Music in the American Wild: Looking to the Future

by Seth Tompkins

This is the final installment in a series covering Music in the American Wild. Our earlier posts include a series preview and concert review.


Music in the American Wild at Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Following the completion of the Music in the American Wild tour in celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, I took some time to consider the state of the interaction between music, the parks, and wild places in general. Inspiringly, there are many projects happening now that explore this terrain. The interaction of wild spaces and music is a topic which many people both in the United States and around the world are eager to explore.

In addition to Music in the American Wild, another group recently completed an entirely separate tour that brought new music to the national parks in celebration of the centennial. The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble‘s tour visited Badlands, Wind Cave, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks. This tour concluded on July 9, 2016. They also commissioned new music for the centennial, presenting eight new works alongside three previously commissioned works from a 2014 tour of national parks of the Southwest.

David Biedenbender‘s Red Vesper, a commission from the 2014 tour

Also like Music in the American Wild, the GVSU tour was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The fact that there were at least two separate new music ensembles touring the national parks and celebrating the centennial with newly commissioned works is outstanding! However, beyond recognizing projects like these, we must address the deeper meaning of what they are trying to accomplish. The effect of music in wild places is defined by two axes: the interaction of music and venue, and the content of the music itself.

When we consider music in the context of wild places, there is a spectrum of ways in which music and location interact. At the most basic, some projects are little more than outdoor concerts, with music (usually) written for indoor spaces presented outdoors. Moving further along the spectrum, some outdoor concerts include music that was written with the outdoors in mind, inspired by the outdoors, or even specifically written to be performed outdoors. Some projects go a bit further and curate music for the specific space in which it will be performed, whether written with outdoor performance in mind or not. Further along are projects that include music written specifically for the outdoors, sometimes combined with aforementioned curation of music for specific venues. Finally, there are other projects written for exactly the specific outdoor venue (and sometimes, time) at which they are performed.


Heart o’ the Hills Campground. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Music in the American Wild falls squarely in the middle of this spectrum, with a robust, if not completely essential, connection to their specific performance locations. The music that they presented was certainly written with the outdoors in mind and was designed to be performed outdoors (indoors, too, I suspect). However, not all of their pieces were designed for or inspired by specific places, and not all of their pieces took an apparent interest in interacting with the location in which they were to be performed. The group did, however, take the care to specially curate the programs of each of their performances so that the music they offered complemented each different performance space. The project was successful, to be sure, but the interaction of music with wild spaces shouldn’t be limited to the form it took in Music in the American Wild.


Music in the American Wild in the Hoh Rain Forest. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Consider a piece like John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, in which the music intentionally acts like an assistive device, helping the audience experience the performance location in a new way. The music is not written for any specific outdoor space, but is intended to be performed outdoors and to deepen the experience of the space. This overtly intentional interaction between music and outdoor performance spaces illustrates one way concepts from Music in the American Wild and similar projects could be extended.


Inuksuit was performed in Seattle in September, 2015. Photo Credit: Melanie Voytovich

Another piece that illustrates how music and location can be even more deeply connected is Michael Gordon’s collaborative piece Natural History, which was premiered on July 29, 2016 at Crater Lake in Oregon and commissioned by the Britt Music and Arts Festival. This piece was written specifically to be performed at Crater Lake, making both location and music essential to the project. Further, Natural History’s collaborative nature extends its connection to the performance location; the piece involved local musicians, especially focusing on performers from the Klamath Tribes, for whom Crater Lake has always been a special spiritual place.


Crater Lake. Photo Credit: Britt Festivals

The totality of connections to place in Natural History invites consideration of the role of content in projects that include the interaction of music and wild spaces. Natural History was conceived with a keen awareness of Native American issues and culture. Other pieces, like many of John Luther Adams’ works, are centered on the issues of climate change and ecology. Pieces like these, which openly confront and explore the serious issues facing our wild spaces, are leading the way as musicians become more interested in and adept at exploring the intersection of music and nature.

On this front, one piece from Music in the American Wild’s set list deserves special recognition. Aaron Travers’ piece Sanctuary, inspired by the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year,  takes a clear-eyed look at a difficult issue that is relevant to modern audiences.

