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, its more likely that they were into singing, but
maybe not. Perhaps, like me, some of them didnt 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
Ive 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 didnt 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. Its 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.
article was originally written for the January 2004 issue of New