john luther adams

Landscape Music

The environment inspires today’s composers who write music advocating its protection 

By CHRISTINA RUSNAK

Places, and increasingly wild landscapes, are inspiring, even compelling today’s composers to create a diverse array of new music in a wide breadth of styles. From chamber music to inter-media pieces, from major orchestral works to sound art installations, new music is engaging audiences in compelling ways as composers seek to connect with the world around us — not by replicating the sounds of nature, but by interpreting the landscape and expressing it through sound.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Composers Justin Ralls, Nayla Mehdi, and Andrew Stiefel collect soundscape field recordings. Photo: Afield Composers.

Landscape music has lately been a growing part of Oregon’s musical landscape. For example, Third Angle New Music has showcased sounds of nature in recent shows, including last year’s “Afield” concert featuring composers Justin Ralls, Andrew Stiefel and Nayla Mehdi; a 2013 concert featuring Northwest composer John Luther Adams’s Earth and the Great Weather; and another show with Cappella Romana in A Time for Life, University of Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s “environmental oratorio.” Crazy Jane Composers have often featured environmentally oriented works, including an entire “Inner Nature” concert in 2014. Many Cascadia Composers concerts have featured music celebrating the Northwest’s natural beauty. You’ll find plentiful other recent examples in the ArtsWatch archives.

Other works celebrate our national environmental treasures. Stephen Lias’s orchestral work transports me to the gates of the Arctic. I can feel the cold tidal waters through Northwest composer Alex Shapiro’s string quintet, Current Events.  Michael Gordon’s Natural History, premiered in July 2016, immerses us into Crater Lake’s multilayered geological and cultural landscape. On September 14 at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, Eugene composer Justin Ralls will present a reading of Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera that he says explores “a pivotal moment in the history of the American environmental movement.”

Crater Lake, during the July 2016performance of Michael Gordon's "Natural History." Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Crater Lake, during the July 2016 performance of Michael Gordon’s “Natural History.” Photo: Christina Rusnak.

By creating works that look to the diverse landscapes in which we live as a foundation, composers expand our musical palette. Today’s composers are innovative—not merely in musical practice but also in exploring different approaches to new music, by examining the roles in our society, civic engagement, our connection to nature, and in celebration of heritage. They are connecting with audiences in musically new ways.

Perpetual Transition

Our environment — the physical landscape — has influenced musical creation for eons. For centuries, people have orchestrated their lives by the chaotic and transitory nature of the sea, the landscape, and its arteries. The environment is not a merely a rigid, static location, but a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements: buildings, natural spaces, waterways, transportation and commercial systems, and our shared human experiences. Whether we are walking, biking, floating, or driving, the nature of experiencing place is also transitory.

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Oregon Rites of Spring 1: Drums along the Pacific

Powered by percussion, the West Coast's adventurous musical legacy continues in spring Oregon concerts.

New York has long snagged all the attention as the creative center of American music. But a quintessential New Yorker (from The New Yorker, no less) reminded us recently that much of the impulse for American music’s creativity originated right here on the West Coast. As I explained a few years ago, “a little attention to history reveals that many, if not most, of America’s major postwar musical innovations actually originated here on the West Coast and spread east in a kind of reverse migration that energized NYC, rather than vice versa.”

This spring’s and summer Oregon concert seasons have sparkled with new music by West Coast and other American composers. One of those shows established a context that helps explain West Coast music’s trailblazing creativity, and several others revealed how it’s continuing now in 21st century Oregon. Even as the region suffers from historic drought, its musical wellsprings continue to flow abundantly.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

Cascadia Composers percussion concert.

I’ve never seen such a profusion of Oregon music over so long a stretch, so I attended as many concerts as possible (though I missed several that included contemporary Oregon music) to see what this snapshot revealed about contemporary classical music in Oregon 2015. I initially planned to end the survey in April — but the Oregon music just kept pouring forth, as new concerts were announced that also featured works by Oregon composers. That continuing abundance alone is a most welcome sign for anyone who cherishes homegrown music. But it also reveals some neglected areas still in need of exploration.

In this first of a three part series, we’ll look at concerts that perpetuated Harrison and Cage’s West Coast percussion legacy. Part 2 covers concerts that sprinkled Oregon music among sounds that originated elsewhere, and the third installment focuses on concerts devoted to showcasing the work of one Oregon composer, and a wrap up that draws some conclusions based on this rich spring sampling of Oregon contemporary classical music.

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Organist Juergen Essl, composer Jan Jirasek and conductor Yaacov Bergman
take their bows at Friday’s Portland Chamber Orchestra concert.

Composers have always used music to evoke nature and places. Vivaldi’s programmatic “Four Seasons,” Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence,” Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain” are just a few of many famous examples. Recording technology has lately made it possible to conjure up soundscapes, a term coined by Canadian composer Murray Shafer, whose concepts have been extended by the Vancouver based composer Hildegard Westerkamp, as she demonstrated in a memorable Portland concert last spring.

But no composer has been more successful at using sound and music not just to portray place in a sonic way, like a realist painter or photographer, but also to make listeners feel the emotion of being there than John Luther Adams. The Alaska-based composer used to get confused with that other West Coast John (Coolidge) Adams, but in the past decade, he’s won the prominence he’s long deserved for his atmospheric music, which often evokes nature. He’s sort of the Barry Lopez of contemporary music, and it’s no surprise that the two Northwest nature dwellers have collaborated in the past.

Having lived in Alaska for most of his life, Adams certainly qualifies as a Northwest composer, perhaps the greatest alive, and his music shares many of the qualities of other West Coast mavericks in whose tradition he walks, including early influence Harry Partch and his late mentors Portland-born Lou Harrison and Los Angeles composer James Tenney, while also drawing on the experimental sounds of quintessential New Yorker Morton Feldman.

Third Angle and guests perform Earth and the Great Weather.
Via Tom Emerson Photography.

On Friday, Third Angle New Music Ensemble kicked off its new season in the sympathetic space of Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, a supportive soundstage for Adams’s ten movement evocation of Arctic landscapes, “Earth and the Great Weather,” which incorporates recorded sounds of birds, rivers, thunder, an Eskimo narrator and translator, along with strings, singers (some of Oregon’s finest) and lots of percussion, ranging from ethereal to explosive.

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Oregon ArtsWatch Archives