Unfinished Earth – music inspired by nature

Unfinished EarthNature has provided inspiration for countless musicians over the centuries. Award-winning composer Douglas Knehans has just released a new CD entitled Unfinished Earth, which evokes the raw and powerful forces of nature.

It contains two works, the first is called Tempest, a concerto for flute and orchestra inspired by three specific winds. The first part is entitled Ostro, which is named for a southerly Mediterranean wind. The second part is Mistral, a powerful wind blowing from southern France into the Mediterranean that can reach speeds of 115 mph (185 kph). The third part of the piece is called Etesian, inspired by strong dry winds through the Aegean Sea.

Gareth Davies, Principal Flute of the London Symphony Orchestra, talks about this challenging piece in the video below.

The other major work on the CD is Unfinished Earth, a work for orchestra comprising of three movements. Part 1, Tempering, is inspired by the formation of the earth itself. The music is in turns tranquil and explosive, always with a sense of motion, of elements shifting and coming together. The second part, Eternal Ocean, is inspired by the sea in all its vast, flowing serenity. The final part, Tearing Drift, is about the formation of the continents, a thunderous soundscape with moments of quiet calm that build to a dramatic climax.

These monumental forces of nature are almost beyond human comprehension, even when we know scientifically why things happen the way they do. Music is a powerful way to explore such forces, to bring us to a deeper understanding of their true essence.

Mikel Toms, who conducts the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra on these recordings, says that Unfinished Earth is unlike anything he has ever conducted before, and follows in a rich tradition of artists inspired by landscape for their work. See his interview below.

The earth truly is “unfinished,” and is still moving and changing beneath our feet. Our cities and monuments, which we’ve built over centuries, seem fragile and almost trivial in comparison to the seismic forces beneath the earth’s surface. And we humans seem even more fragile, which can be a scary thought. Perhaps we can never truly appreciate the larger forces of nature, but the music of Unfinished Earth brings us closer.

To learn more or purchase the CD, visit this link.

Maria Schneider, music inspired by nature

The Thompson Fields by Maria Schneider

Jazz composer Maria Schneider draws much of her inspiration directly from nature. Her latest recording, The Thompson Fields, is inspired by the prairies where she grew up in Minnesota. As she said to NPR’s Here and Now, “The sound of my music is what it is largely because of the natural landscape I grew up with, and people who made me appreciate it so much.”

Her work incorporates elements of jazz and classical music, with improvisation from the musicians in her ensemble. Tracks like “Walking by Flashlight” and “The Monarch and the Milkweed” evoke nature and the feelings one experiences in nature.

The album was developed through the ArtistShare web community, which allows artists and fans to connect and support each other. It has recently been nominated for a Grammy Award.

Here is the official trailer for the album The Thompson Fields:

Here is the full interview with Maria on NPR’s Here and Now.

Here is an excellent profile in the New York Times from 2013.

And here is a great interview with Maria from the Detroit Jazz Festival, also featuring clips of her orchestra in performance:

This is my last post for 2015 at The Untended Garden. This site has been a little more untended than usual lately, but I hope to get back to it more in 2016.

It seems like more and more people are rediscovering nature as a balance to the world of technology we live in. Artists have been in touch with nature since the beginning of time, and I think they can play a big part in our understanding of the natural world.

Happy New Year!

Poetry and music – Vivaldi’s Winter

Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi published his famous group of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, in 1768 at the age of forty-seven. They were what was known as “programme music”, or music written to depict specific scenes, which was looked down upon by some at the time. But Vivaldi’s compositions rose above the typical programme music of the day, creating a quartet of classics that are still heard today.

What makes them so popular? They are certainly catchy, though there is also a note of melancholy that runs through each of them, especially in the slow movements. And of course, nature is a theme that resonates with nearly everyone. Many composers have written pieces inspired by nature, but somehow The Four Seasons has captured the public’s imagination like none other.

Each composition is accompanied by a sonnet, written by Vivaldi himself, which describes the scenes depicted in the music. Below is a translation of the Winter sonnet, along with a performance by the Early Music ensemble Voices of Music. See if you can recognize the scenes as they are brought to life in the music.

Winter – Concerto in f-minor

1. Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

2. Largo
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

3. Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

You can read the text of all four seasons, along with the original Italian, here.

