Category Archives: Music

Lutes & Lily Ponds ~ Classical Music Inspired by Wetlands

On my way to work this morning, I listened to a piece on National Public Radio (NPR) from the “Wuthering Heights” opera composed by Bernard Herrmann. Today is Anne Brontë’s birthday, so it is fitting for Strange Wetlands to have a post on classical music inspired by wetlands. I am the grand-daughter of a composer of classical music—mainly for orchestra, jazz and big band swing in the 1940s:  my grandfather led the “Bob Chaplin Orchestra” on lead clarinet, and years later, composed chamber music. He advocated strongly for wetlands protection, serving on his town’s planning board from the 1960s-1990s. Incidentally, my grandfather’s family farmland is now, much transformed, the same location as the ASWM headquarters—where I write this blog and advocate for wetlands protection.

One piece of classical music I heard recently on NPR &Maine Public Radio with Suzanne Nance was “The Fairy Queen,” a Baroque semi-opera composed by Henry Purcell, known for his nature-inspired music. I’ve noticed a number of classical pieces have titles that take inspiration from nature, and in particular, wetlands, rivers, lakes and forests.  Even those who aren’t fans of classical music may be familiar with the Grand Canyon Suite, composed by Ferde Grofe, with songs that sound like they were composed for a great western, such as “Sunset,” and “On the Trail”—a humorous melody about a ride on mules along the waters of the Colorado River. Other famous works composed for film scores and orchestras were inspired by life on the Mississippi River, such as the contemporary film score composed by William Perry in 1980 and Ferde Grofe’s Mississippi: A Journey in Tones (Mississippi Suite), with dark flowing chords that suggested a scene along the Mississippi River, with a nod to Mark Twain. American composers were drawn to large natural landscapes in the 1920s and ’30s, when national parks were newly established. This music echoed into the subconscious minds of listeners for generations.

In other pieces, such as My Native Heath, suite for orchestra, composed by Arthur Wood (1875-1953) in 1924/25, the work was inspired by the composer’s childhood spent on the heath and moors of Yorkshire. This music depicts the moors and heaths—something out of a Brontë novel. His other works were inspired by life on the moors, such as Yorkshire Moors Suite but his most famous piece, “Barwick Green,” came from My Native Heath. “Barkwick Green” was chosen for a long-running BBC soap opera, “The Archers.”

Below is a list of classical pieces available online. If you search for these wetland-themed classical pieces on this website (here), you’ll notice that some of the longer works, such as symphonies, ballets and chamber music, list individual songs. Many of the songs sound as though they were inspired by wetlands, waters and natural places. For example, in River of Ponds, composed by Larry Bell, you can listen to songs called “Black Creek” and “Silver Lake.” A word of caution: “bog” is also Russian for “god,” so at first glance, it seems there are a lot of classical pieces inspired by bogs, but in fact, I only found a few pieces relevant for this list, such as The Peat-Bog Soldiers, composed anonymously (post-WWII), arranged by Hans Eisler and performed by Paul Robeson in 1997.

For those of you interested in making wetland videos, some of this music might be available or appropriate for use in video. Recordings can be found at the links below (titles are linked).

“Amidst the shades
and cool refreshing streams,
where lovers ease their panting hearts in dreams…”
-Henry Purcell, Z355, c.1680

In the Fen Country, a symphonic impression composed by Ralph V. Williams, 1935. This music has a dark romanticism flavor to it.

Marsh Lute Book, chamber music with the song, Chi passa per ‘sta strada, composed anonymously, performed by Paul O’Dette on lute (2003). Sounds like flower fairy music.

Langenhoe Marshes, contemporary classical music composed by Peter Pope for voice & piano, performed by Susan Legg (2011). Songs inspired by the marshes of England in lose connection with a project about England’s marshes.

Swan Fen, a Heathland Symphony, composed by Arthur Meulemans (1844-1966), later performed by Belgian orchestras (an album released in 1999).

The Peat-Bog Soldiers” (Moorsoldaten – Song from a German concentration camp) composed anonymously (post WWII), later arranged by Hans Eisler and performed by Paul Robeson on his album Songs of Free Men, 1997.

