Ecomusicollapsology is my own original neologism to describe the synthesis of ecomusicology and collapsology, an area of research which engages the intersection of music, culture, and nature, in the context of the collapse of ecological systems and/or the collapse of complex societies.

Ecomusicology, or ecocritical musicology, is the study of music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms (Allen and Dawe 2016).The term collapsology is a neologism used to designate the transdisciplinary study of the risks of collapse of our industrial civilization, yet is also concerned with the “general collapse of societies induced by climate change, scarcity of resources, vast extinctions, and natural disasters,” and more (Daoudy 2020).

Ecomusicollapsology, therefore is an emergent field of study which engages the various ways human music and culture are entwined with local and global ecologies and how these relationships are affected by ecological and societal collapse.


Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest

Above: 2020 painting, “The Burden of Forever,” inspired by the themes and story of SMBBF. Photo courtesy of John Teply and the Elisabeth Jones Art Center for Ecology and Social Justice.

Below are the prefatory pages to my Ph.D. dissertation, “Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, an Eco-fairytale Opera in three Acts.” 



The story of Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest is derived from a legend from the Mbuti people (also known as Bambuti), one of many ethnic groups of indigenous Central African Foragers of the Congo region of Africa. First published in Colin Turnbull’s classic ethnography, The Forest People, the legend tells of a young boy who upon hearing a bird brings it back to his camp. He asks his father to feed the bird (which his father reluctantly does) and the bird sings the ‘Most Beautiful Song in the Forest.’ This scene repeats three times, whereupon after the son leaves, the annoyed father kills the bird, and with the bird its song, and with the song the father unwittingly kills himself and drops dead.* The popular writer of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, interpreted this story as an allegory for what happens when a culture forgets its myths, stories, and life-supporting relationships. At a time when both the diversity of life on earth, as well as the cultural integrity and diversity of ethnic groups (such as the Mbuti) are severely threatened, I believe this story signifies a powerful lesson: if we do not respect, listen, and live in a balanced ecological relationship with the planet and with each other, we risk our own extinction. It also signifies that by diminishing the natural world, we diminish our own potential.

In adapting this story as a contemporary opera, I was sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. I strove toward an emic perspective; hopefully creating a work that explores and honors the original meaning of the legend in a new form. I do not claim to represent, mimic, or take elements of Mbuti culture but rather explore function and the nature of relationships between music, story, and the natural world. Influenced by stories and folklore in creating an original composite story, I changed the character of the boy to a young girl and added additional characters (such as an older female mentor or shaman figure, She Who Sings from the Heart, and an otherworldly human-animal hybrid, Owl Spirit) as well as ecological themes (the bird’s song “brings the rain”). Most significantly, I explore an alternate ending: the young girl, after learning the song of the most beautiful bird, appears to sing the bird and the world back to life. The Daughter’s eventual learning of the bird’s magical song furthers the opera as a ‘coming-of-age’ story, where the Daughter discovers ecological awareness alongside her own empowerment. This adaptation took influence from many tales incorporating mythical birds, the power of song and dance to revitalize the world, and the corruptions of ignorance and power. Such influences include the fairy tale and Stravinsky opera, Song of the Nightingale, the Native American Blackfoot tale, The Buffalo’s Wife, Rimsky Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, and Shakespeare’s King Lear among several others. The additional characters and their function also took influence from a Native American play, Power Pipes, by Spiderwoman Theater; a work that weaves themes of matrilineal indigenous knowledge, dance, storytelling, and song to heal trauma and initiate.†

The character of the Owl Spirit is my personal interpretation of a being that mediates between worlds. I purposely did not take direct influence from any specific culture, and acknowledge the cultural diversity of Owl beings throughout the world, including the diversity of Native American interpretations of the Owl. Rather, it is my own ecological and mythological Owl as an other-than-human ambassador—a being between night and day, and for the animals it eats, between life and death—which I find compelling and relevant to my own experience in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. Such a mediator between worlds, bringing messages from beyond human experience, is the Owl Spirit’s function in the opera, guiding the daughter and audience in a liminal space, a place of transformation. It is possible to interpret Owl Spirit as trans-gender—a group that I hold no claim to represent— yet, whose presence may deepen the significance of this character in the liminal space of the opera. On many levels the opera embraces a liminal quality of processing and living within transition. As the Earth’s climate and biosphere transitions into new and unknown states, so perhaps a hybrid being, neither human nor animal, male nor female, material nor spiritual, could perhaps uniquely guide us in new mythologies of transformation.

While the music of the Mbuti is extraordinary (included in the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage) the opera is not set in Africa and the music (with the exception of the two ensemble dances) is not overtly African. The opera could be set in any forest community in the world, real or imagined. Rather, I strove to ask deeper questions of how non-Western traditions and cultures functioned in their environment and how music can sonically explore these questions. For example, Mbuti music is performed outdoors in the rainforest, comingling with the natural soundscape; both human and animal sounds take advantage of the acoustic environment in an orchestration of human and non-human sound and expression, co-evolved over time. Their traditional stories, dances, and rituals engage real and symbolic beings and elements of the forest, making explicit links between culture, environment, and performance. Engaging these links through contemporary Western opera and my own unique perspective in time and place was a driving force in conceiving Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest.

