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

As such, the natural process of nature—life, death and rebirth—march on with minimal interference. The piece explores that natural process through the lens of a 2012 fire that searingly ravaged part of the mountain. I composed it from the point of view of the mountain—not the sound of the fire, but its intrinsic feeling of anguish and of hope.

During my residency at Homestead National Monument, a ranger told me, “There are two kinds of weather here: hot and windy, and cold and windy.” Hmmm. It’s a good thing I’m not a painter! I explored the rolling hills of the nearly extinct prairie, read the diaries of the homesteaders and examined images of the landscape they tried, and largely failed, to conquer. Virtually no one I know had ever heard of Homestead. “Really? You went to Nebraska on purpose??” I helped everyone I met to understand the beauty of the landscape and the importance of southern Nebraska as a part of our national story.

Nebraska prairie. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Homestead National Monument, Beatrice Nebraska. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Composers want our audiences to have a meaningful experience with both the music and its performers. Audiences want to listen to and participate with music that they feel is relevant to their communities and environment. In looking through a fused lens of cultural geography and music, perhaps we are on our way.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work. This essay is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in NewMusicBox.

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