A benefit of working as a composer/musician is the opportunity to travel professionally and listen. We travel to be inspired, to create musical works and to perform, or hear our works performed. Immersing ourselves in other places provides us with the opportunity to look across the field of music—to gain an understanding of and be inspired by the music created now. It seems my ears actually perk up when traveling; they respond to the difference in space and place with increased awareness.
During my last year of grad school, the discipline of cultural geography and all its tangential fields—including but not limited to history, physical geography, ecology, anthropology, and human geography—rose up, providing a paradigm-shifting lens through which I now viewed my world—its physical space and the essence of its diverse places. In that context, my meaning of space enlarged to also encompass what exists between our ears—our perceptions, our memories and shared experiences. Composer Chris Kallmyer concludes that people enjoy music not for its sonic aspects alone, but also for its ability to increase connectedness.
As composers, performers, and interpreters of 21st-century music, we have the chance—some may even say the obligation—to seek out new ideas in music, new approaches or ways of thinking about music, and its relevance to our life experiences and the world around us. As Daniel Siepmann points out, “Newness is confrontational, newness is the unexpected variable…and celebrates dynamic living places.” While composing about place is not an original idea, how and why we’re composing music about place continues to evolve. In looking across the field of new music, from chamber to inter-media pieces, from major orchestral works to sound art installations, the extent of creating “sounds of home” or composing meaningful works about place appears to be mushrooming.
There are those who consider composing new music about place problematic—“primarily because of its transitory nature.” Really? Music is, has been, and always will be transitory! Whether we are walking, biking, floating, or driving, the nature of experiencing place is also transitory. Like the old adage says, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”
Place is not a merely a rigid, static location, but a highly nuanced layering of shifting, transitory elements: buildings, natural spaces, waterways, transportation and commercial systems, and our shared human experiences. The landscape itself shifts and transforms before our eyes and under our feet. Weather changes quickly and dynamically impacts all it touches. We perceive our world differently in scorching sun, howling wind, or driving snow. Are the trees glistening from a morning rain, or are the grasses dry and brown from a month without? For centuries, people have orchestrated their lives by the chaotic and transitory nature of our landscape and its arteries. The creations of our places have bent to accommodate its whims. Are the waves crashing, the bees pollinating, the dogs barking? Are new buildings rising, trains passing through, children laughing, cultures clashing? Is the wind blowing leaves off the trees? All of these have sound. All of these have color.
As numerous articles in Symphony magazine articulate, new music is engaging audiences in compelling ways as composers seek to connect with the world around us. Michael Gordon’s Dystopia connects us with LA’s frenetic cityscape. In contrast, Jeffrey Nytch’s Symphony No. 1 Formations, leads us through the landscape of the western Rockies outside of Boulder. I can feel the cold tidal waters through Alex Shapiro’s string quintet Current Events. Gabriela Lena Frank immerses us in the Latino community of Indianapolis in Peregrinos. At the New Music Gathering this past January, SONAR New Music performed a collection of premieres by emerging composers inspired by the sounds of the city of Baltimore. These pieces are both relevant to local communities and communicate the human experience of place to people outside of the area.
Some question whether pieces written for and/or about a particular place should be “uprooted and transplanted from their birth locales into…spaces hundreds, if not thousands miles away.” The contention is that if the aural and performance qualities of the piece are the same in a different setting, then the composition cannot truly be grounded in place. That equates to saying a piece composed about New York performed in Minneapolis is not grounded in New York!
And this is the point. Largely, composers are not replicating the world around us, but in the true definition of art, they are listening, interpreting the landscape, and expressing it through sound. Today’s composers are innovative—not merely in musical practice but also in exploring different approaches to new music, by examining the roles in our society, civic engagement, our connection to nature, and in celebration of heritage. They are connecting with audiences in musically new ways. More on this in a later post.
Composing about place and stories of its cultural, geographic, and human history advocates on three levels. First, we ourselves are advocating for new music to be considered on equal footing with visual arts to interpret our cityscapes, waterways, communities, parks, historic sites, and wilderness areas. Second, we are helping new music reach new ears, and hopefully engaging listeners to reach out and widen their appreciation of new music. We give audiences a reason to attend the concert hall, lounge, parking lot, community center, or wherever else we choose for this new music about place to be performed. In addition, music created about, for, and with a community can itself act as an advocate for the places we are composing about.
How? Our musical expression “can be a conduit for communicating, understanding and encapsulating human experiences of the natural world”. Composers can be powerful ambassadors for the places they write about. The resulting pieces can and should be presented outside their point of origin. They’re able to be some of our community’s best advocates because they take the time to experience the essence of the place and translate it into sound.
Whether we are composers, performers, producers, or musicologists, we all want to connect to the music we create, perform, and listen to. We want our audiences to have a meaningful experience with both the music and its performers. Audiences want to listen to and participate with music that they feel is relevant to their communities and environment. In looking through a fused lens of cultural geography and music, perhaps we are on our way.
- Shared experiences will be explored in a future blog on New Music, Advocacy and Community.
- Von Glahn, Denise. The Sounds of Place. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2003.
- Notwithstanding that no performance of any piece is the same – no two halls, no two audiences are alike.
Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about landscape, art, culture and environmental history as an expression of human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of all of these into her work. Her goal is to compose music that engages the performers and, hopefully, the audience.
The Dallas Contemporary Museum commissioned her to create a site-specific work celebrating their new art space at 161 Glass in 2009. The same year, she examined homelessness in her multi-media work, From the Sidewalk. In FEAR: The Unspoken Geography she explored the perception of public space. An avid hiker, Rusnak has been commissioned to create works for many of our parks and wilderness areas. In 2014, as artist-in-residence at North Cascades National Park, Rusnak composed The Way Through. She is recording two choral works in Cuba in April 2016.