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The Sound Garden: Nature Week

Mei Stone

Nature is a near-constant source of inspiration for artists and non-artists alike. I’ve always been fascinated by the different ways composers and instrumentalists try to capture the essence of nature through notes on a page. This week, we were thinking about classical music’s relation to nature. Long ago, most music was played outdoors as part of ceremonies and rituals or for carrying messages or declaring war, on instruments made to withstand the elements and project through wind and noise. Today, so many classical pieces are inspired by nature, but they’re often performed in indoor, closed-off, silent venues. Has western classical music evolved in such a way that it’s no longer a part of nature? What would happen if we took this music outside, directly into nature?

One of the biggest challenges this week was navigating the weather, as we dealt with many rainy and windy days. Modern flutes are no longer designed for people to play outside. Yet even with the wind and clouds, we were able to find something new.

Mei Stone

We started Nature Week off with an absolutely stunning sunrise on the pier. There were only a few other souls stubborn enough to be awake at 5:45 am. I almost didn’t want to break the morning stillness and silence with music, but I felt like the scenery gave the music a new layer of depth and meaning.

It’s also humbling to consider that we take so much from nature (inspiration as well as resources), so how can we give back? Does my outdoor performance actually give back to the ecosystem in any way? While I say no (and the ducks swimming away from me might agree) I hope that we as artists can continue creating art that promotes awareness and appreciation of nature so that we all can find ways to give back.

Maya Reter

Next, I took the piece to a tai chi class in front of the Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park. I found myself fighting the wind a lot while playing, but seeing the participants using the energy of the wind in their own practice encouraged me to embrace it as an unexpected but welcome part of the music. After all, if the idea of this week is to bring music out of a concert hall, we should very well be prepared to work alongside nature rather than fight it.

Mei Stone Lake Michigan Flute

Our final experiment was a collaboration with Michigan writer Anne-Marie Oomen. I worked with her to combine one of her poems, “Water Gratitude,” with the music. We went out and stood in Lake Michigan, letting the water surround us as we performed. It was a bright, breezy day, and the sound of the waves and the birds flying around us brought forth a strong realization--nature was a third collaborator, an integral part of this project.

And this brought us back to the question of where classical music belongs. If this piece were performed inside, without the glowing serenity of a morning sky or the infinite splendor of Lake Michigan, would it sound the same? Would it carry the same meaning? There is a trade off, I suppose. In the right acoustic space, music is able to come alive in its own way without the outdoor sounds and elements. But while the circumstances may not always be ideal, I think there’s a lot of room for new discoveries when we take instrumental music out of the concert hall.

Music For Nature

"Winter Spirits" by Katherine Hoover
Though, ironically, it’s summer, I enjoy the fluidity and freedom in this piece and thought it aligned nicely with the idea of being present with nature, with no inhibitions or worries--only instinct and awareness. Hoover says, “The idea of the flute invoking beneficial spirits, be they kachinas or any others, is a very natural one. Such spirits are an accepted and valued part of life in most of the world, and the flute has been used to honor and invite their presence for countless ages.”