Nature in Music

Nature in Music

Music is not a substitute for natural sound. It’s also naive if all it does is help us to appreciate nature. So what can art learn from nature beyond feebly copying it? I like the idea that art ought to imitate nature in its manner of operation, this phrase made famous by John Cage, who got it from cross-cultural curator Ananda Coomaraswamy operating in Boston around the turn of the century. Coomaraswamy derived it not from the ancient Hindus but from Aristotle, who emphasized that we human artists and craftspeople (same thing) complete what nature has started, thus insuring our fit in the general scheme of things.

So we build things that work like nature works, create art that holds together as ecosystems hold together, natural places, ponds with their ripples spreading out from a thrown stone, a spider with her web and the trapped, dying insects inside, the rushing spring flood fed from a melting mountain snowfield swelling the river canyons below, all without effort, all without plan. Make music worthy of such ease! It may not sound like nature, but it will work like nature.


It was initially through mushrooms that Cage found his specific route into nature’s ways. When he moved from New York City to the country in 1953, he began to explore the edibility of the surrounding fungi. It became a bit of an obsession. In 1962 Cage and a few friends founded the New York Mycological Society. He never saw this hobby as any kind of break away from music. As a matter of fact, the word mushroom comes just before music in the simpler of dictionaries. At a reading in Kentucky in 1967, Wendell Berry introduced Cage to the writings of Henry David Thoreau. From Norman O. Brown he learned the desire for “an environment which works so well we can run wild in it.” From Buckminster Fuller, he learned how technology can inspire us to turn the impossible into an opportunity, i.e., through new technologies, new music (for Cage), or new shapes and forms (for Fuller) can become possible and desirable. (Cage always took care to credit his friends.)

When teaching he told students to use art to compose the environment: “Imagine that the music you are writing is not music but is social relationships, and then ask yourself if you would like to live in that kind of society that would be that kind of music.” He admits us into his new country, formed by instructions that combine and dismember sound. There is a special kind of aesthetics then to judge the composed place: let it call forth a community, and put yourself inside it first as a listener and then as just one more sound. The musicmaker as anthropologist gone native, settling into a sudden place in the unknown culture. The previous rules for music no longer hold. Cage smiled as he once opened his window for me above the cats and plants in the Chelsea district of Manhattan just a year before be passed away. Cars honking hopelessly at each other below… “This,” he said, “is all the music I need… The reason I am less interested in music is not only that I find environmental sounds and noises more useful aesthetically than the sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures, but that, when you get right down to it, a composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do.”

“We do not easily know nature,” writes American poet Gary Snyder in the preface to his collected poems, No Nature. To know is to say no, to negate, to stop imagining that nature is actually one clear thing, out there, ready to be named or taken. Nothing deep will be so easy. Nature is hard to argue with. There is something good or right about the natural world. It seems devoid of evil, malice, temptation, excess, or bad choices. Perhaps art can never touch it. All we can do is try.

John Luther Adams is a familiar figure at the American Music Center, and his music takes familiar orchestral instruments but uses them in unusual ways, transforming them into tools to reveal the landscape of his Alaskan home, with a severe sense of space, strangeness, and openness to the extremes of wind, air, storm, and sun.


His Earth and the Great Weather is a sonic landscape of words, rhythms, natural sounds, drums, and strings that depict the cultural geography of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the extreme northeast corner of Alaska. It is a vast work, over 75 minutes in length, with a range of intensity and emotion that bespeaks the wide open harshness of the north. Beating drums, pounding thunder, rushing water, and an intense squeeze of strings create its many layers, while spoken words in English, Latin, Iñupiat, and Gwich’in (two native languages of the region), tie the experience down to culture.

Here’s what Adams has to say about his process:

My music has always been profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Recently, I have begun to explore a territory I call ‘sonic geography’—a region that exists somewhere between place and culture, between human imagination and the world around us. I hope to move beyond landscape painting in sound toward a music which, in its own way, is landscape—a music which creates its own inherently sonic presence.

The music of Earth and the Great Weather inhabits a nontempered harmonic world, based on the first eight odd-numbered harmonics of a low-D on the doublebass. The score makes extraordinary demands on the musicians, including special performance techniques and notation, as well as minute nuances of intonation. Fifteen out of sixteen open strings must be very precisely retuned, and simply tuning the ensemble can take an hour or more.

If the music succeeds, you should, as you listen, be transported to a distant part of the Earth, exactly, precisely, feeling the wind on your face from all the world’s many sides. A book of Adams’s writings should appear from Wesleyan University Press next year.

From Nature in Music
by David Rothenberg
© 2004 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.