It all began with a hike — and a flutist and cellist who wished they’d brought their instruments with them. This month, Emlyn Johnson and Daniel Ketter will bring not just their flute and cello, but six other classical musicians to four national parks in Washington, playing newly composed chamber music outside in the forests and mountaintops that inspired it. Music in the American Wild is touring America’s parks to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, and to bring all of us closer to nature through music.
“Daniel and I were hiking in Letchworth State Park in New York in 2014,” Johnson explains about how Music in the American Wild first began. Now engaged, the couple were admiring the park’s beauty, and wondering how a classical concert would sound there. “Then we started thinking on a national scale, and found out about the 2016 national parks centennial.”
Johnson, a recent doctoral graduate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, was also thinking about jobs — fewer and fewer, these days, for classical musicians.
“I wanted to start our own project ... and this seemed like a good project to make our own,” she says.
Rounding up a handful of Eastman friends, she began chasing composers, challenging them to write new music inspired by the beauty of the American wild.
Some took it literally. Jeff Myers’ three-movement septet “Wizard Island” is directly descriptive of the volcanic peak inside Oregon’s Crater Lake, using horn calls, drums and a hymn-like melody to invoke an imagined prehistoric ritual on the ashy, tree-studded island. Chris Chandler’s “The View From Here” was inspired by the meadows, summits and wildlife in Shenandoah National Park, where Johnson and her crew first toured in June. The score includes bells and fragments of the folk song “O Shenandoah.”
Other composers approached the junction of nature and music more abstractly. Tonia Ko explores layers of percussive sounds that imitate the rolling vistas of ocean or prairie grass. Aristea Mellos follows a John Muir quote that “Everything flows,” whether rocks, plants or animals. And some composers built natural elements into their scores: Adam Roberts imitating the texture of dappled sunlight in a city park; Daniel Pesca re-creating the tempo and structure of a single day, dawn to dusk, in the wilderness; Aaron Travers includes both birdsong and spaces for natural sounds to enter the piece in performance.
Most composers are young, and many grew up near national parks.
“One of the goals of this project was to reconnect composers to nature,” says Johnson. “A lot of music now is influenced by electronics, digital media. It’s pretty cool to reconnect with what inspired so many composers in the past.”
The other goal is to help the rest of us find deeper connections to nature through music, played live in beautiful settings. Throughout August, Johnson’s group will play free concerts at four parks: San Juan, North Cascades, Mount Rainier and Olympic. Concerts happen near visitor centers or campgrounds, with an informal come-and-go feel.
“Parks provide recreation, but it’s very clear that they are also places of inspiration, places of awe,” says Fawn Bauer, the education and youth program manager at Mount Rainier. “That’s always been the case, from Edward Curtis to Ansel Adams. The way that people translate and share that awe with others tells the story of why these places are important.”
And while new classical music might usually be an intense, serious experience for classical devotees in a concert hall, occasionally difficult to understand, Bauer is excited that Music in the American Wild has a broader appeal.
“I’m not a classical music person, but I love music, and I’m really excited to hear what their pieces have to say,” she says. “We feel that parks are places for telling stories, and you can tell them in many different ways.”
On the group’s Southeast tour, says Johnson, many in the audience had no experience with classical music but gave positive feedback.
“They said it gave them a new sense of place,” she said. “One retired park ranger was very moved. He just closed his eyes, said he saw all these images from his time working in the parks.”
Of course, telling musical stories in a park with acoustic instruments has some challenges. On the tour to the Southeast, Johnson and her friends (who play without amplification) had to be creative: the string players switched from wood to carbon-fiber instruments, to deal with big temperature changes and sunlight. They also discovered, playing in Mammoth Caves National Park, that while cave acoustics are wonderful, they come with 50-degree temperatures and long flights of steps to haul instruments down.
“But it’s magical to play outside,” Johnson adds. “You see the sun set, the moon rise, birds sing. It adds a whole different context to the music.”
And why Washington, for the group’s second tour?
It was somewhere Johnson had always wanted to go.
“Years ago I had seen some photos from Olympic National Park and knew this was one of the places at the top of my list,” Johnson says. “I thought by focusing on Washington, it would be a great way to see a beautiful part of the country and make a logical tour schedule at the same time.”
The musicians will be exploring the parks while they’re here, and Johnson and Ketter have a goal to play on a mountaintop — although it probably won’t be 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.
“Maybe we’ll just go to base camp or something,” says Johnson.
Music in the American Wild
Where: San Juans National Historic Park, San Juan Island.
When: 2-4 p.m. Aug. 4 (intermittent performances) at English Camp Parade Grounds; intermittently from 10 a.m.-noon Friday (Aug. 5) at American Camp Parade Grounds; 7:30 p.m. FridayAug. 5 at English Camp Barracks.
Where: North Cascades National Park, near Newhalem.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday at Environmental Learning Center; 1 p.m. Monday at the North Cascades Visitor Center; 7 p.m. Monday at Newhalem Campground amphitheater; 1 p.m. Wednesday at the visitor center; 7 p.m. Wednesday at the campground amphitheater.
Where: Mount Rainier National Park.
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at Ohanapecosh Campground amphitheater; 2 p.m. Aug. 13 at Paradise near the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center; 2 p.m. Aug. 14 at Sunrise Visitor Center.
Where: Olympic National Park.
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at Heart O’the Hills campground; 5 p.m. Aug. 16 at Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center; 1-4 p.m. Aug. 17 (intermittent) along Hall of Mosses Trail at Hoh Rainforest.
Cost: Free with park admission.