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.

Last Saturday was 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.

Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival

by Maggie Molloy

The Fourth of July is almost upon us, and you know what that means: parades, picnics, and barbeques abound! And while hot dogs, fireworks, and flag-covered clothing are a (somewhat) relevant expression of American independence, our county has a whole lot more than just cured meats and corny t-shirts to be proud of.

Tuning Up!Which is why this summer, the Seattle Symphony is turning off the barbeque and turning up the music with Tuning Up!: a two-week festival celebrating American musical creativity in the 20th and 21st century. This star-spangled celebration features nine concerts which traverse America’s vast musical landscape, from jazz to Broadway, avant-garde to minimalism, classics to Hollywood, and much more.

So whether you crave the jazzy grooves of George Gershwin or the swinging blues of Duke Ellington, you can hear it all during the Tuning Up! Festival. Maybe you prefer the massive soundscapes of John Luther Adams, the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass, or the movie magic of John Williams—the festival has all that too!

Suffice it to say, Second Inversion is all over this festival. Come visit us at the KING FM table in the lobby at the following events for music, magnets, and other free swag!


Stage & Screen: From Appalachian Spring to the Red Violin
Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.

From stage to screen to concert hall, these giants of American music transcended borders and paved the way for generations to come. Among them is Florence Beatrice Price: the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. The Seattle Symphony pays tribute with a rousing orchestral rendition of her ragtime classic, Dances in the Canebrakes. Plus, dancers take to the stage alongside the Symphony for a performance of Aaron Copland’s famous folk-inspired and Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring.

The program also features Leonard Bernstein’s elegant Divertimento for Orchestra, poignant movie music from Schindler’s List and The Red Violin, and a heartwarming tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch who, among his many accomplishments in music, served as the Principal Pops Conductor at the Seattle Symphony from 2008 until his death in 2012.


The Light that Fills the World: A Meditation in Sound & Light
Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m.

In the face of trauma and political turmoil around the world, Seattle Symphony offers an intimate meditation in sound and silence, light and dark. Julia Wolfe’s My Beautiful Scream, written after the events of 9/11, opens the program with a slow-building and softly illuminating agony. What follows is utter silence: John Cage’s famous 4’33”.

The program also features Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams’ immersive, Arctic-inspired soundscape The Light That Fills the World, the delicate breath of Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and Philip Glass’ scientific salute, The Light.

Plus, the Symphony invites you to submit your own Glass-inspired photographs to be featured during the performance. Deadline for submissions is this Friday, June 24.


In the White Silence: John Luther Adams’ Alaskan Landscapes
Friday, July 1 at 10 p.m.

To say that composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams is inspired by nature would be a bit of an understatement. He spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods, creating large-scale soundscapes which blur the line between nature and man-made instruments.

In 2013, the Seattle Symphony commissioned and premiered John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a 42-minute meditation for large orchestra which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.John Luther Adams

And now, during this special late-night concert, the Symphony revisits one of Adams’ earlier explorations into sonic geography: the 75-minute soundscape In the White Silence. The piece unfolds slowly and patiently, translating the vast horizons of the frozen far north into a musical landscape of clean, radiant harmony and subtle transformation.


Looking for more in American music? Check out the Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival Map below:

Tuning Up! Visual Guide

Gratitude

by Joshua Roman

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I write this as I sit in a very comfortable business/first seat on a flight from Asia back home to New York City, reflecting on my visit to Seoul. One of my close friends had his wedding there, and I was fortunate enough to be free and able to be with him and his new wife for this important occasion. We spent some amazing time together in the city, and I got to play at his wedding, on a cello made by his father. The flight upgrade is happily a result of my frequent flier status, which makes a big difference on such trips.
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Music has a powerful effect in the world. It’s all around us every day, whether we choose it or not. We use music during gatherings of all kinds to create a unified spirit or deepen bonds, music pervades the other forms of entertainment to enhance desired emotional effects, and we have special occasions (concerts) where music is the centerpiece. Music is not only about community, these days most people have their own  collection of music that they can tap into depending on their mood or activity. You can take this even further through music therapy, and other forms of healing both mental and emotional. It’s also used to influence us to purchase certain products, to attract us to a location or entice us to stay longer – even sometimes to drive us away.

