Earth Sounds

Can Music and Nature Come Together?

Making a good point about the environment is a heavy burden to put on a piece of music. The great folk singer Woody Guthrie said, "Music is in all of the sounds of nature and there never was a sound that was not music—the splash of an alligator, the rain dripping on dry leaves, a long and lonesome train whistling down, a truck horn blowing at a street corner speaker—kids squawling along the streets—the silent wail of wind and sky caressing the breasts of the desert…[The world] is the music and the people are the song."

But if music is nature and vice versa, why is it so hard to bring them together? I can think of only a few pop songs that succeed at it. One is "(Nothing But) Flowers" by the Talking Heads, whose lyrics include: "There was a factory/Now there are mountains and rivers/We caught a rattlesnake/Now we got something for dinner/There was a shopping mall/Now it’s all covered with flowers."

How many other songs articulate a tangible vision of a post-industrial society that re-embraces nature? The piece "Amazon" from Tor Olson’s 1994 album Picture also did it for me, with its subtle and heartbreaking evocation of our planet as a living, breathing entity: "Jungle heart keeps pumping/Circulating wheel/Jungle has a secret/This place makes oxygen." J.J. Cale’s "Stone River," heard on the excellent Fish Tree Water Blues benefit CD for Earthjustice, is similarly effective.

Bernie Krause is now one of the planet’s foremost recorders of natural sounds, but in the early 1970s he partnered with the late Paul Beaver to record several wonderful albums that layered natural sounds on blues, rock, jazz and early electronica. In a Wild Sanctuary, with found sounds recorded around San Francisco (including a visit to the local zoo), was particularly effective.

Killing Us Softly

For some reason, record companies assume that environmental magazines are all about New Age music, so we get sent boxloads of bad "Rolfing in the Rainforest" CDs. A lot of them are for kids, including as a typical example, Planet Me! Earth’s Endangered Animals for Children (World Disc Music). The owl song is called "Don’t Give a Hoot" and pre-schoolers might also want to rock along to "Mr. And Mrs. Manatee."

"Prairie Dog’s Joy," part of the "All My Relations" series, identifies so strongly with the title species that the singer imagines going "down to the prairie dog town" and making a nest with his "little furry friends." The singer adds, "Dang, I sure do love those prairie dogs." In the same series is "Gray Whale Solace," about the killing of one said cetacean by the indigenous Makah Tribe. "I went into meditation," says the website, "and I believe that young, female gray whale came to me. She told me her story… and how she could breathe the pain away for humankind."

Somewhat more effective is the music of Dana Lyons. The artist sent us no less than six CDs of environmentally themed music. The best of his songs, including "Cows with Guns" (which is also featured in a hilarious flash animation on the Internet), are great green agitprop.

"Earth Mama" (Joyce Johnson Rouse) also makes sure we get her new releases. These include One Land, One Heart and Grass Roots. She’s also available for concerts. "I"m willing to make a complete fool of myself in the interest of broadening people’s awareness of the Earth," she says.

But I’m not sure you reach people with good-natured sing-a-longs about talking whales and tree spirits. If the kids were with you before they heard the song, they"ll be with you afterwards.

But folk songs are only one of the mediums Earth musicians use. If you have classical leanings, there’s the "In Harmony with Nature" Waterfall Suite, featuring the "spirited Baroque music of Vivaldi and Corelli heard against a background of falling water conveys [sic] its energy in a torrent of pleasurable sound." Eek.

Another popular category is the "environments" record, with soothing waves and cooing winds. Lycos. com has five pages of CDs under the heading "Nature Sound in Music," and the titles include Misty Mountain Melody, Nature Whispers: Loon Lake and Peaceful Evening Sunset. Why is it assumed natural sounds are always peaceful? Why not records of earthquakes or tornadoes?

Onward and Upward

Despite the obstacles, there are some very successful music and nature mixes. David Rothenberg, a jazz clarinetist and nature writer whose most recent book is entitled Why Birds Sing (see review this issue), has studied the field and observes, "For classical music, I’d start with Olivier Messiaen ("Quartet for the End of Time" is the best) and John Luther Adams, who makes classical ensembles sound like wind in the trees. R. Murray Schafer has written operas to be performed at dawn on wilderness lakes."

Rothenberg’s own experience has included playing the clarinet with the white-crested laughing thrush in Pittsburgh and jamming with the Albert’s lyrebird in Australia, and a CD of his improvisations was released simultaneously with the book. He also mentions the many sympathetic interspecies collaborations produced by saxophonist Paul Winter over the last 30 years, beginning with his still-unsurpassed album Icarus; electronica by Francisco Lopez; and the "soundscapes" issued by the label EarthEar, whose recordings include the tornadoes and storms ignored by the New Age crowd.

EarthEar tithes a portion of its revenues to such worthy causes as the Nature Sounds Society, the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, the Ocean Mammal Institute and the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. Jim Cummings of EarthEar says he is "aghast at the ways our culture has come to disregard the voices—and rights—of the more-than-human world."

Cummings would probably like film composer/saxophonist Frank Macchia’s new CD Animals (Cacophony), which is a richly textured jazz celebration featuring tracks with titles like "Dolphins," "Kangaroos," "Hippos" and "Jungleforest." Macchia tells E, "I try to use real instruments and not recorded nature sounds as I want to create an impressionistic portrait, not a literal one. Tonal color, which is the instrumentation used to depict the animals, is a key element. For example, the piece "Hippos" is my musical idea of what a group of hippos sound like frolicking in the water during a typical day. Low instruments such as tuba and baritone horn make a sonic imagining of the hippo."

Americana composer Peter Ostroushko’s soundtrack for the documentary Minnesota: A History of the Land (Red House) captures the whisper of tall grass prairie and the thunder of untamed rivers. John Burroughs famously said, "I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order." That’s fine, but sometimes it’s good to be challenged as well.

JIM MOTAVALLI, editor of E, hosts a radio show on listener-supported WPKN in Connecticut.