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‘Music of the Forest’ preview: Old growth, new music

April 18, 2017
Featured, Music


In the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, an hour east of Eugene, you’ll be visually immersed in an iconic landscape of towering old-growth Cedar, Hemlock, and moss-draped Douglas Fir. But close your eyes and open your ears and a rich acoustic environment is revealed: whispering treetop breezes; distant snapping sounds of animals traversing twig covered trails; bird calls echoing through the forest with insects buzzing above the ground; all this against the rhythmic beat of fast flowing water over a rocky terrain.

Oregon Composers Forum members finding musical inspiration in old growth forest. Photo: Michael Fleming.

One rainy fall day, a group of UO composition students ventured into this soundscape to listen, meditate upon, and sketch musical ideas while soaking up the inspiration the forest provided. The creative results from this and subsequent journeys back to nature, will be heard on Saturday, April 22 during the Music of the Forest concert, the third of nine events scheduled during the 2017 Music Today Festival on the University of Oregon campus.

Canadian composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer first gave serious attention to the earth’s soundscape as a sonic environment in need of study from ecological and creative perspectives. His World Soundscape Project and related academic program at Simon Fraser University in the 1960s established a field of study known as acoustic-ecology. In his book The Tuning of the World (1977), Schafer encourages public awareness of the acoustic environment and the need for finding solutions to an ever-increasingly noisy world by striving to create an ecologically balanced soundscape where there is harmony between the natural environment and the human community. At the heart of his teaching and writings is the need for people to become attentive listeners to the soundscape in which they live. For Schafer, the soundscape is an ongoing musical composition that when listened to, becomes a unique and miraculous acoustical experience.

A visit to the Andrews forest echoes Schafer’s teachings to be quiet, listen attentively, and discover the acoustic ecology of the forest environment.  (Editor’s note: View David New’s National Film Board of Canada film, Listen in which R. Murray Schafer shares the need to carefully listen to the soundscape.) The works presented in this Music Today concert are only the latest created by young composers who have been inspired by Schafer’s writings and his choral compositions staged in natural or wilderness areas.

Death and life on the forest floor. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

In Walk Through The Trees for soprano, electric guitar and marimba, composer Brent Lawrence was especially inspired by the natural cycles of growth and decay, reflected in his text (I cover the ground/Claim it as my own and once I decay/ am I really gone?) and technically in the use of delay in the electric guitar when everything played is repeated and slowly decays into the background. He adds that “a lot of the gestures written for the instruments are focused on recreating the sounds of falling rain,” a soundscape element that dominated his forest experience.

Patterned sunlight dapples the forest floor. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Michael Fleming was inspired by the stunning imagery of mist covered paths and the sound of rain on the leaves and moss of the ancient forest. The four miniatures in his Aurorean Path for violin and steel drum reflect the way “light created beautiful patterns over an incredibly ecologically diverse forest floor,” he says.

As an outdoor enthusiast, composer Luke Smith’s response to the Andrews forest took him by surprise. “Being in a centuries-old, nearly untouched environment where an inexhaustible number of living things proliferate was spiritually invigorating,” he says, “but also overwhelming, and it left me blank of creative ideas.” Smith turned to wilderness observations of H.D. Thoreau, found in his  journal writings from 1851-1852, which form the poetic narration in Smith’s At Home Here, composed for narrator with found sounds from nature, and guided percussion, flute and string improvisations.

Guided improvisation using a graphic score. Photo: Luke Smith.

Smith’s piece is composed as a graphic score in which the narrator is given much freedom of expression, unconstrained by notated pitch and rhythm. The musicians listen to the text and line up their improvised sounds with the words as they hear them, following the narrator’s pace rather than staying together using a common tempo. “I only instruct what instruments/sounds should occur from-when-to-when, how loud they should play, and what type of character the sounds should have,” Smith explains.

“As I walked through the Andrews Forest, I reflected upon the amount of damage we as a species have caused to the woodlands of the world and contemplated the very real possibility that we have set the Earth on an invariable course of oblivion through our actions,” composer Nikolai Valov told ArtsWatch. His Three Ruminations Beneath a Forgotten Canopy Concerning The Inevitability of Conflict and Oblivion for alto flute, tam-tams, viola, and contrabass represents Valov’s concerns about global warming and environmental destruction, expressed through a musical journey using abstract textures and nuances.

“Reflecting on my own tendency to experience music as a sequence of sonic textures in the moment as opposed to listening for structural or compositional devices, I composed this piece measure by measure, with the form being a progression through tone colors,” he says.

Susanna Payne-Passmore’s piano duet explores the relationship between decay and new life inspired by the mushrooms on the forest floor. Photo: Susanna Payne-Passmore.

The H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, a 16,000-acre ecological research site in Oregon’s western Cascades Mountains, is a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere site and has some of the tallest trees in the world with heights often greater than 250 feet. The Andrews is engaged in many Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects, and in 2003 added a Long Term Ecological Reflections project intended to last until 2203. It invites writers and other artists to visit the forest “to create an ongoing record of their reflections on the relation of people and forests changing together over time.” Composer Paul Miller a/k/a DJ Spooky performed an original composition created as part of the project in Portland last December. UO student Justin Ralls, originator of Music of the Forest concert, has been an an ongoing composer-in-residence at the Andrews forest and informally charged with engaging the forest through music.

The Music of the Forest concert will be performed Saturday, April 22 at 8 p.m., Aasen-Hull Hall on the University of Oregon campus. Admission: Free. The composers are members of the Oregon Composers Forum.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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