I listen to a lot of music. Often, I listen in a kind of work capacity – finding new artists and composers, researching styles and genres, programming concerts, checking out recommendations, etc. Of course, it doesn’t usually feel like work, I love listening to music. I also use music as a way to relax, focus, become energized, and have a kind of spiritual experience. There have been occasions when the power of music has transcended anything I could have said or done, often when I’m listening, and sometimes as a performer as well. I get to work through thoughts and feelings in a way that feels even more direct than words. Most recently I was able to do this on a large scale through the writing of my cello concerto. In the past there have been instances where I’ve turned to music when alone to help me face dark thoughts, and find a safe release valve.

How does this relate to gratitude? The role of music in our lives is undeniably present, and can manifest in any number of ways. I’m so incredibly grateful that my life is very connected to music every day. There are so many wonderful people in my life who I know through music making. Obviously this includes my musician friends, but it goes far beyond that – people who support what we do, audience members who have become close friends, and connections through communities like TED that have come about because of the cello. The breadth of connections in my life that stem from music is overwhelming, and in some instances I believe the depth goes beyond what is possible without this abstract yet binding force. Because I make my living through music, I’m also grateful for being able to eat (that’s a big one), to live in New York, and to travel throughout the world (I’ve played on six continents so far).

The list of reasons to be grateful for music in my life could go on and on, and very quickly I begin to feel responsibility to give back. Strictly artistically speaking, I take this very seriously. It’s one of the reasons I’ve become so passionate about new music, and dedicated to encouraging unique musical voices. Music can be so powerful, so relevant, so meaningful, but I don’t think it is ever more so than when a musician is able to reach deep within and bring something personal to the table. Hopefully I can share this passion through the quality of my performances, the content of my programming, the musicians and other artists with whom I share the stage, the music that I write, and other platforms including this blog. I can also strive to give back on a personal level to those around me, and use the resources that have come my way through music to do things like fly to Korea to be there for my friend on his wedding day.

It’s been a big few years, I’ve added a lot of artistic endeavors to my plate. At times it’s been confusing, but I’m beginning to gain clarity and focus. Now is the time for me to show my gratitude by honing in on the path in front of me and committing to developing a kind of rhythm and consistency with the projects I take on.

How are you grateful for music in your life? How are you inspired to give back? Please share your stories in the comment section below, whether they’re specific moments or general practices.

Currently listening to…
Seattle Symphony: Become Ocean
Ayub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez: Rite of Spring

ALBUM REVIEW: Ilimaq by John Luther Adams ft. Glenn Kotche

by Maggie Molloy

What do you get when you cross a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and environmentalist with one of the 40 greatest rock drummers of all time? A 50-minute electroacoustic Inuit-inspired meditation on spirituality and sound, as it turns out.

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John Luther Adams and Glenn Kotche, courtesy Cantaloupe Music

John Luther Adams first rose to contemporary classical fame with his 2013 orchestral composition “Become Ocean,” commissioned and recorded by our very own Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The composition is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts.

The surround-sound recording of “Become Ocean” debuted at number one on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Not bad for a little-known recluse who spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods.

Throughout his career, Adams’ music has been inspired by Alaskan landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he recently left Alaska to move to New York, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature.

His latest recording, titled “Ilimaq,” takes its title from the Inuit word for “spiritual journey”—and the composition is nothing short of one. It is a 50-minute metaphysical meditation on the power of nature, and it’s led by the most primordial of all instruments: drums.

“In Inuit tradition the shaman rides the sound of the drum to and from the spirit world.” Adams writes. “In ‘Ilimaq’ the drummer leads us on a journey through soundscapes drawn from the natural world and from the inner resonances of the instruments themselves.”

