How do music and nature connect in your work? Robert Morris



Robert Morris

My Music and the Outdoors

As a child I always enjoyed walking outdoors in natural settings such as forests and parks, but in the 1990s I developed a passion for hiking. I’ve especially enjoyed walking in the deserts of the Southwest, in Arizona and Utah. The experience has had an important effect on the way I think about my music; it revealed a theme hitherto which I was only dimly aware. Even so, the image of the hike as a non-teleological metaphor for the experience of a piece of music, my music, was apparent to me when I defended my doctoral dissertation in 1969. I’ve also used the concept of a garden—a composed place but without privileged paths or areas—as an analogy to pieces in which compositional detail is used not simply to guide the listener (or program his/her experience) to a “successful resolution,” but to make a piece that rewards its listeners’ active participation in its musical parts and processes.

But it was only in 1989 that I woke up to a direct connection between music and the outdoors, a connection Bartók and Beethoven must have felt. The result was a piano piece, Terrane, the title of which denotes geological formation(s) in distinction to terrain, an area of land.

Here are some lines from my program notes to the piece.

In the summer of 1989 my wife and I took a vacation in the Southwest United States. This trip affected me greatly; the moment we would leave the cities, an inexplicable joy would surge up in me—as if I had returned home after many years of privation. After a few days, I began to notice that the angular, rugged landscapes of northern Arizona and Utah seemed a perfect reflection of my musical sensibility; I felt I had found the physical nexus for the expressive content of my music. The kinds of motions and forms I had been “composing” in(to) my music were all around me.

When we returned home to Rochester, New York, I was filled with new musical ideas and immediately began work on Terrane. I wanted to portray the morphology of the mountains, canyons, bluffs, rivers, deserts in a piece, not to capture any feeling of “grandeur” or “immensity” but rather to suggest a strange mix of danger, peace, loneliness, inconvenience, perfection, and focus that Arizona and Utah had amplified in me.

Many months after finishing the piece, I came across the following quotation from a collection of essays by Edward Abbey:

In the desert I am reminded of… the bleak, thin-textured work of men like Berg, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Webern and the American, Elliott Carter. Quite by accident, no doubt, although both Schoenberg and Krenek lived part of their lives in the Southwest, their music comes closer than any other I know to representing the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert. Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also atonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time—another paradox—both agonized and deeply still.”

Hiking in nature has other connections with music. One walks outside, in, within, natural surroundings visiting places not everyone can get to. In fact, when one meets other people on the trail, there is an immediate bond, for only those who share similar values will be out there in the first place. People push themselves, a bit or a lot, to get to interesting places. The challenge of driving oneself to new heights of endurance, without getting lost or hurt, is often a motivation. In addition, there’s a keen beauty in just walking in a place without urban signs or conveniences; this promotes a sense of what one might call natural elegance, of being in tune with one’s surroundings. One soon understands that all parts of the trail are the goal, not just the vista at its so-called end. The result is a loss of self-consciousness; you are no longer other than the landscape; you are simply your perceptions. The question of whether the experience is in your head or “out there in the world” never arises since you can’t make the distinction. The Indian Upanishads say this well: “tat twam asi” (you are that).

And perhaps there is one other special connection between music and the outdoors. There is a palpable sense of space and dimensionality in both, and not only passively, but of action in space and time. And not only stereotypical actions like (formal) dancing, running, etc. but all the stances, positions, poses, and motions needed to hike on earth, sand, rock, water—not only on level ground.

I believe that these features and benefits are exactly analogous to my music’s attributes. The need to prepare for listening and re-listening helps one be ready for what the music can do. People often think music must be immediately accessible without any work; but without some sort of music training and experience, much music will be opaque. When one is ready, the mind and ear are both exhilarated and challenged by the complexity and richness of sound and form, which are not concentrated or directed to a climax or the “point” of a piece, if there is one, but are everywhere. So in the end there is no distinction between the listening experience, the listener, and the piece; it all fuses together so that the percept and the perceiver are one. (The resonance with the Buddhist ontology of “no-self” is striking. Related Eastern ideas are also exemplified in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting, poetry, travel diaries, and “scholars’-rocks,” the Taoist writings of Chuang-Tzu, and Hua-yen Buddhism, all of which have deepened my appreciation of the interpenetration of music and nature.)

I suppose it was inevitable I would eventually compose music to be literally played outside. My composition of 2001, Playing Outside, was my first major attempt to make this happen. Below I list the web page in my website that documents the performance of that composition, which was also webcast on NewMusicBox. The two other webpage addresses listed follow up on many of the ideas I’ve presented here:

Web pages for Playing Outside for Improvisers, Orchestra, Gamelan, and Chorus: www.esm.rochester.edu/rdm/notes/po.html

Essay on Playing Outside:
www.esm.rochester.edu/rdm/PLAYING.OUTSIDE/essay.html

Essay on Meandering River:
www.esm.rochester.edu/rdm/notes/meander.html