En lille fro i mosen sad” (A Little Frog Sat in the Bog), a Danish traditional children’s song

Dismal Swamp, a poem for orchestra with piano composed by William Grant Still in 1935, performed by the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra.

On the Heath (for Two Lutes), a piece for chamber music, composed by Ronn McFarlane (b. 1953- ) with individual songs called, “Thistle,” “Honeysuckle,” and “Haeddre,” a Scottish word for heather, the plant. McFarlane is a renaissance lute player from West Virginia. He played in pop bands for a while but was more known for making the lute more popular.  His many works for the lute were inspired by nature and wetlands. See (and listen) to some here.

Beneath the Linden on the Heath, an early German love song composed by Walther von der Vogelweide in 1170. This song was written for a married lady (unavailable to the admirer, who sings for her). Interestingly enough, unrequited love in songs and poetry was considered noble, whereas requited love was regarded as “lowly love.” The music is a mix of flute, harp, lute and shawm, a type of woodwind instrument from the 12th century and Renaissance period. This particular song depicts a scene on the heath, where the two lovers meet in secret for a kiss under a linden tree.

Amidst the Shades & Cool Refreshing Streams, a Baroque semi-opera with vocals and music that mimics bird song, composed by Henry Purcell around 1680. He autographed a copy of this piece in 1683 and it’s held in the British Museum. The piece was much admired in its day.

Walden Pond, a song for cellos and harp composed by Dominick Argento (b.1927- ) in 1996, while he was a professor of theory and composition (for several decades) at the University of Minnesota. Walden Pond, featuring the vocals of Minnesota’s Dale Warland Singers, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2003.

The Pond (Remembrance), a brief (2 minute) symphony composed by Charles E. Ives in 1906, was inspired by his father’s tune coming over the mists of a Connecticut pond. Ives studied music at Yale. He and a friend co-founded the first Mutual Life Insurance Company in Manhattan. Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947, though many of his songs were written in the 1880s.

River of Ponds, for cello and piano, composed by award-winning Larry Bell (b.1952- ) in 1986 included pieces called “Black Creek,” “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” and “Silver Lake.” Bell’s music has been performed all over the world. Visit www.LarryBellmusic.com. “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” may refer to Earp’s association with Amy Pond, a Scottish woman, rather than a water body. Wyatt Earp’s wife, Urilla, died a year after they married, and the famous Tombstone gunman went off the deep end, devastated by that loss. Later he reinvented himself as a law man and became a U.S. Marshal. Dr. Who fans would know more about the association between Wyatt Earp and Amy Pond, recurring characters in the TV series. By contrast, the reference to Wyatt Earp’s Pond might be associated with the water fights in Tombstone over use and management of aquaducts in the 1880s, when Earp was a city marshal. If you know the significance of “Wyatt Earp’s Pond” referenced here, please leave a comment.

Pond Life, composed by Ann Southam (b.1927-2010) with this album posthumously released in 2012. She also composed a piece called Rivers. Most of her early works were composed in a lyrical Romantic 19th century style. Since she was one of Canada’s first women composers, there’s evidence to suggest feminist elements in her music. In the 1960s, she was recognized for composing electronic music. For a long list of her works, see this page. Pond Life, which she composed in 2008, was written for a solo piano piece to be accompanied by a ballet dancer. To see a Youtube video of a performance from Pond Life, click here.

A Lily Pond, composed by Billy Mayerl, who composed largely between the 1920s-1950s, wrote poem-like suites. It was considered British, but he was drawn to American music. His Aquarium Suite, which included the songs, “Willow Moss,” “Moorish Idol,” “Fantail,” et.al. in 1937, was very much admired.

Forest of the Amazon, by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a prolific Brazilian composer, wrote this in 1958. In his later years, he was composing music in Paris and New York.

Strange Meadowlark,” a song by Dave Brubeck (b.1920- ), one of America’s most prolific jazz composers, has been associated with the West Coast Jazz revival of post-WWII. His 1960s jazz ballet, Points on Jazz, premiered with Louis Armstrong at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Listen to Strange Meadowlark on Youtube. This song is from Brubeck’s Time Out record (1959), one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

See related blog posts on Wuthering HeightsSwan Lake & Tchaikovsky and Swamp Music Revisited: A New Take on William Blake.

