Nature in music and feeling

Frozen Portage Lake beneath me cracks and groans ominously. A bitter cold infects the skin between my wrist and glove where cloth edges don’t meet. But up ahead, the rare sunlight casts my friends’ shadows across the diamond snow as we approach the teal glacier wall. The air outside is silent, yet music swells from somewhere deeper than my heart.

Sometimes when I’m out walking I close my eyes and open my ears. I silence my thoughts as best I can and focus on an empty space, gathering up the soundwaves. Without the distraction of my eyes, another world reveals itself.

Wrapped up in activity, I don’t notice how much I’m missing. Too often I’m tied up in a podcast while out running, biking or skiing. But when I unplug and check the silence, even the soft, variable thrum of the wind, the creaking of trees, the distant drumbeats of cars on the highway, the flutter of velvet wings in the underbrush become nearly visible.

I think of a phrase I saw painted on the gilded engraving above the stage at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago: “The utterance of life is a song, the symphony of nature.”

It’s a time-honored tradition in music to write symphonies based on nature, but the approach has changed over the centuries. If you’ve been in a hotel lobby virtually anywhere in the world, you’ve likely heard snippets of “The Four Seasons” by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi. That’s an easy one — Vivaldi intended to create program music, which paints vivid narrative scenes for the audience. But it’s one of the most accessible pieces of Baroque music and an enjoyable image of spring, relevant for Alaskans long embedded in the winter.

A few years later, other composers tweaked that approach. French impressionist Claude Debussy completed “La Mer (The Ocean)” on a beach along the English Channel, the flowing cello and soaring violin inspired by the soft swelling and sinking of the waves. Like Vivaldi, it’s still very visual, but it departs from the simplicity of “The Four Seasons” because it evokes more than just imagery. It evokes feeling. Vivaldi uses twittering piccolos to imitate birds, literally producing a vocally similar sound. Debussy writes music to trace the joyous soaring and sinking of seabirds in the open air, not necessarily to make the same sound.

That vivid, literal imagery is fine. But I prefer the tack a number of modern composers take instead — use music to make me feel like I am where they are.

New York composer Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina,” a 2014 piece featuring searing violin and clarinet, alternates gently and forcibly focusing the sunlight of Southern California on listeners. He draws both from his own feeling of light and from recognizable sound cues, like the “blazing heat” sound many TV shows employ, but draws listeners to recognize how gentle and comforting that warmth can be, too.

Listening to someone else’s music that’s based on somewhere I’ve been is a delightful way to see it through new eyes. Experimental composer John Luther Adams — who by chance lived in Alaska for a number of years before relocating to New York — patterns much of his work after his experiences here. His symphony “Inuksuit” uses a broad cast of drummers to invoke the cultural sound of the Arctic while incorporating some of the echoing sounds of nature; “The Light that Fills the Earth” takes a different approach, with subtle rolling and swelling. The piece reminds me of waking up early on a summer camping trip in Resurrection Pass, the light beginning to shroud the tops of the rugged peaks, and the air filling my lungs as the valley is steeped in light.

I travel with my ears. And by trying to see the places the writers are telling me about, I get the chance to see them as they see them.

It can be simple and beautiful to draw from the sounds of a real place and make music from it: the beeps of trucks and chaos of a city, the creaking of trees and birdsong in the mountains. But music that strikes at my heart takes a place and shows me not what it looks and sounds like, but how it makes the composer feel. That’s how art really elevates us — broadening our perspectives past the known and into the heart of another.

This isn’t exclusive to orchestral music. Bon Iver’s self-titled album has a number of tracks that take me to the icebound shores of Lake Michigan, wrapped in a bittersweet sweater. Sleeping At Last’s “Atlas: Year One” explores spaces in the universe, and the soaring sweetness of his songs take me out into a grassy field beneath the stars every time, both because I know the feeling and because he tells me all about how he sees it. It’s something we share, connected by a common place and a common heart.

I’m not much of an artist, but I write music because it’s the only voice that lets my feelings without words slip through the seams of our clumsy vocal chords, take your hand and show you what my world looks like. When I hike the Skyline ridge, I’ll be whistling a brand new tune shaped by the sunlight and shade.

In early spring 2017, I hiked and biked with someone I love out to Exit Glacier before the ice cleared from the road for the summer season. After scrambling up through the snow, we found ourselves on one of the outcroppings overlooking the glacier valley, the wind just barely caressing the back of my neck as we watched the late spring light fade against the blue of the ice and evening sky. I closed my eyes and felt, listened, heard.

Later that week, I slipped my headphones on and went to my piano. In the silence before the first note played, I began rebuilding that place and moment: each soft riffle of wind, each ray of light, the solid chill of the earth beneath me, the prickle of electricity with him beside me. The music came and I found myself there again.

Reach Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl at

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