Of Wolves and Rivers

Originally published on Landscape Music Composers Network September 6, 2016

Yellowstone River, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I am honored to be a part of Landscape Music’s upcoming concert with Cadillac Moon Ensemble at the Parrish Art Museum in The Hamptons, NY on September 9, 2016, celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service and our common natural heritage. In creating a piece for this very special concert I turned my inspiration toward Yellowstone. Not only was Yellowstone the nation’s first national park, dedicated in 1872, but the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is a living portrait of wilderness; filled with free rivers, rugged mountains, thick forests and wildlife. Yellowstone exemplifies what much of North America, both east and west, was once like only generations ago.  Nell Shaw Cohen’s Refuge also draws inspiration from Yellowstone, with a movement exploring a musical narrative of bison’s once and future home in the American landscape and consciousness.

Along with the bison, the wolf has become an emblem of such primal wilderness as well. By 1926 wolves had been driven to extinction in Yellowstone, part of a systemic slaughter of predators thought to be vermin and a threat to human interests. Despite successful efforts to undo mistakes of the past and restore wolves, they today still occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range and face threats nearly everywhere they live.[1] The controversies surrounding the reintroduction of wolves in the lower 48 states has again reached critical mass as politicians and agencies in states such as Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming are engaged in active wolf killing programs and efforts to de-list wolves from the Endangered Species Act, after these highly social and intelligent animals have just barely bounced back from the brink of extinction. Wolves are again in the bullseye, as state, federal, environmental, and private stakeholders vie for influence over these animals future.

However, since wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone we have bore witness to a beautiful and fascinating phenomena known as trophic cascade. Wolves are a keystone species and are top predators in a complex ecosystem. Reintroducing, as George Monbiot says, “even a small number of wolves transformed not only the ecosystem but the physical geography of the land.”[2] Wolves changed the behavior of deer and elk, which over time, changed vegetation and erosion. Eventually the rivers changed their courses, meandering less, creating more pools and riffles, which increased animal habitat.

When the howls of wolves return to our wild lands we are listening to the sound of a vibrant ecosystem at work. In his environmental cycle Wolf Music Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer states, “Wolf music, wilderness music—they are the same. This is what we share with the wolves; both need space. When the environment is too populated, the wolves retreat and are silent. Our music too clings to silence—silence and space.” If we are to survive we must have clean rivers, healthy forests, and a diversity of life. This means leaving space for other creatures and other cultures to thrive.

I recently spent several days in Yellowstone and was fortunate enough to witness a small pack of wolves in Hayden Valley, early in the morning and late in the evening, just after an elk kill on the Yellowstone River. The great irony of Yellowstone is you are more likely to see wildlife along the road than hiking in the backcountry. As special and unique as it was to witness wolves behaving in their natural habitat, it was interesting as well to witness the various behaviors of visitors. Crowds congregate along viewpoints or off the side of the road. Veteran spotters (some waiting since 4:45 a.m.) keep a sharp eye with huge spotting scopes, mingling amidst a casual passerby looking for an easy sighting. Tour busses stop for a quick glance before moving on to the next sight as park rangers manage traffic, cavort with visitors and occasionally berate them for various transgressions such as walking too close to the animals, or simply parking in the middle of the road. We were fortunate enough to see wolves, grizzly, bison, and bald eagles all within the same scene. A carcass in Yellowstone indeed draws a crowd.

Hayden Valley viewpoint.
Photo: Justin Ralls

“…something draws us to these animals. We obsess over their presence, whether viewed as vermin or in veneration, spectacle or sacrality; they are ambassadors to something wild within ourselves.”

Yet, along with the eco-drama one of the most profound moments was when the wolves began howling and people promptly shushed each other over the ambience of road traffic and car doors, hoping for a comfortable soundbite of one of Yellowstone’s iconic, keynote sounds. Listening to people talk about and admire wolves while watching (and listening) to them, even within the carnival of Yellowstone tourism, was refreshing and inspiring. Even with our reverence held at a distance, something draws us to these animals. We obsess over their presence, whether viewed as vermin or in veneration, spectacle or sacrality; they are ambassadors to something wild within ourselves.