* * *

The Groundskeeper’s Daughter – ethereal music from the garden

The Groundskeeper's Daughter, by Dolls Come to LifeNature has inspired music throughout history, from Vivaldi to modern-day art installations. The duo Dolls Come to Life explore the theme of a garden on their new album The Groundskeeper’s Daughter, a series of experimental songs and soundscapes. The results are haunting, evocative, and eerily beautiful.

Dolls Come To Life are singer/songwriter Michelle Cross and experimental musician Joe Frawley. Their first album Dolls Come To Life was inspired by interior spaces — a child’s bedroom, attic, etc. Their new album is inspired by the outdoors, particularly the old fashioned gardens of Victorian literature. But these are not cheerful songs of sunshine and flowers, they evoke misty moors, haunted walls, and creeping vines. There’s an eerie thread of melancholy that runs through these tracks, as though the ghost of Mary Lennox has come back to roam the forgotten paths of her secret garden.

The track “Across the Moor”, as Joe Frawley explains, “was the result of a multi-tracked improvisation Michelle did over a drone I provided.” Much of their music evolves this way, improvising over each other’s tracks to see what comes out. The duo works long-distance, exchanging files over the internet, but their sounds blend seamlessly.

The song “Wake Up, Wake Up” features a chorus of flowers singing of their life through the seasons, while a girl sits on the ivy wall listening:

Come if you want, follow us down into the ground,
into the brown earth where we all are listening.
And when the wind comes whispering that it is spring then we begin,
making our way up shivering.

One can imagine the title character, the groundskeeper’s daughter, exploring this strange world and discovering its hidden corners. More than a collection of songs, this album creates a sonic world in the imagination, and listeners can create their own stories inspired by it.

You can sample the whole album here on their website.

 * * *

Zebra finches rock the house

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Springtime is often heralded by the music of birds, but not usually playing electric guitars.

Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has an exhibit through April 13th called from here to ear, that brings art and nature together quite literally. French artist and musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has created an environmental soundscape in which 70 zebra finches interact with electric guitars set up throughout the room. Visitors walk through the big open space and become part of the ever-changing environment.

Here is a peek behind the scenes at this fascinating exhibit:

The point is not only to create evocative musical sounds, but to make the visitor think about the ways in which we perceive sound, how we interact with nature, and how nature reacts to our own fabricated world. Below is an interview with the artist, who has made creative sound exhibits all over the world.

The exhibit requires tickets on weekends (which are sold out) but not on weekdays. More information at the Peabody Essex Museum website.

* * *

A Celebration of Flight

A Celebration of Flight

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of A Celebration of Flight by IBEX Puppetry, directed by Heather Henson. Featuring a blend of puppetry, movement and music, it was an inspiring spectacle that beautifully depicted the natural world through the life-cycle of a crane.

The performance followed the young bird as it hatched from an egg, discovered the world, and learned to fly, while meeting various other creatures along the way (fish, dragonflies, turtles, birds.) The ending featured a gigantic white crane that flew majestically across the stage. A thundering percussive soundtrack and soaring vocal performance added to the magic.

The setting for this visual and musical feast was an outdoor amphitheater on the gorgeous campus of Swarthmore College, as part of the Puppeteers of America national festival. Surrounded by towering trees and lush greenery, with the audience seated on the ground, the connection with nature was even more profound. I even saw a real hawk soaring high overhead, as though joining in the spectacle.

At various points in the performance, children in the audience were invited to participate by waving their own paper birds and fish in the air. At the end they were all invited down to the stage to join the performance in a joyous finale that brought tears to my eyes. It was a celebration like no other – a true blending of art and nature, reaching towards a deeper understanding of both.

A Celebration of Flight

Majestic crane puppet flies over the audience

A Celebration of Flight

A Celebration of Flight

Photographs don’t do justice to the puppets, because their movement was what made them so magical. Below is a video trailer of the show performed indoors, which will give you a better sense of the overall production.

Learn more about IBEX Puppetry at their website or Facebook page.

