To launch this blog, and to celebrate Earth Day 2021, I am starting a series of posts on the relationship between music and nature, and the role art plays in the fight against the environmental crisis. What are the positive contributions we, as artists, can make?
Whether you are a performer, a composer, an artist from another discipline, a scientist, or a member of the audience, I would love to hear your point of view and your ideas! Please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post a comment below.
My firm belief is that art allows us to develop an emotional understanding of nature. As a composer, when I develop a piece inspired by the natural world, be it a natural phenomenon, a memory of a place, an animal or a plant, I always start with research.
In this preliminary phase, I try to learn as much as I can about the subject of my piece, I analyse other compositions or artworks which engage with a similar theme, and I then lay out short sketches such as melody lines, rhythmic patterns or particular timbres / playing techniques which are inspired by the research.
Through this process, I develop a personal connection to the subject of my piece, I get to know it on a more intimate level. The act of creating and of spending time bonding with a subject deepens my emotional bond to it, and I always consider it to be such a privilege. I am now embarking on this exciting journey again, writing a new piece for solo double bass for James Banner (https://jamesbanner.com/#home), and I will be sharing the exploratory phase of my composition process on this blog, for a more in depth reflection.
But what about the audience? Can listening to a piece of music about nature foster this same deep sense of connection that writing a piece provides? And what about other art forms? My short answer: yes, absolutely! For me, what did it was the movie Free Willy, with an incredible score by Basic Poledouris. I was obsessed with that film as a kid (I still have the giant orca plush toy that my dad brought me from America after a business trip, my son now jumps around with it pretending to swim in the ocean, just like I did for years), and that fostered a life-long obsession with whales and conservation.
There were other influences, of course. Reading French author Bernard Werber's novels as a teenager deepened my perception of animal consciousness and pushed me to become vegetarian at 13. Studying and performing Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie made me experience the sea in a way that is hard to describe into words, but that transformed my compositional language. And later, discovering George Crumb's Vox Balaenae and Dr. Roger Payne's Songs of the Humpback Whale were catalysts in changing the focus of my career as a composer.
Songs of the Humpback Whale in particular is an album which had a strong direct impact on conservation. In 1970, Dr Roger Payne released this album of recordings of humpback whales vocalisations, wanting to share the profound impact that hearing those sounds had had on him. It was the first time the audience was confronted to this, and it became a catalyst for the worldwide Save The Whales movement which led to a moratorium on commercial whaling.
Indeed, it is this same fascination for the structure of humpback whales songs, and how close it is to our own music, even though our two species have such different cultures, which has led me to write music that has nature not only as a source of inspiration, but also at the centre of the creative process.
The first piece in which I truly experimented with that was my 2015 album, The Dragon And The Golden Flower. The structure of humpback whales songs, NASA's Song of Earth from the Voyager Space Sounds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKd1cTeyuMU) and my own experience stepping into the magmatic chamber of the Þríhnúkagígur volcano in Iceland, formed the basis this composition, laying the foundation of the work I have been doing over the past 6 years.
While the album itself was not written to be specifically about any of these topics (it was composed for an exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Art of Turin), through the creative process I was able to share my love and enthusiasm for the natural world with my collaborators, and my hope is that, by listening to it, the audience gets that same sense of awe and wonder that I got from the inspiration behind that music. From the feedback I received, it appears to have been successful!
I am currently experimenting with different approaches to integrate nature in my creative process, and to evaluate the impact it might have on the audience and the performers. One of my ongoing projects for example explores how our tactile perception of sounds and its link to the parent-child bond can improve our emotional understanding of cetaceans - I will write more about this in later posts.
I would love to hear how you approach or experiment music that is inspired by nature. Does the inspiration change the way you compose, perform or listen to a piece?
Please get in touch by email (email@example.com), on social media, or by commenting on this post.
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If you would like to find out more about the fascinating topic of humpback whales song, here is a brief article detailing the structure and composition of these songs: https://whaletrust.org/song-structure-composition/ And for a list of human music inspired by whales, check out this brilliant list by clarinettist, improviser and composer Alex South, whose doctoral research focuses on humpback whales songs: https://alexsouth.org/research-topics/whale-song-in-human-music/