The condition of Yellowstone is one of immense change, both macro and micro. The main roads of the park sit in the caldera of the largest active volcano in the world. The landscape is bubbling, steaming, and constantly settling into new forms. There were two active wildfires in the area while we were there—a reminder of the cycles of disturbance and rebirth that for eons have shaped forests and grasslands. The night before our wolf sighting we had stopped at the same viewpoint to watch an elk herd at dusk; the next day one of these young elk was the meal of countless other animals and by the afternoon the carcass had all but disappeared. And that evening, the wolves downriver and bear gone, the elk had returned.

I often create musical works that explore various changes of texture and transformation, and in the case of my piece Of Wolves and Rivers, use the natural call of wolves as a recurring motive, which floats over near silence or within fuller textures. The instrumentation of Cadillac Moon Ensemble (flute, violin, cello, percussion) allows for a sparse, yet nonetheless “ensemble” sound evoking a multiplicity of sounds within an airy, spacious orchestration. Hearing the wolf in various sonic contexts explores change and resilience, transformation and rebirth.  Humans, to varying degrees, have also been an integral player in these changes for thousands of years. The various cycles and change in nature can be analogous to our experience in music.

Of Wolves and Rivers references and sanctifies through music, both the relationship between wolves and rivers and between humans and their environment. Listen. When the wolf speaks, it is an ancient voice calling us back to participate in the web of life; to live in accord with the natural world and hear it restore itself. When we make space for wolves, we make space for rivers and we make space for ourselves to dream and make music of the landscape.

Of Wolves and Rivers can be viewed on the Music page of this website.

[1] http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/gray_wolves/index.html



A New Indigenous Music: Composing a Twenty-First Century Wilderness

In the summer of 2012, nestled in the central Alaskan wilderness of Denali National Park, nine composers participated in the first ever “Composing in the Wilderness” seminar. Sponsored by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Alaska Geographic, and the Park Service, these nine composers, from all over the world, signed up for the most unique of musical pilgrimages into wilderness. Nothing quite like this had ever been organized before. Nine strangers in a strange land, doing what composers do best; encountering the unknown. I was one of them.

I stepped off the airplane in Fairbanks in late July at almost one o’clock in the morning, which was nearly dusk. Stephen Lias, the self-professed adventure-composer project leader met me at the airport. He held up a sign “Composing in the Wilderness,” and upon seeing my backpack, hiking boots and wild hair told me he knew right away who I was. “Wilderness composers” stand out he said, at least in airports. Twenty-four hours later we were being given our “bear talk” at the small Teklanika field camp in the middle of the park.

Stephen Lias had been spending a lot of time in Alaska. Before joining us in Denali he had been dropped off by helicopter in Wrangles-St. Elias National Park, making a descent done only by one other person: the pilot who dropped him off. After Denali he was heading up to Gates of the Artic National Park as Composer-in-Residence, where he was scheduled to follow the caribou migration. For him wilderness and inspiration were inseparable, and with the help of a few others, he organized this seminar in the hopes of making this connection contagious.

On the drive to Denali we were given our briefing: we would spend four days camping, hiking, and composing (the “old fashioned” way with pencil and manuscript paper) then head back to Fairbanks to prepare our music for two days of rehearsals with musicians of the Fairbanks Summers Arts Festival Orchestra and a concert of our (short) chamber works.  From muse to musical performance in less than a week is zealous in any circumstance let alone a National Park. “Composers boot camp” as Steve liked to call it. Ambitious or just insane, we were certainly bound for a wild ride.

Music inspired by nature is not new but one of the oldest human traditions. The first instruments, flutes made of bird bone and mammoth ivory found in cave sites along the hillsides of the Danube River valley are at least 42,000 years old—when the first modern humans first moved into Europe from Africa. Many indigenous musical traditions from Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego frequently reference sounds and experiences in the natural world in their musical traditions. The Koyukon people of central Alaska claim to receive their songs from the birds; songbirds and the loon especially. For the Bayaka of New Guinea natural sound and a relationship with birds and the environment is an inseparable aspect of their entire culture. Emerging from the Pleistocene, our intrinsic need to hear relationships between sounds was likely stimulated by our sonic environments where we camped and hunted; the voices of the forests, plains, tundra, deserts, and coasts, seeding our imaginations. Though the origins of music may be as enigmatic as our own, what we do know is cultures grew out of direct communal experience with the natural world. As Barry Lopez writes “landscape is the culture that contains all human culture.” A wilderness experience before it existed at all; when it was simply a sonic and sensual home.

