As composers, musicians, organizations, and our audiences work to stay connected during this extended hiatus from live performances, many are turning to online video interviews as a way to continue engaging with the motivating ideas and individuals behind the music of our moment.
Last month, I was honored to be invited by three different interview series for public conversations about my work as a composer writing opera, choral music, and music inspired by nature, respectively.
In early June, librettist Megan Cohen and I were interviewed by Patrick Summers, Artistic Director of Houston Grand Opera, in a private Zoom event for friends of HGO that explored our upcoming opera, Turn and Burn, commissioned by the company for a World Premiere production next year.
My next interview was with Matthew Guard, Artistic Director of vocal ensemble Skylark. Our conversation centered on my choral cycle inspired by Victorian art, Transform the World with Beauty, which Skylark commissioned and toured last year. To watch my interview and lots of great content, please consider subscribing to Skylark+—a special platform to support the ensemble’s artists during this pandemic.
Most recently, I spoke with a composer colleague, Ryan Suleiman, for his weekly interview series Reflections on Music and Nature. We discussed my approach and motivations in composing music inspired by landscape, nature, and place; artists as activists of the imagination; and Landscape Music, the international composers’ network I direct and which Ryan is a member of. Our conversation is available for viewing anytime on YouTube (see below).
I founded Landscape Music five years ago (how time flies!) to create an online platform for stylistically diverse composers and composer-performers whose music engages with landscape, nature, and place. I’ve watched this project grow to include 25 members, and to serve as a catalyst for wonderful collaborations with performers and organizations around the country.
This year, I’m coordinating an exciting new Landscape Music initiative: Earth Year 2020. Our composers are commemorating Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary with activities taking place throughout the year 2020—including new works, performances, music videos, and community events showcasing new music that reflects environmental themes at the forefront of our global consciousness.
Saturday, December 14, 3:00pm
Boston Choral Ensemble Holiday Concert
Old South Church
645 Boylston St, Boston, MA Purchase Tickets
Boston Choral Ensemble will give the World Premiere of Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight—commissioned through their 12th Annual Commission Competition—on the choir’s annual winter holiday concert!
Blue Shadows, Silver Sunlight (ca. 9 minutes) features settings of three poems on the theme of winter: “Winter Branches” by Margaret Widdemer, “A Winter Blue Jay” by Sara Teasdale, and “A Winter Ride” by Amy Lowell, all written in the early 20th century by American women.
Each of these poets used vivid descriptions of winter phenomena to convey moments of profound connection to the natural world. I’ve grouped these poems together because I feel they form an aesthetically cohesive set, providing the basis for a musical narrative arc that moves from quiet contemplation (“Winter Branches”) to joyful exuberance (“A Winter Ride”).
I hope you may be able to join me at this very special performance!
My work Transforming Forest (2018), commissioned by Montage Music Society for World Premiere at SITE Santa Fe this past spring, is now available for online streaming!
In the following video, I pair the ensemble’s gorgeous studio recording with my photography of the music’s inspiration: four site-specific land art installations by Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco, CA. Video of a live performance of Transforming Forest on Montage Music Society’s Altazano Salon Series is also available for viewing.
Watch both versions below (or on YouTube here and here), and continue reading for my notes about this work.
studio video credits
Performed by Montage Music Society (Elizabeth Baker, violin; Sally Guenther, cello; Debra Ayers, piano). Audio Recording, Mixing, Editing, and Mastering: Rick Bolton (Rick_Bolton@iCloud.com). Photography and Video Editing by Nell Shaw Cohen.
Live Video credits
Performed by Montage Music Society (Elizabeth Baker, violin; Sally Guenther, cello; Debra Ayers, piano). Video by Vincent Stenerson. Photography by Nell Shaw Cohen.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
Transforming Forest was commissioned by Montage Music Society for World Premiere at SITE Santa Fe in March 2019. In this work for violin, cello, and piano, each short movement is inspired by one of four site-specific installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco: a park and former U.S. Army military fort in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. These remarkable installations were created by Goldsworthy between 2008 and 2014 using organic, on-site materials such as tree branches and soil.