Exploring the animal kingdom through music


Composers draw inspiration from everything around them, and many great songs have sprung from nature. Musicians Dak and Adam are taking their inspiration one step further, by recording a whole concept album inspired by the animal kingdom. Predator/Prey was inspired by the unusual names for groups of animals, and features song titles like “A Knot of Snakes” and “A Gang of Elk.” Here’s how the group describes their work:

Each of the 14 songs is completely inspired by the ecology and behavior of a particular species of Canadian wildlife and is written entirely from the perspective of the animal, both musically and lyrically.  Drawing inspiration from an incredibly diverse range of influences, the album pushes genre boundaries while retaining cohesion in true concept-album form.

Dak is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and sees this album as a way to engage and educate people about the North American wilderness. He is currently living in the Canadian Arctic working on fisheries research.

The album has taken 2.5 years to write and record, and they launched a crowdfunding campaign to help finish it. It’s great to see how nature inspires different artists in different media. Check out the video below to learn more, or visit the project website to hear samples.

Predator/Prey group shot

Predator/Prey recording session

Here is the group’s official website.

* * *

Happy Spring!

* * * * *

Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi

Spring is sprung, even though the weather is still a bit uncooperative. To celebrate the new season, here is a creative interpretation of Vivaldi’s “Spring” violin concerto. The ensemble is called Red Priest, named after Antonio Vivaldi himself, who was nicknamed “The Red Priest” because of his flaming red hair (and he was also a priest.) I’m sure you’ve heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons before, but probably not like this.

Originally written for string ensemble, Vivaldi intentionally wrote the parts to sound like birds, streams, and rainstorms. He based the concertos on a series of sonnets, which are believed to be written by Vivaldi himself. Below is the section that describes the movement played in the video above, translated from the Italian:

Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more

You can hear all of these things in Vivaldi’s music, especially in this lively and inventive performance by Red Priest ensemble, consisting of violin, recorder, cello and harpsichord. (The next time your child doesn’t want to practice the recorder, show them what the amazing Piers Adams can do with the instrument!)

Hope you enjoy this stormy, sunny, chilly, unpredictable spring!

* * * * *

The Snowman

Snowman coverWinter is just about here, with snow already falling in colder climates. Winter can be harsh and brutal but also peaceful and stunningly beautiful. It’s a season that inspires artists, writers and filmmakers. For the next couple months here at The Untended Garden, I will be focusing on art and storytelling that deals with snow and winter, starting with a modern classic.

The Snowman is a wordless picture book written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs. It tells the tale of a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life one night. The snowman explores the boy’s house with him and later takes the boy flying through the air. The magic of the book lies not only in the story, but the wordless images, arranged in a sequential, comic book style that lets you experience each scene moment by moment.

It’s this visual storytelling that makes the book perfectly suited for animation, and in 1982 the book was turned into a film by British director Diane Jackson. This is that rare case where a film adaptation enhances the original story without losing the intent or charm of the original. In particular, the journey through the air is much more elaborate in the film, flying over cities and oceans to the polar regions and back, and the gorgeous music by Howard Blake perfectly sets the mood.

I’d like to call your attention to the animation itself, which is all drawn by hand. This film was made thirteen years before Toy Story revolutionized the animation industry. Today, 3D computer animation is king, and everyone marvels at the amazing feats it can accomplish. But computer animation is limited by computer models and logic, it has to obey certain rules. Hand-drawn animation is limited only by the artist’s imagination. Notice in the film how the mountains shift perspective and seem to melt into each other – this is purely an artistic vision of a landscape in motion, and wouldn’t work in a computer-animated film, yet it perfectly fits the magical impossibility of the story, and evokes a world where anything can happen.

It just goes to show, whether in books or films, a pencil is still often the most expressive tool of all.

Music inspired by nature

Brazilian composer Jarbas Agnelli was reading the newspaper one day, and saw a photo of birds on electrical wires. Inspired by the similarity to musical notes, he cut out the photo and began composing a song based on the positions of the birds. He recorded the song and sent it to the photographer, who loved it. Soon there was a newspaper article about it, and the song became a worldwide sensation. Below is a music video he made of the song, using the photograph.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Also, here is a link to a TED talk where the composer talks about the composition and performs it live. He says the lesson he learned from all this is that it is “possible to see poetry anywhere, depending on the way we look at things.” He’s absolutely right.

Thanks to Jessica Morrison and Ian MacKenzie for pointing me to this great video.