A little further down the line Western classical or “art” music has frequently taken cues from the natural world; waters, winds, seasons, and especially birds highlighting our musical relationship with nature. Re-evaluating this relationship in contemporary terms for me turned out to be just as arduous as the cross-country hikes up steep moraines, land sculpted by ice millennia before humans likely had any conceptions about “High Art.” Over the last few years I’ve made a pact with myself. If I had to live in cities, our cultural institutions of support and myriad human synergy, I would spend every free moment, afternoon, or week I had in nature—in the synergy of non-human forces. The more I found myself combining these endeavors, I couldn’t help but feel a disconnect—as if my city life by definition had barred me from really being able to know this Alaskan wilderness for such a short time, or any other wild place for the matter.

Each day in Denali we would be guided on hikes, stopping for thirty minutes or so of what Steve called “creative time.” Our sketchbooks and field recorders out of our packs we’d sit on hillsides or beside glacial streams, conjuring up some musical response to this vastly intimidating landscape—a healthy place for the ego-ridden creative. Some of us just found a spot away from the wind and listened. I wondered in the expanse of Denali what my place here really was—a creative tourist. I wondered about the first people to contact and habituate this land, Athabascan hunters and gatherers, shaman and leaders, clans and certainly music making. This history, full of unknowns, along with nascent paths of the future in this place left many questions to ponder. What meaning was there to be found in this place for the contemporary composer?

Paul Shepard writes “symphonic music is indeed great in its skills, technique, and esthetics; but it is also the supreme articulation of the dissociated state of our species and our personal lives. It co-opts the melody and rhythm so essential to our health by subordinating them to execution and complexity, denying them ecological, egalitarian, and participatory function. In its amazing scoring the music disintegrates our connection to nature by making elaborate musicality an end in itself.” He continues, “We seek to preserve the genius of composers and the perception of “immortal” works as though the very meaning of civilization were the externalizing of Great Art and High Culture.” I don’t think anyone is more penetratingly aware of classical music and its discontents than contemporary composers. The twentieth century saw a plethora of musical styles and aesthetic clashes; classical music simultaneously experienced its largest following and perhaps its greatest obscurity, in endless cultural evolution. The link between classical music and the echelons of the industrial civilization that cultivated it are obvious, where corporate names adorn the walls of concert halls and the word ‘elite’ follows the music around like a curse. For Shepard and others classical music in western industrial society is the ultimate revealing of cultural assumptions: of power, progress, and objectification. Of musical material being resources to be manipulated. To a composer concerned with nature Shepard’s sentiments are deeply troubling.

Taking Paul Shepard to heart, is classical music is perhaps not the best way to reconnect with nature. But then what is?

Hiking above the visitor center at Eielson, only miles from the base of Denali (translated as ‘the high one’) we spotted several Collared Pika, also known as rock rabbits. These little rodents dart along the talus as if it was a track field stopping only to make sharp “enk” calls, a characteristic solo of the alpine boulder fields. Pikas are a strong indicator species of climate change. In their mountainous habitat, gathering food in caches to sustain them through the long sub-arctic winter is the key to survival. They don’t hibernate, but hole up in insulated dens deep beneath the snow. They are vulnerable to changing weather. Pikas die if there is not enough snow to provide insulation; a late spring growth of vegetation means not enough gathering time and starvation. High in the mountains, Pika are on the ecological edge of survival; there is nowhere else to go.

