In Search of an Ecological Music

By Spencer Cawein Pate

I recently visited a stunning exhibition titled “Light” by the British artist Bruce Munro at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio. The conservatory was a perfect venue for Munro’s work, as it juxtaposed his glowing, ephemeral creations of light, color, glass, and plastic against the dense, verdant materiality of plant life, an effect that was in turn heightened by the gradual lowering of night outside the greenhouse walls. (Many years ago, I saw a similarly great exhibition by Dale Chihuly at the conservatory, and it still prominently displays several of his pieces today.)

Before leaving, I purchased a coffee-table book featuring Munro’s work, and I was intrigued to read within about how Munro sometimes takes visual inspiration from classical music. In particular, Munro mentions that two of his pieces, Cantus Arcticus and Angel of Light, were both inspired by and titled after pieces by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (a concerto and a symphony, respectively). While my knowledge of classical music is fairly limited beyond the modernists and minimalists, I had never heard of Rautavaara before, so I made a point to check out his work when I got back home.

To my happy surprise, Cantus Arcticus was one of the most magical and startlingly original pieces of music I had heard in a long time (despite having been composed in 1972!), as it weaves a lush, soaring orchestral arrangement around tape recordings of arctic birds. I’ve alluded to my love of nature recordings before (particularly the extraordinary work of Chris Watson and Jana Winderen), but only rarely have I heard music that so effectively blends these soundscapes with traditional instrumentation. I haven’t been able to stop listening to this concerto, and to Rautavaara’s oeuvre as a whole, since I discovered it, and I can certainly see why Munro was so taken with the piece as well–it instantly conjures up evocative imagery in the mind’s eye. (The best recordings of Rautavaara’s work, by the way, can be found on the Finnish Ondine record label.)

What makes Cantus Arcticus so special is that Rautavaara treats birdsong with the dignity and respect that it deserves. Unlike many dull ambient, new age, and improv records, which use often generic field recordings as the background for tedious instrumental noodling, Rautavaara accords the environmental sounds specificity and equal prominence with the acoustic instruments; they are not mere filigree, but rather the thematic and sonic centerpiece of the composition.

As with the films of Stan Brakhage (such as Mothlight and The Garden of Earthly Delights, both of which explore forms of inhuman perception), Cantus Arcticus transgresses the boundaries between human and animal, nature and culture. It elevates animals to the level of equal partners collaborating or sharing in musical projects, while demonstrating that the origin of human music (and thus of aesthetics and human culture itself) lies partly in our attempts to imitate the songs of birds and the other creatures with which we share the planet Earth. Music, then, is intrinsically an immanent part of ecology and the natural world, not something transcending it, and humans are just one of many species that create art. 

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