Advertisements

Swamp Music Revisited: A New Take on William Blake

From the first chord, I knew I was going to enjoy Martha Redbone’sGarden of Love. Her vocal and musical interpretation of William Blake’s poetry is hauntingly beautiful. It’s swampy. It’s spiritual. It’s romantic ecology set to music.

My favorite aunt introduced me to Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth and William Blake when I was fifteen. I read and analyzed their poetry; I tapped my fingers to iambic pentameter. I wrote essays and sonnets. Reading their poetry probably influenced my passion for environmental science. I was born a poet but I grew to love ecology–partly born out of my love for William Blake and the Romantics.

The poetry of Blake is rich with nature imagery. Some of his poems deal with man’s relationship with nature, and specifically swamps and wetlands in a literal sense, but perhaps as metaphors for the human spirit. Like others of his time, Blake’s poetry called for action—to protect natural places, including wetlands, which he believed were vital to the human experience. Blake and his colleagues were the “eco-poetics” and they promoted the ideas of deep ecology, an interconnectivity among living things and the intrinsic value of nature. Nowadays analysts of this stage in the environmental movement refer to it as a genre of ecological criticism, or “eco-criticism,” in which the writers and thinkers of that time were motivated by environmentally-driven ethics and activism. For example, Blake’s line, “everything that lives, / Lives not alone, nor for itself ” and other verses pointed readers to the idea of economic values of nature (Hutchings, 2007). Today we call this eco-economics and talk about the functions, ecological services and value of wetlands. In Blake’s poetry, he used a very similar terminology in poems set in wetlands.

For Strange Wetlands, I surveyed a few examples of swamp rock in a previous post. But there is more to swamp music than rock and blues. Swamp-inspired music can be folksy, indie pop, gospel and acoustic. Martha Redbone, a southern songwriter, recently released a new album, Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. She sings the poems as Blake wrote them—but set to original music. The singer explains that she “wanted people to be reminded of the beauty of [Blake’s] messages and the relevance that rings so true today — his sentiments of ‘Mercy, Pity and Peace / Is the world’s release.’” I would add that Blake’s eco-poetics are also a relevant call to action for the nation’s wetlands. Given the timing of Redbone’s album release during the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, this swamp music may be part of a soundtrack to herald in a new dawning of clean water protections for streams, rivers and wetlands. Listen to Martha Redbone’s Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. Find her on Youtube.

I laid me down upon a bank
Where love lay sleeping
I heard among the rushes dank
Weeping Weeping

Then I went to the heath & the wild,
To the thistles & thorns of the waste
And they told me how they were beguiled
Driven out & compelled to be chaste

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

-Garden of Love
William Blake

Pearl Jam – 20 Years of Environmental Activism (and my Soul Band)

Climbing on a mountain
Floating out on the sea
Far from lights of a city
The elements they speak to me…

Whispering that life
Existed long before greed…
Balancing the world
On its knee…
-1/2 Full, Pearl Jam (Eddie Vedder, lyrics)

The 20th anniversary Pearl Jam album comes out this month. I’ve been listening to Pearl Jam since 1992. In the band’s early days, it premiered at the New York City club, Wetlands Preserved, a music venue that featured performances by activist bands, many with an environmental agenda. Wetlands Preserved served as an environmental activism center from 1989 to 2001. It raised money for local wetland restoration and protection projects in New York. The club was known as a home to activist rock bands, including Pearl Jam, Ani DiFranco, Dave Matthews Band, Blues Traveler and Phish. http://www.wetlandspreserved.com/ Prior to that, so-called “eco-saloons” were unusual. Wetlands Preserved gave many activist bands their start and simultaneously raised awareness about environmental issues. A documentary about the club was released in 2007, directed by Dean Budnick: http://www.brooklynvegan.com/archives/2008/03/wetlands_preser_1.html

Pearl Jam continued to stand up for environmental issues over the last 20 years, most recently, wetland restoration in the Gulf and the B.P. oil spill. They performed in a concert to raise money and awareness about the B.P. oil spill and wetlands restoration in the Gulf, along with about a hundred other activist bands. http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/677-e2-wire/130137-ozzy-pearl-jam-to-obama-stay-focused-on-gulf-restorationThey launched their Oceans campaign, and partnered with the Gulf Restoration Network, with the music video for their song, “Amongst the Waves”http://www.ascap.com/playback/2010/08/Green_Room/PearlJam.aspx The video can be seen here: http://pearljam.com/oceans/ Their campaign calls for fans to clean up beaches, eat fish that has been caught sustainably, to support the Gulf Restoration Network’s work in wetlands, and to rethink dependence on oil by using renewable sources.