As a contemporary “classical composer” I can’t help but relate to the Pika’s story. The marginalization of living composers, especially in America, is astounding. Whether supported by the insular and competitive world of academia or a competitive commercial industry, their music and ideas have become ghosts in mainstream culture, Kudos to the average American that can think of three living American composers off the top of their head. Perhaps, composers are also an indicator species of the spiritual and ecological health of a society. Composers gather much in the form of social data, holing up in studio dens to sculpt food for the soul. Composers are vulnerable to changing cultural weather; starvation can be a real concern. In a society that seems built on its ability to take, compromising the integrity of human and non-human communities alike, composers consistently give, strengthening our resolve against destruction through elemental creativity. Like the Pika, many of us also feel pushed to the margins. Living in the most materialistic culture ever to exist, we are often lone voices in a wilderness.

Composers, like many artists, think in terms of the big picture, which gets you into trouble in a society often in complete denial of the big picture or not aware of one at all.

Whatever the reasons, the lack of visibility and relevance for today’s composers is a tragedy. However unnatural the skilled pyrotechnics of the symphony may be, as it “externalizes” civilization through the simulacrum of “immortal works,” contemporary composers have much to say to the depth and weight of the human condition. And as social and environmental collapse loom everywhere; this condition is, more than ever, profoundly associated and dependent upon our relationship with the natural world.

In many ways I believe art originated in the mythic realm of understanding our relationship with nature. Researchers have determined that the famous cave paintings of 30,000 years ago were acoustically rich places; paintings are placed carefully in reverberant chambers, and on walls that produce otherworldly vocal effects. Implying the oldest documented art and sound design was deeply connected to sentiments of the animate natural world. And I believe it is time for art, and especially music to remind of this participation and relationship again to a civilization on the brink.  Shepard’s ‘dissociated state of our species’ is precisely why I find myself, as an artist, drawn to nature to begin with. And when thinking of his concerns, I realize they make sense. For all the time I’ve spent camping and backpacking, as a composer and musician I’ve lived, worked, and studied in cities. Part of the project in Denali was to bring some ‘wilderness’ back with us; to inspire others to come to the park—to have their own transformative experience. Inspiring composers through nature in order to inspire others toward nature is a dynamic idea. Especially when it works.

At the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, Alaskan composer John Luther Adams was asked to create an installation. He designed a small room with surround speakers and walls white as snow. He systematically assigned electronic tones to real-time seismological data transmitted from several active meteorological stations in central Alaska. The temperature, time of day, season, even the seismic shifts of the Earth’s crust are translated into a richly dense texture of drones, waves, and vibrating timbres. When the sun is out one can hear what sounds like soprano and bell-like timbres chorusing at high frequency with lights in the room shifting, corresponding to the aural colors. A low mellow tone is assigned to the moon and over the course of the day one can hear its slow rise into the evening. Adams calls this The Place Where You Go to Listen. The sound world enraptures you, taking hold not just of your senses but your being—as if you were dreaming. The idea that you are hearing a translation of the Earth’s own expression is a powerful realization. It was the most convincing experience I’ve encountered of hearing the Earth as music.

Though a “classical composer” Adams creates musical experiences as a contemporary mode of ecological awareness.

Music as a mode of awareness is a characteristic of many of the world’s indigenous music traditions. Whether one is among the rainforest choruses of Mbuti pygmies or the Rain Dances of the North American plains these traditions inhabit environments of space and sound—many essentially see human and non-human cultures as one. Indigenous music traditions are symbiotically linked to the natural pathways of life—often adhering to non-human cycles of change and non-human powers. The temporal and spiritual experiences of these paths, like Adams’ The Place Where You Go to Listen, is analogous to the temporality of life itself: of birth, maturation, mating, planting, hunting, reproducing, dying, and the passage of the seasons, expressed within continual myths of regeneration and process. Adams strongly believes in recreating these myths to serve a changing cultural and physical climate.

Perhaps culture on an industrial scale is no longer truly possible in world increasingly fragmented by its very site-specific political and ecological concerns. One may consider Paul Shepard’s Pleistocene culture: small in scale, where the whole society is engaged in the activity of music, not its worship, where improvisation and genius is communal and temporary, not immortal, and where the spiritual bridge and participation in creation is present, not abstract. Included in this participation are clear boundaries of respect within a broader universe. In this way music is like myth—ubiquitous stories we shape to help us shape and continue crucial understandings of our place in the cosmos.

