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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”