Scored for solo drum kit and electronic accompaniment, “Ilimaq” features the passion and precision of one of the most skillful drummers of all time: Glenn Kotche (you may recognize him as the drummer from the twangy alt-rock band Wilco). Back in 2008, Kotche personally contacted Adams, as he had been a fan of his music for years and was interested in collaborating.

“My own musical journey began with rock drumming,” Adams said of his decision to work with Kotche. “And all these years later, in Glenn Kotche, I’ve found the drummer I always imagined I could be.”

The five-part piece features three different “stations” of percussion instruments (all played by Kotche), the drama of which are heightened by ambient electroacoustic accompaniment, field recordings of nature, and live-electronic processing of Kotche’s playing. And while each of the five parts certainly have their own distinct character and timbral palette, each flows seamlessly into the next to create a cohesive narrative—a spiritual journey.

It all begins with a “Descent” into a mesmerizing trance. The 16-minute introduction envelops the listener in an entire earthquake of sound—organic and intimate, yet massive in scope. The rolling bass drum hurls forward and backward restlessly as ambient electronics ebb and flow in response to its rippling sound waves.

And as the introduction comes to a close, the sounds of trickling water float straight into part two of the composition: “Under the Ice.” The heavy drumming dissolves into a meditative blend of field recordings, electronics, and delicate cymbal work, and Kotche begins exploring the beauty and breadth of textures in the Inuit-inspired Arctic soundscape. Circling sound waves and hypnotic echoes softly color the scene, and gentle whistles punctuate an otherwise smooth and liquid soundscape.

Once the listener is completely submerged, part three begins: “The Sunken Gamelan.” As if in a dream, harmonic colors blend together and apart in a wash of sound, creating a gorgeous percussion orchestra ringing out underwater.

It’s the calm before the storm that is part four: “Untune the Sky.” Kotche’s expanded drum set becomes the rain, the wind, the waves, and the stormy clouds all at once in this visceral climax. The scene is dramatic and dissonant, spiritual and sacred—ritualistic even. Steadily building in passion and ferocity, Kotche’s virtuosic playing reaches a violent peak before quieting down into the end of “Ilimaq.”

The thrashing subsides and in the final “Ascension,” ethereal high-pitched drones glide back and forth like spirits whispering to one another across the shimmering starlight. And as the spiritual journey comes to a close, the music evaporates into the sky above until all we have left is a beautiful and transformative silence.

ALBUM REVIEW REVUE: A Look Back at the Year

Last June, we began reviewing albums on a weekly basis and we’re thrilled to celebrate a year’s worth of awesome content at Second Inversion! We’re celebrating by announcing the top 5 reviews. Let the countdown begin!

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5. A Far Cry: Dreams and Prayers 

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“When really, really good musicians get together to play music, something magical happens. Some of the best performances in history have been called divine or heavenly. No matter their faith (or lack thereof), those who appreciate music can agree there’s something otherworldly about an amazing performance or recording.”

4. The Knights: the ground beneath our feet

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“If the ground beneath our feet has indeed disappeared in parts of this album, that’s okay: outer space sure sounds pretty good to me.”

3. Christopher Bono: BARDO

artworks-000084435571-j3jfsp-t200x200“When I had this album playing at home, several friends commented on how “epic” it felt.  And that’s true.  If you didn’t read the liner notes or have any frame of reference for Bono’s inspiration, it could totally sound like the soundtrack for an amazing RPG or fantasy film.  Played straight through it is like a saga told in sound and the fact that you may not know the details doesn’t stop you from connecting to, understanding, and enjoying it.”

2. John Luther Adams: Become Ocean 

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“As for the recording?  The ideal scenario for the listener in a performance of this piece is to be surrounded by the orchestra and furthermore have the opportunity to move around within the physical space, if desired.  Listening to this recording in surround sound is the next best thing!  Adams told me, ‘In making this recording we took special care to mix in stereo much of the time, so that the experience of hearing this music in stereo is as vivid as possible and gives you a sense of being immersed.'”