While it is not required, I encourage the outdoor performance of this piece in a natural forest amphitheater. In this way, the opera may further mythologize and engage many environments, forests, and cultures on their own terms. Potential outdoor performance influenced the opera’s instrumentation of percussion, winds, and harp—all instruments that carry well outdoors (e.g. mm. 1-29, Prologue, Act One). The idea of ‘acoustic niche’ is explored in novel improvisatory episodes, where winds (doubling on slide whistles and bird callers) may freely create their own soundscape (mm. 87-113, Prologue, Act One). In another example (m. 595, Act Two), the Daughter and instrumentalists may freely improvise, interact, and mimic each other in an imagined soundscape. This approach, I believe, explores the functions and aesthetics of world traditions without appropriating specific cultural characteristics. The combination of voice, winds, and percussion instruments also have a rich legacy of evoking nature and ritual in composed music from the last century from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to the West African- inspired minimalist work of Steve Reich, the atmospheric music of George Crumb, and the outdoor operas and site-specific works of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s Patria (whose work has been influenced by the function and beliefs of First Nations traditions, without appropriating cultural meanings). In the case of these influences, I strove to learn from other templates of musical expression and context that could explore the opera’s themes in novel ways and open cultural exchange and new modes of expression.

For example, the “war dance” at the close of, Scene One, Act One (m. 337) is loosely derived from the Ghanaian Ewe dance Agbekor, which I learned while studying with Ghanaian master drummer and dancer, Dr. Habib Iddrisu. Scholar Jeff Todd Titon has written that the origin of Agbekor may derive from hunters watching monkeys (alluded to in a story told by the Father in Act One, Scene One). Like many African dances, it has evolved from a culturally specific ritual into a pan-cultural performance practice, staged in ever-evolving variations. My variant of Agbekor portrays a dance of war between the people and animals. In this way, I have striven to preserve the cultural origins of this Ewe dance, employing its meaning in the context of the opera and its themes of conflict and relations between humans and animals. This is further explored in the opening dance of Act Three. This dance is a transcription of Balankung, a traditional dance of the Dagomba ethnic group of Northern Ghana. According to Dr. Habib Iddrisu, this dance was heard in his childhood to scare away animals and birds away from crops at harvest time. This dance, however, is no longer performed in Ghana. Dr. Iddrisu has revived it as a presentational performance work with his group, Dema, at the University of Oregon (with whom I learned and performed the piece). The original dance included slit log drums (“balankung”) alongside gourd shakers and ankle rattles worn by dancers. Dr. Iddrisu made an addition of the cajón (an Afro-Caribbean instrument) as homage to the ongoing evolution of West African music across the globe. In this spirit, the dance is included in the score (with permission) in an effort to further preserve this unique cultural tradition and contribute to this ongoing evolution. As with Agbekor, the inclusion of Balankung exemplifies an emic perspective where unique cultural context is woven into the story—not to represent Africa or the Dabomba people—but as exploration of internal function (and the Father again articulates the dance’s function within the story-world of the opera; mm. 148-150, Scene One, Act One). My hope is the opera synthesizes disparate influences, filtered through a unique artistic voice. Balankung also reveals questions of the complexity of human/animal relations, especially in the context of agricultural society. The relationships between different societies and their local fauna and the other-than-human world are always in flux. The inclusion of Balankung ventures into its own liminal space, opening up questions of cultural appropriation vs. cultural exchange in new expression. I believe such exchange is necessary if cultures are to come together, learn, listen and create paradigms for new and emerging futures. We must work together in concert toward a newly defined respect for each other and the planet, highlighting our diversity but also our common goal toward a more compassionate ecological society. In this way the opera is an experiment in such exchange, initiating a challenging but necessary conversation, as we work toward redefining our personal and societal relationship with the natural world and relations between culture vis-à-vis another.

An emic perspective of cultural exchange applies to the musical evocation and engagement of nature as well. The opening motive (heard in the winds, mm. 1-6, Prologue) is a musical transcription of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird (Moho braccatus), an extinct member of the Australo-Pacific honeyeaters endemic to the island of Kaua’i. While the opera is influenced by acoustic ecology and natural soundscapes generally, this one species in particular deserves special recognition as its song (and its intrinsic musical motives) permeates the entire piece both on an episodic as well as structural and symbolic level. Not only is the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s flute-like, hallow, song incredibly haunting (the recording I listened to may have been the last male bird singing to a mate which would never come), but I felt the bird’s island forest environment was symbolic of ‘Island Earth’ and the ‘glocal forest’ (a local environ linked to global ecologies). Indeed, the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō represents the ‘Song of the Most Beautiful Bird’, whose motives interject the drama and which is eventually learned and sung by the Daughter. Lastly, the inclusion of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s song asks questions of romanticizing nature, the Daughter’s song without a doubt is romantic in character, however this music changes with the inclusion of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō motive which acts to segue into an arguably more primordial texture, evoking the rainforest soundscape of the prologue. The closing soundscape and inclusion of bird song also reveals that throughout the opera we have heard the song of the most beautiful bird all along, even if we didn’t know it. This is especially apt in the midst of the climate crisis and Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

