Second Nature

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

For many years I’ve identified with a passage in Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo in which city-reared children chop down a traffic pole assuming it to be a tree, having never experienced actual trees before. Growing up and always living in midtown Manhattan in some ways guarantees being hermetically sealed off from nature. But since I moved to the northern tip of Manhattan two years ago, I find myself frequently drawn to Inwood Hill Park, the only place in Manhattan that is pretty much unchanged since the days when the entire island was an overgrown forest. And yes, I know, it’s really not the same as being out in the real woods since it’s only a holler away from the West Side Highway and other manifestations of contemporary urban civilization, but for a perpetual city slicker like me it’s a big deal and has been a great source of musical inspiration and discovery.

There are so many famous anecdotes of composers and other creative artists finding inspiration in nature: Beethoven’s Pastorale, Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, or, to bring it closer to home, Carl Ruggles’ evocations of mountains, Judith Saint Croix’s shamanistic chamber music, Eric Dolphy’s transcriptions of birdsongs, etc… Long before Messiaen embarked on his trademark birdsong-infused melodies, birdsongs had already been effectively imitated by Rameau and Clement Janequin, and still earlier in solo pi-pa repertoire dating back to T’ang Dynasty China. Early ethnomusicologists attempting to connect all the dots in the history of music often claimed that music was mankind’s response to the surrounding sounds of nature. So, in a way, talking about how music connects to the natural environment is, on some levels, stating the obvious.

That said, there are some composers nowadays whose natural inspirations are very direct. New Zealand-born, American-based Annea Lockwood writes music that is frequently derived from nature not only in its content but also in its compositional process. Her thoughts about how music and the natural sounds of the environment are related to each other pose provocative challenges to listeners, musicians, and other composers alike. John Luther Adams, Bill Fontana, Cheryl Leonard, Richard Lerman, and Robert Morris have all created substantial work directly indebted to various natural environments all across the country. David Rothenberg, editor of The Book of Music and Nature, describes a variety of approaches composers have employed to create “natural music.”

Of course, to claim anything is “unnatural” is something of a canard. It is an age-old buzzword that gets trotted out by reactionaries, whether political or artistic, time and time again to decry anything that doesn’t fit their own particular frame of reference. To keep things on a musical plane here, I’ve heard everything from atonality to electronic sound to 12-tone equal temperament described as unnatural. Yet if all these things exist in our corporeal world, how can they be unnatural? Today, traffic sounds are as much a part of our natural environment as birdsongs and a great deal of great art has been inspired by both. Indeed, sometimes traffic poles are trees, or used to be anyway, but the lines are definitely much harder to draw.