In times of chaos and uncertainty, music can help us find solace, comfort, and clarity.
On this week’s episode of Second Inversion, we’re exploring quiet and introspective sounds from our own backyard and around the globe. From gong vibrations to moonlit meditations, we’ll hear music that invites us to slow down, center ourselves, and just listen deeply.
From ocean to desert, forest to tundra, composers have always found music in nature. The rhythm of waves, the rustling of leaves, the song of the mountain—or the colors of the wind.
On this Saturday’s episode of Second Inversion, we’ll explore music of the great outdoors. We’ll hear the pulse of the Amazon River, a duet with the Moab Desert, field recordings from the Pacific Crest Trail, and even music made from living plants.
“I wish I could live in India and America at the same time,” says Reena Esmail, the daughter of Indian immigrants who has become one of the most respected young composers in the United States; “I wish they shared a border, and I could build a little home right in between them. I know I can’t do that in the physical world, but this is where I live every day in my music.”
Esmail’s compositions straddle two of the world’s most sophisticated musical traditions. On one side is the art music of Europe and its system of tonal harmony that developed over the last 400-plus years, and on the other, Hindustani classical music from North India, organized around collections of tones known as raags that go back many centuries further. Studies at the Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music grounded Esmail in the practices of the West’s classical music, including its precise system of notation that allows performers of any background to interpret unfamiliar nuances. As a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar, she was able to spend a year in India studying the classical music of her ancestors, absorbing the oral tradition built on complex patterns and pitches that often can’t be categorized within Western norms.
Writing a Piano Trio has fulfilled one of Esmail’s oldest ambitions as a musician. Growing up as a talented pianist, trios with violin and cello were her favorite form of chamber music, and she won a life-changing competition that resulted in her performing Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She also counts Ravel’s Piano Trio as an all-time favorite work, noting, “So much of what I’ve learned about color and texture in my writing comes from Ravel.” After three years of work and a pile of sketches that is up to 300 pages and counting (with less that three weeks to go before the premiere), Esmail is still polishing off this substantial score that reckons with the rigorous tradition of the four-movement piano trio.
Authentic raags appear
in each movement of the trio, including the monsoon season raag known
as Megh that informs a chorale from the strings and other
gestures in the first movement. In a tempo marked “Ephemeral,” the smooth modal
phrases and long slurs highlight Esmail’s affinity with Ravel, who also looked
outside the Western canon to expand his shimmering soundscapes. Flutters,
slides and harmonics continue in the slow movement, creating a sense of
improvisatory freedom while the music slips in and out of time.
casting the quivering third movement as a scherzo, Esmail acknowledges her debt
to Mendelssohn (the king of those elfin, lighter-than-air diversions), but
moments of manic hilarity and sheer muscle recall a more subversive master of
the piano trio, Shostakovich. In the finale, a singing string melody supported
by “luminous” piano filigree surges to a droning climax marked “powerful,
broad, intense.” When the unhurried ending arrives with glimmering harmonics
and crystalline chords, this work completes an arc that places it squarely
within the storied lineage of the “classical” piano trio—while making it clear
just how irrelevant such boundaries truly are.
Today 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.
So in celebration of our beautiful planet—both today and every day—we’re sharing some of our favorite pieces inspired by plants, animals, and the overwhelming magnificence of 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 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 itssixth mass extinctionof 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.
It’s easy to get lost in the immersive sonic landscapes of John Luther Adams. From forest to tundra, ocean to desert, he has a way of evoking the sights and sounds of the natural world in shimmering detail.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, this Saturday’s episode of Second Inversion is dedicated to one of his most sublime and expansive works: Become Ocean. Get lost in the waves as we hear a full performance of this Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by our own Seattle Symphony—plus, an interview with the composer himself. He talks with us about the intersections of art and environmental activism, the influence of the Alaskan landscape, and the musical precursors to Become Ocean.