Yet, classical music is akin with indigenous music more than one would suspect. And instead of pinning Western “High Art” up against the world we would do well to utilize its strengths. It is in the timelessness of classical music where we find true ritual and tradition in contemporary society. Where people still take time to dress and act a certain way to communally participate in something that cannot be spoken, only felt. It was environmentalism that first brought John Luther Adams to Alaska—it was the classical tradition of composing that brought Adams to us. The awe and mystery we activate in music—so essential to our health—is analogous to our experience in nature. The ubiquity of music across all human communities suggests it is fundamental as well to human relationships with the world—something essentially spiritual and timeless.

As a culture we are starved for such relationships.

Classical music still holds sacred the ancient primacy of sound and its live (not recorded) experience, which we’ve all but lost in our contemporary consciousness. It is not, by any means, the only music capable of this, but it is consistently demanding enough to keep alive the practice of listening—both literally and figuratively essential in reaching a cultural symbiosis with our communities and environments. If understanding deep ecology presupposes this symbiosis, the act of deep listening may be one of the most easily reached and powerful of tools, providing templates for new cultural expression. As Adams posits, where do we go to listen?

Paul Shepard’s arguments are partly true only because too many musicians and audiences sympathize with him and often perpetuate stereotypes of Classical music being somehow unnatural. Classical music is not inaccessible but rather like our condition, multi-faceted, amorphous. Shepard is right to judge its abstractions, complexity and relevance, but dismissing this music’s power and reverence is to deny our society a real opportunity. Why could the ‘skills and techniques’ of classical music not be used to create meaningful and lasting bonds between communities and environments? Why could it not heal the dissociated state of our personal lives? Why not compose a new indigenous music out of traditions from sacred, ancient understandings, not on an industrial scale but a human scale?

Every evening after dinner Stephen Lias would lead a ‘Coda’ where all of us would meet in the giant yurt (which served as dining hall and composing hut) and discuss our progress, ideas and concerns. Every one of these meetings was engaging, extremely personal and revolutionary. We all said something along the lines of “we didn’t know other people like us existed!” The energy around what compelled us as composers to come all the way up to the Alaskan wilderness was electric and life changing. Of course, there were common differences of approach and opinion but we all felt a sense of purpose and deep curiosity missing from our normal academic, personal and even professional lives; this purpose was also more about others and otherness—in this case nature—than it was about personal expression or fulfillment.

Composing for us was not just the production of beautiful or expressive objects, but a process of discovery in which we explore our inner and outer environments. A process as easily tapped in a city park as in a national one.

The sense that we were affected by place and able to influence each other as a result of place was extraordinary. It really seemed that for those brief days and nights, composing late in the midnight sun of Alaska, we had created an entirely different world— shedding light on the future. I came away feeling that classical music has a real chance to revitalize and meaningfully cultivate an ecologically centered cultural identity: a new indigenous music to articulate and sustain new myths of our place in a twenty-first century wilderness.


From Orchestra to Organ

My new work for organ will be premiered Sunday, April 26, 2015 at the First Presbyterian Church of Oakland by organist Jason Jia.

I am well on the way to completing my first piece for organ, and not just any organ but a Rosales organ. The Rosales organ is an amazing, awe inspiring feat of engineering, vision, and the mysticism of sound. It is a complex, nuanced instrument and I’d be lying if I said this has not been a considerable challenge both technically and conceptually. For one, the organ is not a keyboard instrument – it speaks through giant pipes of air – it has a ‘keyboard,’ true, but the slight delay of the keyboard mechanism is a constant reminder you’re not at the piano but at the input of a giant, exhaling machine. I would equate the organ more to a choir of winds or voices, the caveat being that the instrument doesn’t have to breathe!

At last summer’s 2014 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium I had the pleasure of presenting my orchestral work, Tree Ride, to composer Chen Yi and a small focal group of other composer/performers. Among them was the accomplished composer Dr. Cyril Deaconoff, organist and music director of the First Church of Oakland. Having completed my masters at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, we discussed my interest in the natural and cultural history of the Bay Area and we instantly began discussions about a piece for the spectacular Rosales Op. 16 organ. The commission will be part of a new series he is launching called Arts Under the Spire (AUTS), aimed at championing new works and new audiences for organ music.