The theme of extinction is made explicit when the Daughter meets Owl Spirit, who, in the words of She Who Sings From the Heart, “guides us between worlds.” Owl Spirit’s favorite meal, “flying-squirrels,” reveals this mysterious character to perhaps be a Northern Spotted Owl, an iconic and controversial species of Northwest old- growth forests that, despite our best efforts, is on its way toward extinction. As the branches of the tree of life are broken, Owl Spirit confronts the young girl with a terrible question, “You do not know who will go next do you?” The last scene of the opera—when the young girl appears to sing the bird back to life—is intended to be ambiguous, dependent upon the interpretation of the artists realizing the work and the perspectives of the audience receiving it. My hope is the presence of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō engages the central themes and questions of the opera: can we learn the Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest and prevent our own extinction?

*Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962. Print. Clarion Book. Pg. 82-83.
† D’Aponte, Mimi, and Theatre Communications Group, Publisher. Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays. First ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1999. Pg. 155-195.                                            ‡ Todd Titon, Jeffrey, Editor. Worlds Of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. New York: Schirmer Books, 2002. Pg. 73. 3


Westworld Scoring Competition

The following post briefly explains inspiration behind my cue composed for Spitfire Audio and HBO’s Westworld Scoring Competition. Special thanks to Spitfire Audio and the creative team of Westworld for sponsoring this amazing opportunity, this project was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a competition piece! 

Composers were given the full four minute cue from Season 3, Episode 5, including a version with music representing a temp track to guide interpretation. The music track included an extended passage of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which I found especially intriguing and challenging. (I now sympathize with so many past composers, “how to respond to Wagner!”). I decided to go along with the meistersinger (as an aspiring opera composer myself) and set to create a charged, symphonic chase sequence to enhance the film and story, and serve the dynamic, dramatic, yet playful vibe of the cue.

I began by dropping in my own temp track as it were of some driving orchestral music I had recorded in a reading session while at San Francisco Conservatory. To my surprise I felt it actually worked! So I had a starting place to built the cue’s soundworld and music. I took inspiration from Ennio Morricone’s use of source sounds to inspire motives and themes. The first big soundmark in the cue is from machine gun fire, which sets the supercharged pace that is later joined with the riveting SFX of self-driving cars, motorcycles, smart missiles and more. I reimagined this rapid fire with a simple ostinato (first appearing in timpani/pno). I used this ostinato to build the perpetual motion and harmonic moves of the sequence, shading it with different orchestral timbres and textures (shout out to John Adams, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky!). I also brought in an electronic sound I had previously created in behemoth sound design system Kyma (from a sampled source recording of a helicopter), which may evoke the gun fire slowed down (as if internalized by characters), foreshadowing/coloring drama, or as a counterpoint to the many engine accelerations and tempi of cue.

I did a quick and dirty harmonic analysis of Wagner’s Ride as well as the stormy vorspiel from Die Walkure and crafted my own harmonic pallet and rhythm to fit the action. In the process I took inspiration from the great chase scherzi of John Williams, the clear, driving ostinati and stingers of Michael Giacchino’s scores, as well as the contemporary orchestral thriller/noir sound of Jeff Beal. While the competition explicitly instructed not to take influence from Ramin Djawadi’s Westworld music, as a big fan of the show and Djawadi’s work I’m sure there was some subliminal influence on the overall timbres and thematic elements. Lastly, over the years I’ve learned a lot from studying Morricone’s music and this cue is no exception in its cocktail of sounds and colors, hopefully creating my own twist within the genre of the dystopic-Western. I am especially grateful to the musicians of the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra and the composer’s reading session whose playing is featured in the overall mix, Thank You!



Why Green New Deal Must Include Arts and Music Programs

The Green New Deal resounds a political and systemic response to the twin crisis of climate change and inequality. With both the climate and economic crisis, governments have prioritized the interests of those who caused the problem, despite the consequences for working people.[1] To save the biosphere and the economy for working Americans, we must have massive public investment in clean, renewable energy, infrastructure, jobs and social services. This makes the Green New Deal an urgent and necessary step. I maintain that these investments must include the arts, especially the performing arts.

