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.