An invisible thread ties people together—by profession, by socio-economics, by ideology, by ethnicity, by gender, by interests, and by place. This could all be stratified further. Even within music, we tend to align by instrument family and/or by genre. We co-exist along many of these threads. The threads wound together create community.
Physical communities are shaped by the ecosystems in which they grow into existence. Our landscape shapes our perception of the world, and thereby our culture. The infrastructure and architecture reflects the environment, climate, and the people who have built lives in a place over time. Local museums overflow with objects of our collective past redefined as shared identity. The community thread connects us with a common understanding, language (lingo), memories, and shared experiences. It is this shared sense of place that is fostering the creation of new works that evoke the complex landscapes, histories, and cultural heritage of ensembles and their communities.
For many in the Southwest, lack of water is the pervasive reality. In January 2016, the Downey Symphony Orchestra premiered To Dust, a water war requiem for string orchestra and multimedia created by composer Bryan Curt Kostors. The piece shares the story of the decimation of the 110-square-mile Owens Valley Lake, northeast of Los Angeles. In 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, diverting the water to the growing city. Today the lake is nearly dry, and its remaining sediment creates one of the highest levels of toxic pollution in the country.
In Georgia, composer Steven Landis composed Thronateeska for the 50th anniversary of the state’s Albany Symphony. The Flint River is a vital artery in western Georgia. Premiered in February 2015, Landis had percussionists use actual pieces of flint rhythmically to symbolize historic Creek people chipping away at the rock to create tools.
Some may argue that place-based music written in the present can “color the complexion of places,” but we can be richer for it. Since places, like music, are dynamic, they continually transition and are experienced over time. New associations and memories can broaden our perceived definition of place and spark imagination and new ways of seeing—and hearing. Donald Rosenberg writes “in commissioning portraits of their regions, orchestras are…exploring topics vital to their communities.”
Communities are also re-exploring their past and commemorating milestones through new music. To recognize Boise Idaho’s 150th Anniversary in 2013, the Philharmonic commissioned Idaho composer Jim Cockey to write Sacred Land: A Tribute to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. The Dallas Symphony looked to composer Steven Stucky and librettist Gene Scheer to commemorate Lyndon Johnson’s birth 100 years before. In September 2008, the DSO premiered August 4, 1964 focusing on one of the most controversial days in Johnson’s presidency.
Most exciting is to see how the various community threads are weaving fresh patterns into our places. New music is being created that connects with our cultural heritage and reflects the cultural diversity within our communities. In central Illinois, the Heritage Ensemble brings the rich musical literature of the African American experience to a wider audience. The Seattle Symphony works to build cultural understanding through the creation of new music with local tribal nations through the Native Lands Project.
Thai born composer Narong Prangcharoen, a resident composer at the Pacific Symphony, researched Orange County, California, for a year to compose Beyond Land and Ocean. While he explored, talked to residents, and listened to the sounds of the waves, Disneyland, and mission San Juan Capistrano and nearly 60 other locations, the Pacific Symphony sought contributions from the public, who sent in personal stories, images, recordings, and other artifacts. Prangcharoen describes the work, premiered in September 2015, as a “celebration of diversity and how that diversity somehow unites us.”
Likewise, composer Tod Machover immersed himself in the city of Detroit beginning in 2014. Integrating sounds of its industrial, social, and cultural history, he also collected conversations with people across all walks of life. Many are integrated into the performance of Symphony in D on stage. Speaking about the piece, Machover said, “having a project that is a kind of forum for people to be able to express themselves and to meet each other is wonderful. It can’t possibly be the ultimate story of Detroit, but it will allow people to rally around a narrative of their city.”
Previously, I stated that composing about place and its engagement with geographic, cultural, and human history advocates on several levels. Specifically music that we create about, for, and with a community can itself act as an advocate for these places. By integrating the thread of community, new music can advocate within places as well, to the people who live here and share an understanding of the place they call home.