We need the arts to create new visions for society, but we also need the arts to bring people together to communally participate in new visions. Since 2016 classical pianist Hunter Noack has for three summers toured rural areas of Oregon with a 9-ft Steinway grand piano on a trailer, combining his love for music and the outdoors. His outdoor concerts collaborate with public lands agencies, as well as private property owners. Like much of America, Oregon typifies the urban-rural divides. Yet, at a concert in Fort Rock State Park southeast of Bend, local ranchers listened on horseback alongside outdoors enthusiasts, music buffs, and families from around the state. These concerts are presented free or at low cost. A third of his audience has never been to a classical concert before, let alone hearing the same piano you would hear in Carnegie Hall, and all of this in a stunning natural amphitheater. But that’s the point. Music brings people together and takes us to distant places. Creating a space for people of diverse political, ethnic, and class backgrounds to appreciate the land, as well as experience the arts together, is democratizing, inspiring, and desperately needed.

This is not a new idea. Noack’s In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild project was directly inspired by the Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era public works program which put millions of Americans back to work constructing buildings, roads, bridges, the thousands of trails in our National Parks and much more. The Federal Music, Theater, and Writer’s Projects included in the government stimulus package funded thousands of performances presented free to the public and many in parks. FMP programs raised musical standards in America, championed American composers and musicians, funded music teachers for poor families, supported amateur community ensembles, and funded folk song collection. Many of our nations most enduring and respected ensembles were created during the New Deal. And many more people had access to the arts and education and opportunities to enjoy the wonders of the land in which we live. People also spent time with each other. These arts programs created a community of Americans organized around shared values and a mission to restore America.

The National Endowment for the Arts in 2016 sponsored an initiative, ‘Imagine Your Parks,’ celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, funding commissions, concerts and events across the country to great success. One such project, led by the Britt Festival in southern Oregon, commissioned composer Michael Gordon to compose a piece engaging Crater Lake National Park. A large orchestra and chorus premiered the piece at the rim of Crater Lake, collaborating with Steiger Butte Singers and Drummers, local members of the indigenous Klamath Tribes. The Federal Music Project similarly supported diverse ensembles, collaborations, and the nation’s folk, classical, jazz, and indigenous music. Especially in the West, ethnic and grassroots music thrived. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration explicitly encouraged folk song and vernacular music as a means of mending conflicts between racial, regional, and class groups in the country. These programs also brought classical music to a wider, diverse audience, and encouraged the creation of American works in the repertoire. Such previously marginalized music rose to unprecedented popularity.

Programs which support cultural vibrancy, community, and appreciation of the land are a model which should be adapted and championed across the country in innovative ways, employing thousands of musicians, composers, artists, and writers to create, teach, and engage the public — supporting the values of equality and ecological responsibility. Green infrastructure projects could also include artist in residence programs and further opportunities for collaborations between diverse artists, communities, and environments. The city of Seattle established an artist residency for the historic Fremont Bridge in an ‘ongoing exploration of how to integrate art in cityscapes.’ Water Music NY was mounted by the Albany Symphony to musically explore the Eerie Canal. Washington State Department of Transportation has championed the first artist-in-residence for a statewide agency in the country. However, commissions and residencies for writers, musicians, and visual artists are often few and far between. There are far more talented, qualified artists than available opportunities. And these few opportunities often pay little more than a stipend. There is much great work being done by musicians and artists around the country, despite lack of funding and support. Many genres, including folk, jazz, classical, and ethnic musics are increasingly marginalized. Arts and music are habitually and deliberately cut from budgets. Yet there is a need, successful historical precedent, and community of artists and organizations ready, willing, and able to do their part to serve their nation and the planet. As in the Depression, they could use a little help from the government. I believe this is the spirit of the Green New Deal.

The arts have the potential to socially bond our communities around shared values and visions of what we may become, and this is what the Green New Deal should aspire to deliver. The U.S. Senate recently passed the decade’s largest public lands package, winning rare bi-partisan support. The overwhelming majority of Americans support public lands. Why? Because there are public lands in every district in America. The arts could help cultivate this truly silent majority into a dominant cultural force. Imagine the potential of numerous concerts, public art projects, community classes and events, environmental initiatives working in tandem with building renewable energy and infrastructure, ecological and public lands restoration and more. Environmental catastrophes, rising inequality and social anomie have created an existential emergency. We need spaces where we can commune with each other and the land, free from media grifting and electronic hallucinations. If we fail to imagine new ways of interacting with each other, the economy, and the resources we use and depend upon, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into fantasy.[2] We do not need more fantasy; we’ve had enough of that. We need active imagination.

[1] Jeffrey, Suzanne. “Up Against the Clock: Climate, Social Movements and Marxism,” ISJ Issue 148 http://isj.org.uk/up-against-the-clock/ ISJ 148 (Winter 2015).

[2] Magdoff, F., Williams, Chris, & Foster, John Bellamy. (2017). Creating an ecological society: Toward a revolutionary transformation. New York: Monthly Review Press. Pg. 18.


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



Sketches of Nature: Landscape Music in the Central Asian Steppe


Тувинские просторы.jpg

By Александр Лещёнок, CC BY-SA 4.0Wikimedia.

Originally published on Landscape Music Composers Network March 31, 2016.

