There are at least two ways contemporary music in America has made use of nature—by directly making use of the sounds of nature as musical material, or else in works that desire to imitate nature “in its manner of operation.” That is, they are constructed the way nature is, they work the way nature works, rather than sounding the way nature sounds.
When I put together The Book of Music and Nature (Wesleyan, 2001) a few years ago, I emphasized the difference between these two approaches. Today I tend to think that the most successful musical attempts to learn from nature put these two approaches together.
Why would any composer want to learn from nature? Well, why would music consider anything else for inspiration? Nature is where we come from, and with all the distinctiveness that humanity brings to the circle of life, nature is where we are struggling to get back to. Where all other species and forms of life easily fit into the niche they have been given, humanity has the power and ignorance to destroy the planet. We must fight as hard as we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Perhaps music can help us.