The composer getting in touch with the spirit of the Rosales organ. Photo by Anne Polyakov.

The commission will also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the current neo-gothic building which was completed in  1914. I was captivated instantly by the diversity of the congregation (which is the oldest church in the East Bay, formed in 1853). While devouring organ music from medieval times to the present  my inspiration and curiosity has been specifically peaked by the versatility and creative power of the French symphonic Rosales organ itself, notably the different ‘orchestral’ colors and sound worlds this instrument can evoke. Despite the infinite variety of colors and no restriction on sustain, the organist does only have ten fingers, two hands, and two feet. Yet, sitting down at the organ and improvising, looking where to place my feet – it felt like a natural extension of the body and akin to my experience playing jazz drums. And though the drums are notorious for accessories and gear, it doesn’t come close to the specs of the Rosales:

Pipes: 4,062

Speaking stops: 63 Stopknobs: 86 Ranks: 77 Bellows: 4 double-rise, weighted

Wind pressures: 3 3/4″ , 4 3/8″, 6 1/2″ , 17″ Blowers: 3, totaling 5 3/4 h.p.

Organ weight: 75,000 lbs.

While sitting in the loft it is hard to fathom there are nearly 20 tons of instrument at your fingertips and what is also interesting is that the best sound isn’t necessarily at the organ itself. The scale of the organ is epic and the specifications relay as much: Great, Positive, Swell. With their many registrations: 2 Super Octave, 16 Bombarde, 8 Vox Humana, 3 1/5 Grosse Tierce etc.

It is like steering a huge ship of some kind, however when composing or playing the organ the secrets of the instrument are revealed: the real vessel is you.




Two Yosemites: An Outdoor Opera coming to a National Park near you

I recently completed the first act of my most ambitious project to date, Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera. This project has sustained years of ideas and passions, Two Yosemites seeks to culminate history, conservation, music, drama and myth. The opera explores a pivotal moment in the history of the American environmental movement when two protean figures made a powerful alliance on the behalf of nature, also illuminating the fault lines of a society in increasing conflict with its environment.

I believe we are at a crucial moment where the arts may lead the way in creating a ‘culture of communion’ with the natural world – creating opportunities for our culture to find renewed harmony within the web of life. Collaborating with Muir scholar and actor Lee Stetson (featured on the PBS special The National Parks) I’ve adapted the libretto from his play, including numerous primary sources of Roosevelt and Muir as well as written accounts of their trip together. Though many anecdotes are historically verified, there is no way to know exactly what they said to one another–leaving room for art and myth to take over where history leaves off.

I interpret this story as a mythological quest; Roosevelt, the hero, departs for the wilderness, choosing John Muir as his ‘shaman’ or spiritual guide. Roosevelt undergoes a spiritual transformation with Muir. After meeting Muir his Presidential speeches and policy reflected this change, leaving a legacy of over twenty National Parks and Monuments – a Presidential record of conservation that has still yet to be matched. Roosevelt and Muir’s odyssey of departure-transformation-return leaves fertile ground for opera – a genre, which at its best, concerns itself with myth and the exploration of momentous questions. Contemporary operas also seek to reimagine its audience and function in contemporary society.

The amphitheater at Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park.

My vision for Two Yosemites has always been to stage the opera outdoors, at Glacier Point where Muir and Roosevelt actually camped and talked late into the night around the fire. Giving audiences and visitors an opportunity to have an historical and aesthetic experience with direct links to our past, present, and future relationship with nature. The amphitheater at Glacier Point is the perfect place for this story to come alive, providing audiences with an opportunity to reflect on their own transformation of consciousness.

We are currently collaborating with environmental organizations, the National Park Service, as well as individuals, singers, musicians to make this vision a reality.


If you would like to learn how you can be a part of this exciting and historic project please contact me via the Contact page of this website.

The premiere performance, staged on the rooftop terrace of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, may be viewed on the Music page of this website.



John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point, 1903.

