Music of Mother Nature: 5 Works Inspired by the Great Outdoors

Photo by Erin Anderson.

by Maggie Molloy

The Emerald City is famously green—and not just in terms of plant life. Last year Seattle was rated among the top 15 most environmentally sustainable cities in the U.S., and by 2050 we aim to be completely carbon neutral.

This Sunday is Earth Day: a worldwide event dedicated to education and awareness around issues of environmental protection and sustainability. But here in Seattle, every day is Earth Day; every day, we strive to take care of our planet and work toward a sustainable future.

Photo by Erin Anderson.

So in celebration of our beautiful planet—both last weekend and every day—we’re sharing some of our favorite pieces inspired by plants, animals, and the overwhelming magnificence of Mother Nature:

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants

We experience plant life through a variety of senses: sight, taste, touch, smell. But have you ever wondered what plants sound like? Japanese post-minimalist composer Mamoru Fujieda decided to find out.

He spent 15 years of his career creating music based on the electrical activity in living plants. Using a device called a “Plantron,” he measured electrical fluctuations on the surface of plant leaves and converted that data into sound. Fujieda then foraged through the resulting sonic forest for pleasing musical patterns, which he used as the basis for his magnum opus: a bouquet of piano miniatures blooming with ornamented melodies and delicate details.


Meredith Monk: On Behalf of Nature

Meredith Monk likes to think outside the box—the voice box, that is. Famous for her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument and a language in and of itself, her music speaks volumes without ever using words.

Monk’s multidisciplinary performance piece On Behalf of Nature is a wordless poetic meditation on the environment; an exploration of the delicate space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world. The result is an almost ritualistic soundscape of extended vocal techniques dancing above a hypnotic and at times eerie instrumental accompaniment.


John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Just about everything in John Luther Adams’ musical oeuvre qualifies as organic Earth Day ear candy, but we Seattleites are partial to his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Become Ocean, commissioned and premiered by our own Seattle Symphony in 2013.

Inspired by the spectacular waters of the Pacific Northwest and composed in reaction to the imminent threats of global warming, Become Ocean is a literal ocean of sound—a sparkling seascape that immerses the listener in beautiful washes of color. Harmonies ebb and flow with the fluidity of the tide, cresting into bold, climactic waves amid misty and melodic winds.

“As a composer, it’s my belief that music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding,” Adams said. “By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.”


Nat Evans: Coyoteways

Seattle composer Nat Evans spent many a night listening to the lonely howl of the coyote as he hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. So many, in fact, that the animal became the inspiration (along with the writings of Beat poet Gary Snyder) for an album that explores the mythological role of the coyote as a cunning trickster and schemer.

Coyoteways evokes the vast and expansive landscapes of the American West by layering field recordings from Evans’ travels brushed with long, sweeping guitar lines and occasional whispers of saxophone and percussion. The result is an ambient soundscape that echoes with the simple splendor of the great outdoors and the stealthy gaze of the coyotes that watch over it.


Whitney George: Extinction Series

Our planet is currently in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals—the worst wave of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. Composer Whitney George is fighting to change those numbers.

George’s Extinction Series is an ongoing collection of somber and introspective miniatures for various solo instruments, each one composed as a musical obituary to an extinct animal on the rapidly-growing list. The sheer volume of this indeterminate series serves as commentary on mankind’s careless destruction of our planet—and it also poses a direct challenge to Earth’s inhabitants: in order for the series to ever be completed, we must first fundamentally change how we interact with our environment.

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Moments of 2016

2016 was filled with lots of fun on our 24/7 stream, video production studios, & blog, but this year we really focused on getting out in the community. While these digital offerings reach people world-wide, we are grateful to connect with our Seattle-area fans and like-minded folks! Here are our top 5 moments/events/milestones/projects/good times listed in chronological order.

This is the final post in a series of Top 5 of 2016 lists (check out our Top 5 Videos,Top 5 Albums, and Top 5 Blog Features).

February 1, 2016: Co-presenting Brooklyn Rider and Gabriel Kahane at the Tractor Tavern

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When we had the opportunity to team up with Tractor Tavern to co-present Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider, we jumped for joy and hopped aboard. The honky-tonkin’ venue was filled with people from all walks of musical life and a great showcase of how to – as we like to say around here – Rethink Classical. Click here for a review of the performance.


April 9, 2016: Second Inversion Presents: Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with Tamara Power-Drutis

Second Inversion moved up and over to the Eastside to close Classical KING FM’s inaugural concert series On Stage with Classical KING FM at Bellevue’s newest concert hall, RESONANCE at SOMA Towers. The Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet with the inimitable, versatile vocalist Tamara Power-Drutis, transformed popular song into art song, in a program that re-imagined the work of artists such as Radiohead, Beck, Bjork and others as intimate and emotional chamber works born for the recital hall. 

Best of all? Back by popular demand, they’ll be performing again next year on April 15, 2017! Tickets are on sale now.

All photos by Jason Tang.


May 26, 2016: Second Inversion Showcase at the 2016 Northwest Folklife Festival

This spring, we came together to celebrate the sounds of the Pacific Northwest in our 2nd annual Second Inversion Showcase at the Northwest Folklife Festival, which featured performances by the bi-coastal brass quartet The Westerlies, the innovative and always-interactive Skyros Quartet, and the boundary-bursting Sound of Late.

All photos by Maggie Molloy.


