Three Thoughts on the Intersection of Nature and Music
By Cheryl E. Leonard

Lately I've been creating music by playing raw tree materials: leaves, bark, pinecones, and so forth. It's fun to imagine this as an exercise in musical time travel. Before the discovery of tools and the creation of more sophisticated instruments, perhaps early men and women noticed that the various "petals" on a pinecone each have their own pitches. Yes, it’s more likely that they were into singing, but maybe not. Perhaps, like me, some of them didn’t have very good voices, preferring to let pinecones sing in their stead. Thus were created the great prehistoric orchestras- of pinecone thumb pianos. They must have sounded amazing in those resonant caves, accompanying the visual artists in those very earliest of multimedia performances. Funny, that the archeologists thought all those pinecones were gathered merely for food.

I’ve been cultivating my inner mad scientist: conducting aural experiments with carefully selected natural materials and, every so often, making exciting discoveries. Who would have thought the sounds of deep space could be coaxed from a long twig? I didn’t even have a hypothesis about that one. The pinecone xylophone was another major eureka moment. Now every time I enter the “lab” I am compelled to try even more ridiculous projects. Is it possible to bow a pine needle? What happens if I put a piece of driftwood in my viola strings? Is there music to be had from a palm frond? Also, I must admit, this scientific exploration thing is a fabulous excuse for the mounting of absurd expeditions. Why should real scientists have all the fun? "I'm sorry I can't come in to work today. It’s imperative that I search Point Reyes National Seashore for resonant driftwood.” After all, in this post-Cage world, I'm not really supposed to compose in front of a piano am I?

As a rather extreme outdoors person I have been privy to some pretty awe-inspiring experiences: millions of baby frogs hopping through the underbrush in an old growth cedar forest, tons (literally) of ice calving off a glacier, standing on a summit looking at the rainbow halo around my shadow in the mist beneath me. There are also smaller, more local delights: gathering leaves off the sidewalk and noticing that I am holding a leaf-bouquet, watching the movement patterns of tree branches in a storm, bowing a leaf and hearing the sounds of a distant choir. I try to imbue my music with the sense of wonder I have at these moments. Probably I mostly fail, but I think this trying is being a composer.

(this article was originally written for the January 2004 issue of New Music Box)