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Composer Justin Ralls: inspired by nature

By Brett Campbell
September 5, 2017
Featured, Music, Theater

In 2012, composer Justin Ralls was camping with his father and brother in Yosemite National Park, 12,000 feet up in the Sierras, when a lighting storm erupted above them. “I’d hear that thunder crack, and feel this primal fear,” he remembers. “Experiences like that make you change. My experience reminded me how small I am, how inconsequential we are” compared to nature’s vast scale and power. “Yosemite is a place of creative energy — I feel like music is dripping from the pine needles. I feel inspired by the soundscape and fully alive.”

Justin Ralls in Oregon’s H.J. Andrews National forst.

The California national park is famous as a place of transformation for visitors — including another nature lover: Theodore Roosevelt. Ralls’s new opera, Two Yosemites, which opens this weekend at Lewis & Clark College, tells the story of the 26th President’s 1903 Yosemite camping trip in the company of another American legend, Sierra Club founder John Muir, that inspired him to create the National Park System that preserved Yosemite and other crown jewels of America’s natural legacy. And if Ralls has his way, it will be the first in a series of new chamber orchestras produced by Opera Theater Oregon, the plucky insurgent opera company he and his colleagues now lead.

Inspired by Nature

Making music influenced by the environment is nothing new for Ralls, now a University of Oregon doctoral student whose compositions have been performed around the country, including by Portland’s Third Angle New Music. “The outdoors has always been part of my life,” he says. “I grew up in Oregon and spent every summer camping and hiking all over the state.” He even considered careers in zoology or paleontology before music gradually took precedence in high school, where he drummed in musicals and jazz bands and composed and conducted in Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.

But when Ralls went off to prestigious urban music conservatories in Boston and San Francisco, he experienced “cognitive dissonance,” he recalls. “How do I engage this sophisticated culture with the outdoorsy experiences I identify with? Composing these [nature-inspired] pieces bridged that gap. I feel most alive when I’m composing and when I’m out in the natural environment.”

When Ralls returned to the Northwest in 2014 to study at the UO, he began to incorporate field recordings and other evocations of nature, especially bird song, in chamber compositions such as Anthrophony, Afield, and Nightpsalm. Last spring, Springfield’s Riverside Chamber Symphony performed his orchestral work Water is Life, inspired by both Northwest indigenous peoples’ music and the many threats to water in the West.

Campfire Conversion

His most ambitious nature-related composition to date, Two Yosemites, was influenced by those camping trips and other experiences in nature, writings by Muir, and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the National Park System. (See Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch feature on the making of the opera.) Ralls, who also directs the show and designed costumes and lighting, based his original libretto on Lee Stetson’s play The Tramp and the Rough Rider, presented annually at Yosemite since 1983.

“The meeting of TR and Muir seemed to really encapsulate this moment in American history where we have utilitarian politics [represented by] Roosevelt and the purist environmental side by Muir,” Ralls explains. “That set the stage for environmental politics as we know it. I identify with both sides of these characters. And I love camping, and it’s the most famous camping trip ever, so of course I wanted to turn it into an opera.”

John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Glacier Point, 1903. Photo: National Park Service.

His approach was heavily influenced by legendary myth explicator Joseph Campbell. “What I arrived at was essentially an age old story where Roosevelt the hero enters the wilderness with Muir as his spiritual guide,” Ralls says. “In a short hour of music, Roosevelt experiences a transformation of consciousness: he enters as an arrogant person who thinks he understands nature, faces different challenges, and comes out of it as a different person.”

But while Roosevelt’s character “screams opera,” Ralls says, capturing the larger-than-life  President’s complexity took years. He kept coming back to the project after staging parts of it in various incarnations.

Neither the play nor other primary sources Ralls incorporated could capture the story’s emotional power. “In order to convey that transcendental moment of transformation, we need the most potent creative force available to us,” he says. “Music has a way of carrying us to other worlds. And the relationship between music and nature is very old and very strong.”

A 12-piece orchestra and four-member female chorus act as the voice of Yosemite, with some music drawn from nature, such as a piccolo melody derived from the call of a hermit thrush that Roosevelt, an avid ornithologist, enjoyed. Roosevelt and Muir, sung by Nicholas Meyer and Aaron Short, enact much of their debate in song.

Composer Ralls (r) took bows with singers Meyer and Dan Buchanan onstage at Portland’s Old Church concert hall at a recital featuring music from ‘Two Yosemites.’

Ralls’s own eclectic musical style draws on his experiences in musical theater and his admiration for classic opera composers (especially Benjamin Britten) and Stephen Sondheim, Balinese gamelan music and post minimalist John Luther Adams, another Northwest composer deeply influenced by nature.

“I aspired to create this musical drama not only for connoisseurs of opera and new music but for everybody,” Ralls says. “I want this piece to transcend all of these confines of genre and label.”

He thinks Portlanders will respond to the story’s contemporary relevance. “With everything going on in our world — climate change, public lands are under assault, do we preserve the earth for the future or just exploit it now — the debates that were going on then are the same as what’s happening today,” Ralls says. “This is a chance for people in Portland to take a stand against retrograde forces and celebrate people who were inspired to protect public lands.”

“Roosevelt had his faults — imperialist, warmonger, compromising politician — but his intelligence and moral leadership and vision for America make such a sobering and inspirational story today,” Ralls says. “It’s a dream of mine to have this work performed in Washington DC and show people what presidential greatness really is.”

He may have to wait a few years for that, but Ralls, who is one of the new leaders of Opera Theater Oregon, aspires to subsequent stagings of the opera in California and beyond, maybe even its birthplace.

“It’s a place we go to renew ourselves, change ourselves,” he says. “Whenever I go to Yosemite, I’m humbled, and I’m reminded how important it is for me as a composer and artist to make some sort of response and gift it back.”

Revolutionary Opera

That progressive attitude contrasts with the genre’s origins and increasingly grandiose productions, often financed by powerful interests, from royals to robber barons. “Opera always has been a reactionary art form,” Ralls acknowledges. But that’s changing.

“The future of chamber opera is exactly in the direction that Justin is taking,” says UO Prof. Robert Kyr, who’s supervising Ralls’s study there, “works that emerge from deep personal conviction and encourage the listener to explore issues of primary importance during these challenging and troubling times. He is among several composers from the University of Oregon who are taking this approach, such as Daniel Daly (composer of the chamber opera, The Banshee) and Ethan Gans-Morse, who created Canticle of the Black Madonna, which addressed the horror of war as revealed through PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

Today, “we have this renaissance in the emergence of new chamber operas,” Ralls says. “There are more American operas being written today than ever before.”

Yet the big opera companies rarely actually produce them. That leaves upstart outfits like Opera Theater Oregon. Building on OTO’s earlier “really inspiring” and inventive productions, including syntheses of film and opera, Calls wants the company to produce new operas by other emerging composers.

“Our plans are to present smaller-scale works in different contexts, with a focus on American and other English-language works, chamber operas, pieces that evoke themes relevant to today,” Ralls says. “For a composer to write a chamber opera today is an act of revolution.”

Justin Ralls’s opera Two Yosemites premieres at 7:30 pm Friday, September 8, at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, with outdoor premiere performances at 7:00 pm Friday, September 15 and Saturday, September 16, at Lewis & Clark College’s Law School Amphitheater. Tickets online at Opera Theater Oregon. A version of this story originally appeared in The Oregonian/Oregon Live. Additional reporting by Gary Ferrington.

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