Last summer while I was hiking in Kings Canyon National Park, I had much on my mind. Walking the trail—admiring the craggy, breathtaking views of granite and pine, listening and following the rush of cold streams and the calls, near and far, of birds, squirrels, and nameless others—there is much to inspire the composer. As a musician, sound is at the forefront of my awareness. But what about the immensity and awe—even terror—one may feel in these intimidating, yet intimate landscapes? Potential metaphors and meanings hide behind every cloud and tree, gust of wind, or mysterious chirp. Of course, it is up to us as composers to relate these experiences in our musical statements and aspirations. This can be a daunting task as we parse out the myriad cultural contexts and perspectives each of us brings to every piece of music and every excursion in the mountains. Informing ourselves about how other cultures draw upon the landscape in their music gives us new perspectives and helps us to clear the air of our usual conceptions. In this essay, I invite you on an adventure to another culture and another landscape.

The musical culture of the central Asian steppe possesses an embodied connection to landscape. Here, every musical utterance is imbued with place: whether it is the metaphorical feelings of place, the contour of mountains and valleys, or the subtleties and nuances of timbre and sound in the environment itself. Theodore Levin’s Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond explores how a sustained, nomadic herder lifestyle creates mutually supportive, cultural links to the natural world. Tuva is a Russian republic in southern Siberia, nestled within the northwest border of Mongolia. Tuva is famous for its biodiverse landscapes of grassland steppes, deserts, and tall mountains, where traditionally nomadic tribes have lived for centuries. Levin describes “a sonic journey through a landscape and soundscape whose inhabitants preserve what is arguably one of the world’s oldest forms of music-making.”1 Of this sustained tradition in Tuva, Levin writes:

“The spiritual nature of mountains and rivers is believed to be manifested not only through their physical appearance but through the sounds they produce…thus, the echo that results from singing in proximity to a cliff, and the interaction of a human voice with the gurgling of a brook or the swishing air currents of a strong wind may be imbued with spiritual power.”2

The natural world constantly references a spiritual one mediated through sound, both literally and figuratively, as Levin continues:

“Living creatures, not less than inanimate places or landscapes, manifest spiritual power through sound, and for humans, the key to animating and assimilating this power is the imitation of sound.”

In the musical and spiritual ideoscape of the central Asian steppe, the forces of nature’s master-spirits affect everyday life. With just two million people spread over a vast expanse of over one million square miles, the nomadic life is often pitted against the elemental power of nature, early or late snow, rain and wind, testing the resilience and humility of humans. In this landscape, the gods can be charmed with music, and music performance become an act of reciprocity—returning to nature what has been borrowed.

Sound and song exist along a continuum from iconic imitation of sound to ‘aestheticised’ imitation of natural sound to autonomous musical forms such as the Mongolian urtyn du or “long song,” a varied stylistic technique and song form. Some scholars have remarked the melodic contour of these songs, generally absent of conjunct movement, can be interpreted as ‘hill shaped’ with ascents and descents not unlike the topography the songs were performed in. Referring to a robust, extended form, making a subgroup of the style, Mongolians described it as “spacious,” “wide,” “long-lasting,” and “of great size.” Different melodic contours are associated with different environments. Long songs performed in mountain areas have descending contours; those performed in the steppe (looking up at the mountains) start low and ascend.3 These connections between mountains and melody reveal themselves on the surface of a complex relationship between nature and culture.

Mimetic exchange is central to the reciprocal relationship practiced by nomadic Mongolians and Tuvans, articulating in performance the linking of nature spirits, human beings, and other deities with the origins of songs, music, and instruments. Instrument making and subsequent performance are imbued with spiritual power and kinship relation. Images of the landscape are mapped in the contours of melodies and dances, the body used as a metaphoric landscape, imitating sounds and shapes of the environment.

In Western culture, the body may be considered a part of nature. When used in artistic performance, the body is subordinate to the remotest rituals and references aspects of culture over nature. Mongols, however, use metaphors of kinship among humans, performance, and nature. The inspiration and practice of long song, for example, requires a ritual embodiment of natural features and spiritual power. The folk traditions of long song, overtone singing, horse-head fiddle, and epic (song narration) all share with each other intrinsic connections between spirits and nature. The sounds produced by the tsuur (a rare instrument that amplifies overtones of the voice) imitate the sounds of wind, trees, animals, and water that resound through the mountains. As scholar Carole Pegg points out, this relation is not merely imitation but reciprocation to the spirits of the universe from which the materials were taken to make the instrument.

One of the ways this sound making intersects with our own contemporary creative approaches is the Tuvan idea of boidus churumaly, a “sketch of nature.”5 Tuvan sketches of nature are quite broad, the sound medium varying from throat singing, jaw harp, and whistling—yet all employ timbre as an expressive and core element. Sketches of nature typically convey steppe or grassland, steep mountains, or the taiga forest. Sounds produced in the resonant low chest are metaphorical of towering heights and peaks. While traveling in the mountains, the acoustic changes with your elevation. This, too, is reflected in the performance and creation of a nature sketch. Melodies evoking the sound of a mountain river flowing full and lively, according to one musician, should be a “large sound.”6 Melodies are known to become like streams as they fall from on high. The rivers of the grassland steppes, open places, are soft and slow.