1. Ólafur Arnalds: The Chopin Project

download (8)“…It’s just one glorious, delicate piece after another. From the gentle shoosh-shoosh in “Reminiscence” (during which there’s a point where you can even hear a performer taking in breath) to the distant chatter and rainfall heard in “Nocturne in G Minor,” the recordings make the listener feel close to the piano – in the same room, even – and so very close to the music. Several tracks use Chopin as a jumping off point, which turns the album as a whole into a dreamlike story arc you wish would never end.”

Huge thanks go out to our staff and interns for their writing: Maggie Molloy, Jill Kimball, Rachele Hales, Seth Tompkins, and Maggie Stapleton.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (Seattle Symphony & Ludovic Morlot)

by Maggie Stapleton

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The timing of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean Pulitzer Prize announcement in conjunction with the Seattle Symphony’s trip to Carnegie Hall during Spring for Music 2014 to perform that very piece was unbelievably perfect.  Ever since, it’s been a ride of pride and celebration for John Luther Adams, Ludovic Morlot, and the Seattle Symphony.

Cantaloupe records releases a beautifully mastered recording on September 30, 2014 of Become Ocean, recorded at Benaroya Hall and mastered in NYC.  It’s a musical commemorative token of the journey and relationship fostered between all involved.

Seattle Symphony gave the world premiere of this piece in June 2013 at Benaroya Hall with a supporting art installation at Seattle Art Museum featuring Adams’ Veils and Vesper.  Adams was unable to attend the premiere due to a medical emergency, but when he heard one of the concert recordings he was “thrilled because it sounded exactly like I imagined it would.  I’m a perfectionist and chronic reviser, always tinkering with pieces and always critical of performances, but the orchestra played it flawlessly.  That just doesn’t happen with a world premiere of a piece.  I think that just speaks to what a perfect musical partnership that was, what a great orchestra you have there in Seattle, and what an extraordinary Music Director.”

The admiration continued when he heard Become Ocean live for the first time in Carnegie Hall, nearly a year after its premiere.  “People are looking to Seattle as a model for the new orchestra, for what the symphony orchestra might be in the 21st century and how it might not just survive but thrive and expand the arts world.  I was balled over by the sense of commitment and joy coming from that orchestra.  These are professional musicians, veteran orchestral musicians who love music and are in no way jaded.”

As for the recording?  The ideal scenario for the listener in a performance of this piece is to be surrounded by the orchestra and furthermore have the opportunity to move around within the physical space, if desired.  Listening to this recording in surround sound is the next best thing!  Adams told me, “In making this recording we took special care to mix in stereo much of the time, so that the experience of hearing this music in stereo is as vivid as possible and gives you a sense of being immersed.”

The title “Become Ocean” comes from the end of a poem written by John Cage in memory of Lou Harrison (below).  While this piece is not specifically a direct homage to either composer, John says, “It would be disingenuous of me to say they were not huge influences on my life and my life’s works.  I have no idea as to where I would be without John Cage, Lou Harrison, as incredible role models and their incredible music.  So in a way, everything that I do is some kind of tribute to Lou and John.”

first the quaLity
Of
yoUr music
tHen
its quAntity
and vaRiety
make it Resemble
a rIver in delta
liStening to it
we becOme
oceaN

As if there wasn’t already enough good will shared in this post – there’s more.  This recording project was successfully funded with a Pledge Music campaign and 5% of those proceeds go directly to the Ocean Conservancy.  How’d that come about? “I’m a hardcore environmentalist!” John says.  He is an activist going back to the mid-1970s for the Alaska Coalition and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.  These types of issues are at the core of his life.  It only seemed appropriate that they might give a little bit back to one of the many organizations trying to clean up and preserve the oceans.

Cheers to the Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, & Cantaloupe Records!