Sites of urban wilderness in the Bay Area have frequently served as points of reference in my creative process. The Presidio’s landscape of eucalyptus and cypress was formative: my childhood home was steps from the sites where these installations were later created. Having made countless pilgrimages to these works by Goldsworthy, I felt impelled to formulate a musical response to these powerful places.
Goldsworthy’s four Presidio installations are transformed through the growth of surrounding vegetation, the elements, the passage of time, and visitor interactions. In my response, I sought to evoke different kinds of transformation connected to each of the four installations.
Wood Line is a long, curving line of eucalyptus branches (1,200 feet) placed along the forest floor. Many times, I’ve traced this path with my own feet—walking alongside it, or balancing on top of the branches themselves, the surfaces of which have become smooth from the wear of footsteps over the years. In my response, “Tracing,” a musical motif is continually “traced” through heterophony: picked up by each of the instruments in different tempi and registers.
Tree Fall is a tree trunk suspended from the roof of a small, disused military building. The trunk and roof were covered in wet clay, which developed intricate, cracking patterns on its surface while drying. In “Cracking,” a dark, chorale-like music, conveying the womb-like interior of the building, “cracks” open into a rhythmically dynamic middle section.
Goldsworthy created Earth Wall by burying and then excavating a sculpture made of eucalyptus branches from within a rammed earth wall at the Presidio Oﬃcers’ Club. A lively third movement, “Excavating,” evokes the spherical tangle of branches at the core of the wall through a building contrapuntal texture.
In the final movement, “Obscuring,” climbing gestures in the piano are juxtaposed with sustained notes in the strings to capture the spatial quality of Spire: a 100-foot structure made from Monterey cypress trunks thrusting dramatically into the open sky. Contrasting material in triple meter—tender at first, becoming increasingly robust—gradually takes over. This music reflects the stand of young trees surrounding Spire, which will eventually obscure it in years to come as these cypresses grow and mature.
Canadian Music Centre and Toronto Messiaen Ensemble recently selected my work Retrace (2018) for flute, violin, cello, for inclusion on their Spring 2020 season! My piece was one of five selected from roughly 450 submissions to their international Call for Scores.
This will be the first performance of my music in Canada! I’ll announce the concert date and further details soon.
Announcing the World Premiere of Transforming Forest (2018) for piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by Montage Music Society—Santa Fe’s chamber ensemble dedicated to music inspired by visual art.
The World Premiere is presented by SITE Santa Fe, a world-renowned space for contemporary art. The program will be repeated on Montage Music Society’s Altazano Salon Series.
I composed Transforming Forest in response to the four incredible installations created by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio of San Francisco. These site-specific artworks resonate deeply with me and I hope to share some small piece of that through my music. Visit my website about the project for descriptions of my music and the artworks that inspired it.
FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 2019 @ 6:00PM
SITE Sante Fe, Santa Fe, NM Event Website
SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2019 @ 3:00PM
Altazano Salon Series, Santa Fe, NM Event Website
I’m pleased to share this video of Citywater’s World Premiere performance of Retrace (2018) for flute, violin, and cello, composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. This performance, which took place last September in Vallejo, CA, was part ofLandscape Music: Rivers & Trails—a nationwide series of collaborative concerts I directed for the Landscape Music Composers Network.
The full concert, with works by seven other Landscape Music composers, is available on LandscapeMusic.org’s YouTube channel.
Retrace (2018) – Portfolio entry with accompanying poem and full performance history.
My newest work, Retrace for flute, violin, and cello, commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the National Trails System Act. It was composed in response to the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, which retraces the expansion of colonial Spain through California and Arizona.
To prepare for this project, I took a road trip this summer following the Anza Trail from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping at sites where the 1775-76 Anza Expedition made camp.
Retrace will receive four co-World Premieres during Fall 2018 in venues around the country—see dates and locations below!
Each of these concerts are part of Landscape Music: Rivers & Trails, a nationwide concert series I’m directing that features 11 World Premieres inspired by National Trails and Wild & Scenic Rivers, all written by members of my group: the Landscape Music Composers Network. I’m thrilled by what we have in store—and I hope you might be able to hear some of this wonderful music. (I’ll be at the concerts in Vallejo and Portland, come say hi!)