Music often functions as a translation of experience, and the Tuvan “sketch of nature” is an embodiment of this translation.

For contemporary composers, musicians, and eco-theorists seeking to embody landscape and nature in our own musical traditions, several parallels between our work and the Tuvan and Mongolian traditions become apparent. The creativity, inspiration, and purpose of both kinds of music are the natural results of time spent in place. Places where the human is dwarfed in scale, where we are somehow in awe and humbled. While in the great mountains and forest, deserts, tundras, and natural areas where we, as composers, may seek our respite and muse, we are brought into relation. We revel in the reminder that it is here, in the landscape, where our culture, our aspirations, and dreams are made and contained. It is transferring this sense of reverence, mediating it through sound and music and experience, that we find close company with these arguably ancient traditions. Music often functions as a translation of experience, and the Tuvan “sketch of nature” is an embodiment of this translation.

As children grow up with the rhythms of life—hunting in the taiga (boreal forest), riding in the grassland, or spending time in the mountains—there is sound. Those considered most talented will naturally bring this body of sonic knowledge to the forefront of their music. The natural environment is present both in a participatory and presentational realm. These traditions challenge us to consider a larger whole when thinking about the links we make between landscape and music. Where and how is an instrument made? What is the relationship between a culture and a natural environment? What is the relationship between spirit and nature, both individually and collectively? How is our contemporary musical life in reciprocity with the natural world? For those of us living in North America, these questions are all the more enticing. For our spirit-masters, those of the forests, the cold running rivers and streams, the tundra, the grasslands, prairies, and mountains—filled with similar plants and animals—are not too dissimilar. They are listening and singing. How will we respond?

1. Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 3
2. Levin, T., & Huun-Huur-Tu. (1999). Tuva, among the spirits sound, music, and nature in Sakha and Tuva. (Smithsonian global sound for libraries). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways. Pg. 3-4
3. Pegg, C. (2001). Mongolian music, dance, & oral narrative : Performing diverse identities. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Pg. 106
4. Ibid. Pg. 99
5. Levin, T., & Süzükei, Valentina. (2006). Where rivers and mountains sing: Sound, music, and nomadism in Tuva and beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Pg. 88
6. Ibid. Pg. 90

A Conversation with Alexander Arbachakov

It was on a warm, early summer evening in Portland, Oregon where I sat down with Alexander Arbachakov. Gathered at a barbecue, surrounded by Northwest environmental leaders and five delegates of Russian conservation groups, we discussed shamans, natural sound, and the spirit world.

Mr. Arbachakov is a member of the Shor tribe of Kemerovo Oblast, Southern Siberia. He founded The Taiga Research and Protection Agency to defend the cedar forests where his people live. In 2006, he won the Whitley Environmental Award for his efforts to preserve the taiga and the natural heritage of his culture. Mr. Arbachokov is a calm, contemplative man of 51; congenial, yet enigmatic, cosmopolitan, yet spiritual in a way I intuited as deeply traditional.



The Kemerovskaya Region is part of Russia’s largest coal basin and lies where the West Siberian Plain meets the mountains of Southern Siberia. Photo courtesy of Alexander Arbachakov.

JR: I am interested in the connections between American indigenous music and the environment, and indigenous music of the Russian Far East, their connection to nature, and most especially shamans.

AA: I remember watching the TV, and there was a documentary on the people of South America and my mother heard a song (on the TV) and recognized it. She said “I know this song, and began to sing her version”; of course it wasn’t exactly the same, but still the same song, the same motif, and sung the same way… 

JR: Do you remember where in South America?

AA: I think it was Peru. 

JR: How are the kam’s (shaman) drum and songs related to nature?

AA: Depends on the ceremony, depends on the shaman, every shaman has a special style and everybody has a great condition/obligation for each ceremony; but there are motifs (which can be transferred from shaman to shaman). Shaman often mimic the sounds of nature. My wife, Luba, she is a folklorist and she knows more than I. We met and documented some of the last, oldest shamans. The last one, unfortunately, died in 2008. 

But there is a young woman, she is 19 and she has visions and dreams and is able to write while in trance. She communicates with spirits. She has begun her own ceremonies. We are hoping she will continue and become a shaman. 

My mother also used to sing shaman songs. 

JR: Is your mother a shaman?

AA: No, no. 

JR: But she knew their songs?

AA: Yes, some…

JR: I’m referring now to the young woman, were her songs used to communicate with spirits? Nature spirits?

AA: Yes, and she is conversing with shamans from the past. She also received a message from my father, who is deceased.*

When she hears spirits she begins to write. She connects with elders. 

JR: What does she do in her ceremonies?

AA: First she builds a fire, and then she feeds the soul of the fire, the ‘spirit fire.’ She can give bread or other produce/food…

JR: Alcohol?

