Nature in Music

Nature in Music

The minute a composer thinks of directly integrating natural sound into music, there is a challenge to our whole sense of musical aesthetic. As austere a commentator as Immanuel Kant realized this in his famous tome on aesthetics, Critique of Judgment, way back in 1790. Why, wondered the great rationalist, do we never tire of listening to the simple melodies of birds, whereas if a human being were to take two or three notes and repeat them endlessly, we would soon get fed up with it? Bird song, Kant decided, was not really beautiful, but actually sublime, something wonderfully alien to our world of understanding, beguiling but always remaining beyond our reach.

Kant admits there is something more powerful about the alien pull of nature’s shapes and sounds. They are wild, irregular, bold, shocking, and can soon make us disillusioned with our merely human arts. Natural sounds are exuberant and minutely complex. We ought be satisfied with the way it is. No human can improve upon it, but in recognizing its imperviousness, might we be able to better ourselves?

Alan Hovhaness realized this when he chose to use actual whale sounds in his 1970 piece And God Created Great Whales, one of his most famous pieces, yet one often derided by critics. Why? Because it does something genuinely risky with those famous humpback whale songs, which are played on tape along with a live orchestra as accompaniment and inspiration for this partly aleatoric work, a rare but successful opportunity for orchestral musicians to improvise in the midst of a symphonic work. Here’s how Hovhaness describes it: “Free rhythmless vibrational passages suggest waves in a vast ocean sky. Each string player plays independently. Undersea mountains rise and fall in horns, trombones, and tuba. Music of whales also rises and falls like mountain ranges. Song of whales emerges like a giant mythical sea bird. Man does not exist, has not yet been born into the solemn oneness of Nature.”

So when the orchestra meets the whales, previous rules are cast aside. Nowhere else in Hovhaness’s music does improvisation appear so specifically. It is as if he is acknowledging that to meet these great alien undersea musicians, the players in the orchestra must cast aside all conventions and play along with the mysteries that happen.


New Zealand-born composer Annea Lockwood, who has lived in the United States for thirty years and has taught at Hunter and Vassar Colleges, recently retired to devote her full energies to soundscape compositions. The word soundscape was coined by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the sixties to describe the fact that the world around us can be heard, not just seen. Like the landscape, it varies consistently and can be appreciated and aesthetically judged according to different criteria. Are all-natural sounds better than human ones? Is nature more beautiful than culture? What does it take to make music out of such sounds? Deep listening, careful manipulation, or emulation in music made on human instruments?

Lockwood has written thoughtful and meditative works that take natural sounds at face value. She tends not to manipulate what she records all that much, preferring instead to reveal the richness and beauty of what is actually out there. Her most well-known such piece is Sound Map of the Hudson River, assembled out of recordings of the whole river’s length into a seventy minute flowing work. Lockwood records the Hudson River from its source in the Adirondack Mountains to the Lower Bay of New York City and the Atlantic Ocean. Each place has its own sonic texture, its own particular quality. Indeed, the sound of flowing water is always fascinating, pleasant, and meditative and connects with us in an important, subliminal way. Water sounds are always calming and absorbing at the same time. As Lockwood put it, “It occurred to me that water sounds are so calming because, at one level, it seems as if the sound isn’t really changing. And so the part of one’s audio system that’s scanning for new input is calmed. And, on another level, the intricacy of the sound absorbs the mind, so you don’t necessarily fall asleep or become disengaged. The mind is both lulled and absorbed at the same time. It’s a combination that keeps the listener inside the sound.” Recently Lockwood has been at work on a similar project on the Danube in Austria and Hungary.

Her World Rhythms is an improvised live mix of soundscape recordings. Most of the sounds are more primal than “pretty”: volcanoes, earthquakes, geysers, and radio waves from a pulsar in deep space. Lockwood’s fascination with the sound of running water lends a more familiar voice, along with lake waves, a fire, and tree frogs, with a single large gong providing a slow, spontaneous pulse beneath it all. The result is an impressionistic sonic immersion, free of the cacophony that can sometimes result from editing together such diverse sources.

Douglas Quin is a fine composer making intricate, interesting works out of a range of natural sounds, which he has collected himself from tropical rainforests to the ice of Antarctica. All his works are described at, and I was privileged to collaborate with him on the CD, Before the War, available from EarthEar.

Excerpt from Richard Lerman’s A Matter of Scale

Composer Richard Lerman is a populist of natural recording technology. He makes inexpensive (under $1) microphones out of piezoelectric disks (small, flat pieces of metal) and attaches them to blades of grass and lets raindrops fall on them. Sometimes he lets hundreds of ants walk all over them in the desert. The sounds he produces and assembles are immediate, shocking, intensified, and brilliant. His work expands the infinitesimal sounds of the natural world into noises that are wide and surrounding, changing our human sense of scale. In Sonora, which appears on the CD accompaning The Book of Music and Nature, the bass clarinet improvises a place in the midst of this vast and enhanced soundscape. His two released CDs of soundscape recordings, Within Earreach and A Matter of Scale, are the finest examples of how art can be derived directly from the sounds of the natural environment through the careful massaging of recording technology.

In the midst of this piece you will hear rain on the needles of fire-charred saguaro cactus, wasps spinning around in the sand, carpenter bees boring into long-dead trees, and the rustle of small red weeds in the dry wind.

What’s most special about Lerman’s work is the quality of the sounds themselves and the overall aesthetic vision that holds them together. He never claims to represent the world the way it sounds “out there,” but neither does he consider his specially gathered sounds as raw musical material. The sounds instruct the form—through them a vision of how the music ought to be assembled comes to life.

Anyone can afford this inexpensive recording technology, and Lerman will gladly tell you how to assemble piezoelectric microphones out of materials you can pick up at any electronics store. There is a wealth of information on his work on his website. For general information on the many ways natural sounds can be recorded see Gino Robair‘s fine cover story last year in Electronic Musician magazine.

From Nature in Music
by David Rothenberg
© 2003 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.