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2018 @ 4:00PM in Vallejo, CA
Citywater at Visions of the Wild Festival Event Website
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2018 @ 7:30PM in Houghton, MI
Michigan Technological University Event Website
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2018 @ 2:00PM in Portland, OR
Cascadia Composers Event Website
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2018 @ 7:30PM in Boston, MA
Juventas New Music Ensemble Event Website
It inspired me to compose my first piece for solo piano (way, way past due!). It was my first opportunity to spend countless hours and miles walking by myself through an expansive landscape of astonishing beauty. (I took, literally, a thousand photographs.) I challenged myself to compose on the trail, and at the piano, away from my beloved (and sometimes constraining) Finale. This solitude was complemented by stimulating conversations at group meals, campfires, and sunset-watching sessions with fascinating fellow artists and new friends. I also got to learn more about horses, rodeo, and ranching from an expert and to watch horse wranglers at work (research for my upcoming “feminist rodeo opera” for HGOco).
These experiences will live on through my latest work, Walks at Brush Creek (2017) for solo piano. Here’s my program note for this piece:
Walks at Brush Creek was inspired by my daily walks through rural Western scenery as an Artist-in-Residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, located on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming abutting Medicine Bow National Forest. In the spirit of John Muir, I slowly “sauntered” for many miles on foot trails and dirt roads snaking through forests, valleys, and hills, and tried various approaches to combining this active mindfulness—a walking meditation, of sorts—with my creative process. The best days were when I generated melodies and motives on-the-move in the morning and fleshed them out at the piano in the afternoon. Walks at Brush Creek is the fruit of these experiments. With this score, I offer a musical illustration of my emotional responses to the landscape of Brush Creek Ranch—from the ever-shifting cloud shadows playing over the grasses and sagebrush to the sweeping lines of wooden fences that frame them.
I’m delighted to say that World Premiere of Walks at Brush Creek will be given at Michigan Technological University by faculty pianist Jon Ensminger on upcoming concert Music of the Landscape: Compositions Inspired by Our National Parks and Other Special Places. This event was coordinated by composer Libby Meyer in affiliation with my group, the Landscape Music Composers Network.
Sunday, December 10, 2017, 3:00pm
Michigan Technological University, McArdle Theatre
Walker 207, 1400 Townsend Drive, Houghton, MI 49931
Tickets: $5 Tickets and venue information
UPDATE: The full recording of the premiere performance Walks at Brush Creek is now online!
Chiura Obata, “Mono Crater, Sierra Nevada, California”
Sunday, April 2, 2017, 10:30-11:30am
Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson
80 Main St
Hudson, MA, 01749
Free and open to the public Venue Website
A performance of Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) (2014) will be given by Gabriela Ruiz, flute, and Devin Ulibarri, guitar, at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson during a Sunday worship service on April 2, focusing on nature and environmental themes. Distribuição de flores by Heitor Villa-Lobos will also be performed.
Dai-Shizen (Great Nature) for flute and guitar looks at nature through the eyes of a visual artist: Chiura Obata (1885-1975). It is my musical response to Obata’s journey through landscapes, as seen through his artworks, in three movements: California, Topaz, and Sunset.
Obata’s woodblock prints and watercolors from the 1920s and ‘30s show some of the most extraordinary visual representations of Yosemite National Park ever created, from El Capitan to Mono Lake. The natural landscapes of California were this Japanese-American immigrant’s greatest inspiration.
Obata and his family were then imprisoned for over a year in internment camps during World War II, primarily in Topaz, Utah. Despite demeaning conditions, Obata strove to bring meaning into the lives of those around him. He founded an art school with his fellow internees and created stunning, emotionally charged watercolor paintings juxtaposing the dreary manmade structures of the prison camp against broad expanses of desert, mountains, and fiery sunsets.
In composing this piece, I was particularly inspired by Obata’s ability to follow his philosophy of dai-shizen (Great Nature)—nature as a source of artistic inspiration and spiritual harmony—throughout the best and worst moments of his life.
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To preview this work, watch a video of the World Premiere performance at Boston GuitarFest in 2014. To view some of the artworks by Chiura Obata that inspired my music, check out this online gallery from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.