AA: Hmm…sometimes, and just a little…and the ceremonies could be for healing or finding something that is lost, like a cow (laughs), connecting with the spirit of the animal or others to help locate it.

JR: Finding something that is lost? Like a soul?

AA: (Smiles) Yes, that too. 

JR: Do some Kam mimic animal sounds to evoke their spirit?

AA: Yes, sometimes. 

JR: Is sound used to evoke and communicate with spirits?

AA: Yes! Sounds of nature. It makes no difference where. The same spirits hear. 

(At this point he politely rushes off and brings back a mouth harp. It is essentially a small jaw harp with a thin steel tongue and two small thin carved wood handles. He asked if I knew what it was and if I could play it. I told him I did and proceeded to play the most measly little twangs. But he could tell I understood how it made sound and why it might be important. He said I wasn’t bad and admitted: “I can’t get all the harmonics, the higher melodies either.”)


siberian mouth harp

Metal mouth harp, common in Siberia.


(Taking the mouth harp back from me.)

AA: Aww, yes. An indigenous Malaysian gave me one (mouth harp) very similar, but made from bamboo—they are not as strong and often break and rot. But it was the same instrument for generally the same use. 


mouth harp

Bamboo mouth harp from Papua New Guinea, ca. 19th Century. Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

JR: Back to nature sounds. How does the shaman hear nature sounds?

AA: The shaman does not just hear single voices, the twittering of birds and wind– but all of them together as one voice.

JR: The Soundscape.

AA: Yes! These ideas (in the soundscape) were there even before people were thinking about them or speaking. 

I think if a shaman, if an (American) Indian heard these sounds of Kemerovo (Kemerovo Oblast in Southwestern Siberia), they will understand. 

*(NB: Communicating with ancestors and  prior shaman’s spirits is a near ubiquitous skill and initiation in shaman traditions known around the planet. Also, Mr. Arbachakov speaks, writes, and understands English very well, yet for fluidity of the conversation he occasionally spoke Russian. Translation was assisted by Anne Polyakov, translator and liaison for the Coal Exchange Russian delegation, hosted by NGO, Pacific Environment. The conversation was slightly edited for this post.)



H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Willamette National Forest, Cascade Range, Oregon. This NW forest has seen its own battles over Old Growth, Spotted Owls, and indigenous rights. Photo by Justin Ralls.



Journeys to Inner and Outer Worlds: Part 1



I recently visited the Hart Mountain Wildlife Refuge, in southeastern Oregon. The desert is a magical place of vast extremes. It was a dry 90 degrees by day and a dewy, frosty 32 by night. Eastern Oregon is in the height of a dry cycle (affected as well by the ongoing drought throughout the West), many of the ‘lakes’ in the area were nothing but alkaline salt flats. The wetland basis of Malheur and Warner Valley were dry grasslands.


My fiance and fellow adventure-composer-ecologist Anne Polyakov posing at the southern entrance to Hart Mountain.

Despite the arid conditions we saw plenty of antelope, in pairs and small herds. Antelope are a  beautiful species with distinctive white rumps, striped white markings on their chest and necks, and a gait and gaze that transports one back to pleistocene; a time when two species of cheetah roamed North America, as well as mastodon. It was a time when much of eastern Oregon were vast inland seas and lakes, pooled from the receding glaciers of 10,000-100,000 years ago.

The water and plentiful game made this region ideal for hunter-gatherer nomadic tribes—the people whose decedents would be called Paiute, Modoc, and others. The refuge is home to herds of antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, and copies small mammals and birds. Scattered throughout the rock outcrops and boulder fields, which punctuate the never-endings seas of sage, are evidence of these early people in the forms of petroglyphs. One such site that we visited contained 64 different boulder canvases, containing some of the most enigmatic and bizarre pictures I have ever seen. Their simplicity is deceptive, for every ’stick figure’ hunter, ram, and sun there are characters and forms that defy our understand and invite speculation. Some have suggested petroglyphs as evidence of ancient alien encounters, others attribute them to an overactive imagination and need to explain and depict the elemental forces of their lives. More recently and more interestingly, evidence and scholarship has attributed petroglyphs, and the ancient artists that made them, to spiritual and shamanic practice, journeys and encounters in other worlds, perhaps the results of altered state of consciousness.

As I roamed the boulders I couldn’t help but posit my own ideas, as an artist myself, and connect the rocks so to speak, relating these images to other traditions in a vast web of knowledge and experience over time and space.


It was interesting to note that most of the glyphs were formed on the south facing slope of a rock, directed skyward or toward the path of the sun. These positions were not necessarily the most convenient or easiest site for a drawing (there were often open faces closer to the ground, some with convenient boulders to sit on, that were left blank and untouched).


Notice the strange ‘turtle-people’ images in the upper left. Also notice the figure of a person with the archetypal antler feature (see below).

