Nature in Music

Nature in Music


After learning from the way nature works, and making music directly out of natural sounds, the third approach worth considering is a kind of music-making that is more about a deeper attentiveness to the sonic world around us. With Cage and Hovhaness gone, Pauline Oliveros may be our elder voice on the music of nature, with her attention to a deeper form of listening and a meditative music that draws the listener into a sense of great place. She traces it back to her childhood in Texas. “My fascination with listening was always with me, from as far back as I can remember," she says. "I came from Houston, which in the ’30s was really a wonderland of sound: insects, birds…and mammals. You would hear an amazing variety. I was immersed in natural sound from very early on.”

Her compositions span the gamut from pre-synthesizer electronica to orchestral works. She has linked her music to a meditative practice called Deep Listening, that takes Cage’s urge to consider all sound as possible music and turned it into a spiritual practice:

Listening is noticing and directing attention and interpreting what is heard. Deep Listening is exploring the relationship among any and all sounds. Hearing is passive. We can hear without listening. This is the state of being tuned out—unaware of our acoustic ecology—unaware that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings has profound effects near and in the far reaches of the universe. We can hear sounds inwardly from memory or imagination or outwardly from nature, or from civilization. Listening is actively directing one’s attention to what is heard, noticing and directing the interaction and relationships of sounds and modes of attention. We hear in order to listen. We listen in order to interpret ourselves and our world and to experience meaning.

Or, in a more poetic exposition, she describes it thus:

Listen! Not with your ears with your feet.
Listen! Not with your ears with your blood.
Listen! Not with your ears with your ancestors.
Listen! Not with your ears with your future.
Listen! Not with your ears with your training.
Listen! Not with your ears with your ears.
Listen! Not with your ears with your elbows.
Listen! Not with your ears with your spleen.
Listen! Not with your ears with your brain.

David Dunn sees his work as a philosophical quest to listen more deeply to nature. In Mimus polyglottos he broadcast pure sine waves to a mockingbird and clocked the result: “The bird initially reacted with enthusiasm trying to match various parameters of the electronic sound: pitch, rhythm, and timbre. At a certain point it appeared to withdraw but slowly began to build its confidence until it was interacting with an extraordinary range of accommodation to the stimulus sounds. I’m fascinated by the fact that this occurs through something generally regarded as artificial. While humans often reject aspects of technology as something evil when compared to the rest of nature, the bird does not. Of course I’ve also heard them imitate washing machines and Volkswagen motors so there’s no accounting for taste even among mockingbirds.”


In his more recent soundscape piece, Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond, Dunn amplifies the tiny noises of pond insects and underwater current echoes into a frenzied rhythmic energy that resembles gamelan music. Here’s what he thinks it means, “I have finally reconciled myself to the gut feeling that these sounds are an emergent property of the pond. Something that speaks as a collective voice for a mind that is beyond my grasp. I know that this is not a scientific way of thinking but I can’t help myself. Now when I see a pond, I think of the water’s surface as a membrane enclosing something deep in thought.”

Another composer working with a bit of a “deep listening” aesthetic is Sarah Peebles, an American composer living in Toronto who has one of the most careful and subtle ears of any composer of musique concrète working today. In contrast to Lockwood’s approach, Peebles believes in complex and subtle transformations of the sounds she collects, turning them into rare and unrecognizable timbres. A bee alighting on a honey-coated glass bottle becomes booming percussion, wind in the trees becomes an orchestra of screams. She makes her music with Max/MSP software on a computer, blending diverse sounds together spontaneously to create rich sonic improvisations.

One of her finest pieces is the two minute “Noctural Premonitions,” which appears on her Insect Grooves recording on the Cycling 74 label. Of this piece she writes, “It reminds me of that curious dream state where events or scenes pass by as if vignettes, momentary experiences which just might reflect the next day’s news.” The sounds are derived from samples recorded and sculpted by the composer: the lapping waves of Lake Ontario, small Japanese prayer bells, the “higurashi semi” dusk cicada of Japan, the shakuhachi of Helen Dryz, and a tabla sample from a CD-ROM. The composition was performed and recorded in real time, remaining unedited, so it is truly an improvisation from the digital realm. The result sounds remarkably alive.

The arts establishment could be said to be afraid of nature, which appears so innocent, pure, lacking the irony they deem essential for commentary on our uncertain age. Any artwork that seems too direct in either its imitation of nature, or its evocation of natural processes, tends to be dismissed as naive and out of step with the realities of the time. The music world is probably less suspicious than the visual art world, but there still is the sense that “environmental” music may have more to do with a social cause than an artistic statement, particularly when it comes to putting natural sounds into serious compositions. It is not surprising that critics who praise Hovhaness’s music are uncomfortable with his whale piece—it seems too influenced by extra-musical sounds.

Music made out of nature, though, is embraced by environmentalists, ecologists, conservationists, those in our culture who feel that our most important task is paying greater attention to nature, caring more for it, devoting more energy to saving it. The ecology movement wants nature to be able to inform culture, inspiring fine art, literature, music, and design that represents a new ecological consciousness. So the culture of environmentalism is often quick to embrace those few innovative artists who pick nature as their primary theme.

Can this kind of art be more than propaganda? Many of us are familiar with Mao Tse Tung‘s slim volume, Lectures on Art, whose message is that art must serve the people, serve the cause, and not alienate the people. Personal expression or dissent will only be tolerated so far. Stalin told Shostakovich the same thing.

The best music from nature, however, doesn’t take away from the exact ambiguity that nature is best at, but reveals it to us, completes it for us in that Aristotelian sense of culture adding to nature to help humanity fit in. This artwork opens up to the aesthetic of nature, instead of simplifying the complex into something too easy. It reveals a precise roughness where patterns can be seen, but never without endless variation. Sure it’s true that humanity simplifies the world in order to make sense of it, but we do not want to miss out on its greatness in the process.

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.