Perhaps, as time moves on, more projects like Music in the American Wild will delve even deeper in search of connections to place. Maybe they will attempt to explore some of the modern challenges surrounding our national parks and wild spaces. The issues of conservation, Native American history, and land use are as relevant now as they have ever been. Exploring these sometimes-unpleasant facets of our National Parks and wild places is good for everyone involved; musicians get to participate in relevant modern conversation on topics that truly matter, and the public gets a new set of tools with which to connect with wilderness and consider the issues.


American Camp at San Juan National Historical Park. Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

I have immensely enjoyed covering the Music in the American Wild ensemble this year. I would like to thank them for all of their hard work and their openness in presenting these enjoyable concerts, and for visiting the beautiful (and sometimes overlooked) National Parks of Washington. They deserve praise for contributing to the movement to connect music with our national parks and wild places. Projects like this not only bring music to new and exciting places, they deepen the public’s awareness of wild places and can foster much-needed conversations on the issues surrounding them. I sincerely hope that the project continues into the future and grows even broader in scope. Until next time, I suggest we all go “take a hike!”


Seth Tompkins, mid-hike.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Music in the American Wild

by Seth Tompkins

Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

You may be aware that this year is the centennial anniversary of “America’s best idea,” the national park system. Created in 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) currently manages 411 sites in the United States and its territories. The national parks themselves, however, predate the NPS, with Yellowstone (the world’s first national park) being founded in 1872, and the land that would become Yosemite National Park being set aside for protection even earlier, in 1864. But, this August, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service itself, which not only protects and manages the parks, monuments, shorelines, historical areas, and myriad other sites in its care, but also serves to makes these sites accessible to the public.

If you are in need to a way to celebrate, check out the NPS’s centennial page. Or better yet, attend one of the upcoming concerts in Washington state by Music in the American Wild! And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like.

Music in the American Wild is the brainchild of Emlyn Johnson and 17 of her colleagues, all of whom have a connection to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. This project started with a group of musicians hiking. While hiking at Letchworth State Park in upstate New York (which is awesome, BTW), this group of musicians found themselves with a desire to play music, but they were tragically devoid of instruments. Regretting the oversight, the group began thinking of a way to connect their passion for the outdoors with their love for (and vocation of) classical music. The end result of that thought process is Music in the American Wild.


Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

This year, Music in the American Wild has been touring the country, playing fresh new music in national parks.  The music they are performing is all new, and has been written specifically for this celebratory tour. Some of the pieces, in fact, have been performed in the very locations that inspired them, such as Chris Chandler’s The View From Here. This piece was inspired by the Big Meadows location inside Shenandoah National Park, and was recorded there in June of this yearClick here to learn more about the composers featured on the tour.

So far, Music in the American Wild has performed on tour in several of the high-profile national parks in the Eastern U.S., including Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, and Shenandoah, with additional performances at the Smithsonian, The Theatre in Washington, Virginia, and at the Locust Grove Historical Landmark in Louisville, Kentucky. Some of these concerts have occurred in unique venues, including underground in “The Rotunda” at Mammoth cave National Park!

Video highlights from the eastern portion of the tour

Now that their eastern tour is complete, Music in the American Wild is coming to the Northwest!  This month, the ensemble will perform at North Cascades National Park, Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainier, National Park, and San Juan Island Historical Park. If you’re in the Northwest, attending one of these concerts in the national park setting for which it was intended is highly recommended. Check out their tour dates for dates and details.  However, if you cannot make it out of town, the ensemble will be playing a preview concert at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, Seattle on Saturday, August 6 at 8pm (tickets $5-$15).

Second Inversion will be in the house at one or more of the Mt. Rainier shows (August 12-14), experiencing this music in its “natural” environment. Stay tuned for a review of that performance, and then for a wrap up of the project. In the meantime, check out the Music in the American Wild website to learn more about the project, or go further and support their Northwest tour on Kickstarter!  In any case, with this fresh new music happening in the parks, attending one these upcoming shows is a perfect excuse to get out there and soak in the majesty of “America’s best idea.”


Photo Credit: Geoff Sheil

Stay tuned for two more blog installments by Seth Tompkins related to Music in the American Wild, including a review of their performances in Mt. Rainier National Park and an overall reflection on the omnipresent relationship between music and nature.