Other rocks revealed even more striking depictions of the archetypal ‘shaman’ figure with antlers, as well therianthropic features:



A very compelling images (with unfortunate modern graffiti as well):


Besides the deer, antelope, and sheep images, note the figure in the upper right corner:


Below are some wonderful images of quadrupeds, note the sheep yearling suckling at the teat of a mother (at right):

IMG_2776            IMG_2774

Many petroglyphs around the world, as well as the ancient cave paintings of Europe are known to use contours of the rock itself to provide realistic or allegorical expression. Could the location of the hunting scene below signify the rock as allegorical of the surrounding plateaus where the sheep and deer herds are still found and hunted, roaming the bluffs and cliffs?


The most convincing shamanic set of images (see below) includes the concentric circles, resembling a target, accompanies by zig-zag lines, and shaman figure surrounding the circles (another can be seen in the far left vicinity of the boulder). An archetypal and ubiquitous feature of rock art and shamanic journeying, concentric circles represent (and literally depict) the ‘tunnel’ or spiral to the lower world experienced in the most basic rites of shamanic practice. Zig-zag lines are also a ubiquitous image, which accompany trance, hallucinogenic, and shamanic rock art documented all over the world. Note the distinction between the circles and the sun. My next post will examine my own recent experiments in shamanic journeying as well as further examine and provide evidence for my amateur hypothesis into the connection of these glyphs with shamanic journeying the world over.


Below: Looking northwest over Hart Lake and Warner Valley and five mile long dirt road that took us to the petroglyphs (boulder fields can seen to the right). What journey it was to go back in time with these images in this landscape.



Field Notes from the Forest

Imagination, Goddard wrote, “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.”

This past spring I had the opportunity of staying 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 along with 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 the forest. 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), inspiring 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 is scheduled to last 200 years, from 2003-2203.

andrews forest 2Over eons of floods, fires, storms, earthquakes, asteroids, our ‘apocalyptic planet’ is constantly reborn. Trees in an old growth forest in some ways never die, spending half their existence as slowly rotting logs. More trees grow from nurse logs, and giant moss covered, earthen virescent masses, neither moss nor earth nor tree, crisscrossing the forest floor below towering, leaning giants. 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.’

In the forest nothing is truly separate. Nutrients are stored in trees for a while and then slowly disperse to other organisms, other trees. In the old growth forest we find a metaphor for our own relationships; art itself is a receptacle of experiences and relations passed down over generations. 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. The tree gladly changes form to totem pole, such a tree is an honorable ambassador between human culture and the natural world.

To many cultures the owl is a totem of revelation and wisdom, of death and rebirth. The owl sees things others can’t and decides the fates of other creatures, whose power helps shape the forest.

While I was driving, exploring the dusty forest service roads, a phantom bird swooped across the road, nearly over my windshield. It struck me as odd how my startling him made me take notice. If he had not made himself visible, I would have taken him as just so much scenery in the branches.

For nearly half an hour I sat no more than 10 feet below him, making sketches, recordings, and even eating my lunch. At the time, I couldn’t tell if it was a barred or spotted owl (the scientist in me said it was probably a barred, but the artist in me insisted I was being given a rare interview with the spotted owl). After returning to Andrews headquarters, the forest director, Mark Schulze, confirmed my sighting was a barred. Though, he said both owl species were ‘super tame’ and were relaxed around researchers of the forest.

The barred owl has steadily migrated from the Northeast over the years. Larger and more aggressive than the spotted, it directly competes for food and habitat. With higher reproducing rates, the barred often wins out. The lynchpin of the endangered species act and the fight for old growth forest, the spotted owl may lose out from under our nose by none other than nature herself. The reasons for this change are not entirely clear; fire suppression over the years has left forests open for barred owls to travel, climate change could also be a culprit. Researchers theorize the owls may have spread with the establishment of agriculture across the midwest, as farms created more suitable and adaptable habitat. It can be a heated discussion, whether the owls naturally migrated if humans helped them. I wonder about the impacts of these changes as we renegotiate our relationship with the forest and our sense of what is ‘human’ and ‘natural.’

My experience in the Andrews taught me one thing: we do not manage the forest, the forest manages us. It does not depend on us, but we do depend upon the forest for our air, our water, and our economic vitality. This is a lesson that resounds with many conversations I’ve had with indigenous people and conservationists.  If, or when, the spotted owl is replaced by its brawnier cousin, what will this mean for the existing relationships in the forest? How will these changes change us? What is being gained or lost in these changes? What is there that we cannot yet see?

Without communion with the spotted owl, even if that communion is a fleeting glimpse, a periphery flash upon the eyes, or an invisible relationship, connected through myriad other processes, we will not know what it means to be fully human in the forest: to live with the elemental myths and dreams of nature.

andrews forest

As one meanders, shapes and faces of the forest appear. In Japanese folklore, this may be called a kodama or ‘tree spirit.’ Indeed, I walked right past this tree, only to feel something (or someone) was looking at me, I turned around and took the photo below. On the surface a kodama appears like an ordinary tree, but if one cuts it down one would become cursed.





Photographs by Anne Polyakov and Justin Ralls




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 competitiveworld 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.


Photos by Stephen Lias.