Synopsis and Program Note:

May, 1903. Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park.

President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir begin their second night camping together in Yosemite. The prologue begins with the hushed evening soundscape of Glacier Point, towering three thousand feet above Yosemite Valley, hermit thrushes (depicted by the piccolo and violins) serenade the scene. An emblematic horn solo segues Roosevelt’s declamation of the natural beauty of Yosemite and enthusiasm for being in the ‘western wilds’ with Muir. Muir shows Roosevelt a letter from their mutual friend and acquaintance, Charles Sargent, whom requests an introduction from the President to help Muir’s travels on his upcoming ‘round-the-world-journey’ (which he postponed for Roosevelt). Roosevelt reads the letter, accidentally finding some choice, critical words about himself, or rather about his friend and recently appointed Chief of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot. Though a friend of the President and a friend to the “practical” interests of conservation (i.e. timber and mining companies), Muir perceives Pinchot (and by association Roosevelt) as no friend of the forest and though apologetic at first, recedes into an impassioned diatribe–giving the President of the United States a talking-to. Roosevelt, alarmed and dismissive, squeezes in words when he can in a tense argument/duet. The two men do anything but listen to each other, hardly noticing the chorus of Yosemite (tonight depicted by our two lovely sopranos and ensemble) making hints to them to perhaps settle down and listen to the wilds.

The issue of preserving the giant trees of Yosemite and protecting the Valley as part of the National Park (in 1903 it was still controlled by the State of California) are foremost on Muir’s mind while Roosevelt speechifies on compromise. Muir eventually gets the last word, remarking to the President that “God has saved these trees from the wraths of time, but he cannot save them from fools–only Uncle Sam can do that.” For his part, Roosevelt finds a momentary pause from Muir’s assault as the hermit thrushes return (Roosevelt was an amateur ornithologist and avid naturalist).

The thrush leads the two men away from themselves and back into the wilderness. Roosevelt chides Muir a little by stating he ‘should listen more to avian music’ and quotes Walt Whitman in an offhand reference to Muir before descending into a political overture of his own (Roosevelt’s aria), mixing metaphors and remarking that ‘progress, the impulse of civilization, must find its way amid the trees.’

The music changes course into a brief interlude as the two men, in an impasse, pause for a moment in contemplation. Roosevelt’s very political response prompts Muir into a ‘story’ of two Yosemites, specifically the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley (Muir’s aria), Yosemite’s ‘little sister to the north’ which is under threat of being confiscated and dammed by the city of San Francisco (with help from Pinchot’s political muscle, of course). Muir’s story morphs from past to present tense, describing for Roosevelt a potentially disastrous future. The first act of the opera ends with Muir, making a plea to mankind to return to the ‘waters and the wild’ and to listen once again.


The Tree Ride

Winner of the 2013 Highsmith Competition, Tree Ride received its premiere by the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra on September 28, 2013 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,—Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,—and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,—singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,—manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen.”

 ~John Muir, Wind Storm in the Forests of the Yuba, published in The Mountains of California

                              Tree Ride was inspired by John Muir’s famous essay Wind-storm in the Forests of the Yuba. However, I came across it in Lee Stetson’s wonderful compilation The Wild Muir, from which derives my title ‘Tree Ride.’  The first time Muir consciously chose to make himself the subject of his writing, he recounts the ecstasy of climbing a Douglas Fir to “obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles.” Muir’s prose uses music as a persistent metaphor to relate his experience of listening to the wind. He describes the “profound bass” of branches and “boles booming like waterfalls; the quick tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur.”

             As if Muir was already describing an orchestra (which in a sense he was) I sought to compose a piece to Muir’s program.  The structure of Tree Ride as an ‘orchestral essay’ takes many cues from Muir’s own style. Tree Ride begins smack dab in the tumultuous exuberance of the storm; perhaps Muir is already swinging in his tree. This opening sound world abruptly shifts and morphs, giving way to an elegiac and lyric orchestral crescendo—Muir and the listener swaying from the purely elemental realm and into the imaginative. The shifting of textures works much like the wind, the listener’s experience always in flux. The use of color and orchestration provide both an ode to the natural world, and an obvious homage to the descriptive legacy of the orchestral tone poem.

