Dating back to the Late Stone Age, the conch shell was among the earliest musical instruments—and while wind instruments have grown and transformed a lot over the course of the last 20,000 years, they have always had maintained an intimate connection with nature. Throughout history, composers have used the rich tone color of wind instruments to imitate the chirping of the birds, the spraying of the sea, or the rising of the sun.
Even today, contemporary musicians are finding new ways to explore this unique musical relationship between wind instruments and nature—in fact, the contemporary wind quintet City of Tomorrow devoted their entire debut album to doing just that.
Comprised of flutist Elise Blatchford, oboist Stuart Breczinski, clarinetist Camila Barrientos, bassoonist Laura Miller, and horn player Leander Star, City of Tomorrow is committed to much more than just music. The one-of-a-kind quintet merges elements of contemporary classical and experimental music with themes of environmentalism and humanism. Through their music they offer new perspectives on current social and political issues ranging from environmental destruction and war to the everyday injustices of living in the Digital Age.
Their new album, titled “NATURE,” explores the evolution of humanity’s relationship with nature through works by four contemporary composers. The album considers nature through the lens of 18th- and 19th-century Romantic ideas of the Sublime: the overwhelming brilliance of the natural world surrounding us and our inexorable vulnerability in its presence. The album also serves as the first installment of a three-disc set that will musically trace the progression of nature from the Romantic era to the apocalyptic.
The first piece on the album is David Lang’s “breathless,” a work which illustrates the ceaseless flow of nature through delicately circling motives in each instrument. The soundscape moves slowly and steadily forward with a minimalist aesthetic, each wind instrument gently layered over one another in prismatic, ever-changing rhythmic patterns.
Next on the album is Luciano Berio’s “Ricorrenze.” Italian for “recurrences,” the piece explores the delicate balance between order and chaos in nature. The work begins with soft, unison D’s in every instrument before growing into swirling layers of virtuosic melodic lines. The dazzlingly diverse range of tone colors makes the piece’s connection to nature palpable—in fact, Berio himself compared the quintet to a seed being sown and gradually maturing into a plant bearing vibrant fruit.
City of Tomorrow jazzes things up with their performance of “…a certain chinese cyclopaedia…” by Denys Bouliane. Inspired by a fantastical encyclopedia of real and imaginary animals depicted in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the piece crafts a musical taxonomy cataloguing the infinite variations of bebop. The piece is a colorful collage of frenetic melodic fragments which offer an abstract interpretation of the evolution of bebop jazz.
The concluding work on the album is “Music for Breathing” by Nat Evans, a piece which is rooted in traditionally Eastern understandings of nature. The piece crafts an organic, often meditative illustration of the natural world through guided improvisation, solo spotlights, extended techniques, and even the use of conch shells and stones. Inspired by the rituals of the Yamabushi Buddhists, the piece at times blurs the line between musical instruments made by man and musical instruments found in nature.
Each piece on “NATURE” is its own exquisite flower, a beautifully unique impression of nature’s rich tone colors and ever-changing musical textures. And City of Tomorrow breathes new life into each work through their imaginative musical interpretation, skilled rhythmic precision, colorful tonal palette, and above all, their unparalleled artistic ambition.
This is one wind quintet that is sure to leave you breathless.