July-November: New Music Happy Hours hosted by Second Inversion and the Live Music Project

Second Inversion and the Live Music Project host monthly(ish) Happy Hours at the Queen Anne Beerhall for anyone and everyone with an open mind and a willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue about music and art in Seattle and beyond. Sign up for e-mail alerts to find out when the next one is occurring!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

October 3, 2016: Steve Reich at 80

reichat80Second Inversion celebrated Steve Reich’s birthday in huge style with a 24 hour marathon of his music on our stream. Our staff and over a dozen community members joined in the fun by contributing recorded introductions to their favorite Reich pieces and by writing mini-reviews. We have more 24 hour marathons planned for 2017, birthday and non-birthday related!

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Blog Features of 2016

2016 was a great year for new blog series and features here at Second Inversion dot org. From unusual instruments to concerts in national parks, our music journalists covered the region far and wide!

#5: New Music Concert Flyers

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Each month in 2016, Second Inversion and the Live Music Project created a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between. We gave copies to all of the listed groups to distribute to their audiences to help spread the word about similar concerts. It’s been incredibly rewarding to bring unity and support to our vibrant community!


#4: Music in the American Wild

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In August 2016, we took an in-depth look at an exciting project that came to Washington’s national parks in honor of the National Parks Service’s centennial: Music in the American Wild. The touring ensemble performed works commissioned by eleven composers, all Eastman graduates and affiliates. Second Inversion’s Seth Tompkins covered the Washington leg of the tour in three blog posts.


#3: Anatomy of a Prepared Piano for John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

The avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage liked to think outside the box—the toolbox, that is. In 1940, he invented the prepared piano: a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects such as screws and bolts in between the strings. His magnum opus for the instrument was the Sonatas and Interludes, a collection of 20 pieces clocking in at over an hour in length. This spring, Seattle-based pianist Jesse Myers performed the work in its entirety and Maggie Molloy went behind the scenes to see what (literally) goes into the piano!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.


#2: Women in (New) Music 

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This year Second Inversion launched Women in (New) Musican ongoing exploration into the past, present, and future of feminism in classical music. This multimedia series will highlight feminist issues within and beyond the classical music sphere, inviting female-identifying musicians, artists, and writers from all areas of the field to share their own experiences. Our posts so far have included a timeline of female composers, Q&As with composers and performers, studies on females in the classroom, and more!


#1: Virtual Tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium

Harry Partch was a pioneer of new music. He was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his musical texts and corporeal theatre works. Over 50 of his handmade instruments are housed in The Harry Partch Instrumentarium, currently in residence at the University of Washington and we presented a virtual tour of the instruments by Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Album Reviews of 2016

You can count on Second Inversion for Album Reviews of the latest and greatest new releases. These are the top 5 most popular reviews of 2016!

#5: Jessie Montgomery: Strum (Azica)

download-26The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry, and politics, crafting a unique and insightful newmusic perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history. And while this album may just be the beginning for Montgomery, “Strum” certainly echoes with possibility. – Maggie Molloy


#4: Northwestern University Cello Ensemble: Shadow, Echo, Memory (Sono Luminus)

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As the album continues onward from the Rachmaninov through the Mahler, it becomes clear that the Ensemble has achieved their purported goal of using the cello to express textures of dark and light, bring to life sounds and images from another time, and finally to aid listeners in revisiting their own histories. It does indeed provide a fascinating, haunting individual experience to those who are up for a little soul-searching. – Brendan Howe


#3: Contact: Discreet Music by Brian Eno (Cantaloupe Music)

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As performers, Contact makes the music their own—and as listeners, so do we. With precision, patience, and the utmost reverence, Contact recreates Eno’s ambient masterwork as an echo chamber of circling motives and mismatched musical textures. Each ripple of the repetitious melody is a perfectly crafted piece of the larger pattern, a discreet but unique little gem in and of itself. – Maggie Molloy


#2: Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Mason Bates’ Mothership (BMOP/Sound)

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Part of what makes this music great is its versatility: it’s at home in so many different settings, from the venerated orchestral concert hall, to the sweaty dance club, to your living room on a Tuesday night. – Geoffrey Larson


#1: Pink Floyd: “Wish You Were Here” Symphonic featuring Alice Cooper with the London Orion Orchestra (Decca)

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Fans of Pink Floyd will definitely enjoy the musical fantasia of Wish You Were Here Symphonic.  Those who are less familiar with Pink Floyd will also find a lot to love in this recording.  You listen to this album for the symphonic arrangements and in every way they deliver.

This was Smith’s first go at producing an album by himself and I’d call it a great success.  I hope to hear symphonic versions of Pink Floyd’s other classics in the future.  Hint hint, Pete Smith.  Tell us, where will you go from Here? – Rachele Hales

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Videos of 2016

Second Inversion is proud to produce video sessions in our studios and in beautiful venues around Seattle. You can peruse them all on our video page, but here are the top 5 viewed in 2016!

#5: Andy Akiho: in/exchange for string quartet and steel pan (featuring Friction Quartet)

#4: John Cage: Living Room Music (featuring So Percussion)

#3: Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint (featuring Rose Bellini, cello)

#2: Gabriel Kahane: Bradbury (304 Broadway) from “The Ambassador” (featuring Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider)

#1: Steve Reich: New York Counterpoint (featuring Rachel Yoder, clarinet)

Stay tuned for more great videos to come in 2017!