              The storm continues in perpetual motion, pushing the listener through several climaxes only to finally pass over, slowly fading into the distance—the trees, as Muir states, “hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, ‘My peace I give unto you.”

              I find Muir’s translation of experience using poetic metaphor deeply captivating as I too strive to translate the experience of natural beauty through music, recounting my own time spent listening and enjoying a proud thunderstorm, high in the Yosemite backcountry. In this way we can, perhaps like Muir, redefine our relationship with the natural world and learn to listen.

An excerpt of Tree Ride can be heard on the Music page of this web site.



Tree-Wavings, a six minute work for string quartet, was premiered at the 2014 Oregon Bach Festival by Fear No Music. 

The writings of John Muir have become a guiding inspiration in my music. It is not only his wonderful literary storytelling and lyrical style but also his sense of experience and place that lures me in. We also tend to share a love for the same experiences and places. Muir shows us where to go and how to listen; where to find wildness in a new and creative way. Often this is as much a spiritual journey as it is a physical one. John Muir’s sense of place and his own creativity continually embolden me.

A week into my move to San Francisco I finally took the trip to Muir Woods. And though Muir Woods is relatively small for a National Park, it harbors some incredible giants. The redwoods there are magnificent and serene, and seem to be scattered everywhere one looks, their presence doing wonders for what Muir referred to as the woes of the ‘over-civilized.’ Much like Forest Park in Portland, Muir Woods acts as an oasis at the edge of metropolis—its wonders saved by a man, and others like him, that shared a view of wildness as essential to our existence, and for Muir who lived in San Francisco, as it is for me, it couldn’t get much closer.

Most of my outings to the woods as of late involve some sort of creative mission. This Labor Day trip was no different. Though I came to Muir Woods to experience for myself what I’d only heard about, I also came to stake the place out as it were, and ponder an idea I couldn’t shake. Certain composer’s feel obligated to tackle or comment on different traditions or forms in their music. One feels the weight of history and the pull of the music world to compose for certain ensembles—one of the most daunting and prevailing is the string quartet.

A string quartet has a long and personal tradition with many of the most famous and important composers from Beethoven to Berg, Glazunov to Philip Glass. It’s truly one of the enduring and challenging creative gauntlets for a composer to achieve successfully. Goethe alluded to the quartet as an intelligent conversation or discourse between four people. Being ever the good contrarian I naturally avoided the quartet, the aesthetics, the logistics, all scaring me away. Yet, the last few months have brought several requests and opportunities to delve into this maelstrom of convention and try my hand at composing my own string quartet.

My recent interest in soundscapes paired with a few choice Muir quotes sparked an idea to get back to the roots of the string quartet—as in the literal roots of whence stringed instruments are created—trees. Muir may elaborate:

“We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers in an ordinary sense. They make little journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journey, away and back again, are little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.”

One doesn’t have to climb to the treetops in a windstorm to realize the extensive wisdom and journey of trees. The coastal redwoods of Muir Woods indeed dwarf our experience with an alien sense of scale and time. Muir’s insight of ‘tree-wavings’ as a metaphor for our own journey struck me. This is what the great string quartet repertoire allegorically accomplishes as well, taking the listener on a musical journey while making literal vibrations and ‘wavings’ of the instruments.

The idea to compose a string quartet to be performed in the woods seemed an ironic and suitable endeavor for my own quartet—which, hopefully, shall be linked to the transcendent qualities of the woods but also the aural qualities of the soundscape itself. The image of a quartet at the bass of a Sequoia sempervirens also suddenly made the idea of composing a little less foreboding, a little less attached to the past—scaled to a more humble, human size. Yet, a window into a more ancient past is precisely what the trees of Muir Woods exemplify, a past and present far larger than our relatively simple perspective can ever hope to grasp. Perhaps my quartet can take on this awareness in some way as well; perhaps the trees can be let in on the conversation, helping both ensemble and listener to play a part in the environment; creating a little journey in time, away and back again.


Soundscape of Muir Woods recorded the day of this writing can be found under the Music page of this website.