Natural History (2016) 25' —
SATB chorus, Native American drum group, 30 spatial instruments — was commissioned by the Britt Music & Arts Festival in celebration of the 2016 National Park Service centennial. Writing the piece took me on a journey through Crater Lake National Park at the height of summer and dead of winter, and to Chiloquin, Oregon to work with the members of the Klamath Tribe’s Steiger Butte Drum. It led me to the naturalist writers Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, among others. This is not the first work in which I have focused on location. I have written pieces about New York (Gotham), Los Angeles (Dystopia), Miami Beach (El Sol Caliente), and Beijing (Bejing Harmony) - all urban settings. When the Britt Festival commissioned me to write a piece for Crater Lake I wasn’t quite sure where it was. The commission included an invitation, “You’ve got to come and see it." In the summer of 2015, with conductor Teddy Abrams, I went to the site.
Superintendent (head ranger) Craig Ackerman was our guide. Ackerman talked about the lake in terms of ‘Deep Time’ - change happening over thousands of years. This sense of time was a great contrast to the "New York minute" back home. Crater Lake was created by an explosion - a volcano that blew up and then collapsed close to 8000 years ago. The rim of the caldera falls almost straight down two thousand feet to reach the purest, deepest, lake in the United States. That destructive act, which scientists say was more explosive than the world’s nuclear arsenal detonating all at once, wiped out all life for miles around, leaving a spectacular natural wonder.
What do people think about wilderness? This was a question I pondered and studied. The native people who lived at the lake at the time of the explosion still live there today. This place is sacred to them. The first white settlers who came upon the lake in the late 19th century understood that this remarkable place should remain untouched. Park Historian Steve Mark and local journalist Lee Juillerat were important guides to understanding the history.
With Teddy Abrams I circled the rim looking for the perfect spot for the performance. We chose Watchman Overlook for its natural “stage” of panoramic views. Through the course of the day we talked over the forces for the work - the orchestra, a chorus, 30 additional brass players and percussionists stationed out on the cliffs. The spatial setting was an important aspect of the work - sound coming from all sides and from different distances, sound moving through space. We discussed the importance of having the Klamath Tribe in this piece.
I returned to Crater Lake in the winter of January 2016 for 10 days in the desolate beauty of a completely white landscape - 16 feet of snow. Only the rangers were on site, with an occasional snowshoer up for a walk. This trip included a visit to the Klamath Tribe to hear the Steiger Butte Drum. The members of the Drum Group are a part of an extended family. They sit in a circle, beat loudly on one drum, and sing. The singing is a fast sophisticated syncopated yodeling. It is amazing. Though they had never played with classical instruments they were game for joining the orchestra. Taylor Tupper, the tribe’s representative, taught me about the Klamath Tribe’s relationship to the lake, which they call ‘Giiwas’. For the Klamath the lake is a house of worship. Tribal members go to the lake for spiritual purposes only.
On July 29th, at the premiere, the audience gathered around the rim. Elders from the Klamath Tribe came to listen. Afterwards Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribe, said a few emotional words, "I could almost envision the sounds of our ancestors reverberating through the ages’. The weaving of musical worlds and a shared love of the natural wonder inspired the writing of Natural History.