Like many activist bands, Pearl Jam’s lyrics speak to social and environmental issues, politics and the human experience. For example their song, “Oceans,” on their album Ten, is a love song with the lyrics: “The sea will rise / please stand by the shore.” The five members of the band are each devoted to environmental causes, especially climate change, deforestation and renewable energy, but other issues, including wetlands. Their Carbon Strategy portfolio lists 9 organizations the band identified as doing innovative work in these areas and the band donated $100,000 to environmental groups in recent years.http://www.suite101.com/content/pearl-jam-environmental-issues-a76811 Pearl Jam’s environmental philanthropy is known internationally and they work closely with EarthCorps and Conservation International, two groups active in over 40 countries.http://www.suite101.com/
content/rock-stars-committed-to-environmentalist-cause-a185721
 The band also promotes “green touring,” which means they off-set their carbon footprint while on tour. They have been a role model to other bands on how to be a “carbon neutral” rock band.  Here one of the band members, Stone Gossard, discusses this role:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2W_G07Jv-w Gossard is on the board at the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, OR. http://www.wildsalmoncenter.org/index.php In 2003, the band worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to protect rainforests in Madagascar.http://www.conservation.org/discover/partnership/corporate/Pages/pearl_jam.aspxThe band also got the Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2007http://www.surfexpo.com/

Their most recent album, “Backspacer,” was named after the turtle they sponsored in the Great Turtle Race of 2009. The female leatherback won the race (she was called “Backspacer”). I had been waiting nearly 20 years for Pearl Jam to perform a mermaid song and I got my wish on this album with the song, “Force of Nature.” The lead singer, Eddie Vedder, is a soul surfer, and he often sings songs about the nature of the sea and our connection to it. For more information about Pearl Jam, visit the band’s website:http://pearljam.com/

There are many other activist bands that carry an environmental message in their music. For a blog on environmental songs, go to:
http://songs-for-ee.blogspot.com/2009/08/environmental-songsa-newscollection.html.  A high school student from southern Maine started the Emission Commission and launched a blog and top-ten list of environmental songs in 2009, including the bands Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and R.E.M.http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tech-transport/emission-commission-environmental-songs.html

A documentary about Pearl Jam will be featured on PBS’s program, American Masters, debuting on October 21, 2011. For the story behind this documentary, go to:http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/16/flannel-surfing-pearl-jam-documentary-by-cameron-crowe-gets-pbs-debut/?src=tptw

For the eco-rock video for Pearl Jam’s “Amongst the Waves,” go to:http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/pearl-jam-amongst-the-waves

I waited almost 20 years for PJ to come out with a mermaid song… and they came through with “Force of Nature.”

Hurricane has the trade winds blowin’
A gale force shakin’ the windows in the storm
Shipwreck on the rock that he calls home
With one light on…

Somewhere there’s a siren singin’
A song only he hears
All the strength that you might think
Would disappear, resolving

One man stands alone, awaitin’
For her to come home
Eyes upon the horizon
In dark before the darkness meets the dawn

-Force of Nature, Pearl Jam

Swan Lake, a Nutcracker and Sleeping Wetlands Poem

With the holidays upon us, I think back to childhood experiences of visiting the theater to see ballets. I played the part of “floating garbage” in an environmental ballet called “A Blue Whale.” Three of my favorites are among the most popular of classic ballets, all orchestrated by Peter Tchaikovsky —the Nutcracker (1892),Sleeping Beauty (1889) and Swan Lake (1876).

Tchaikovsky lived in Russia and died of cholera, most likely from drinking contaminated water. Several of his most cherished operas and ballets interpreted stories that took place in wetlands or around water, like the story of the riverine/lake-dwelling mermaidsUndine. In Swan Lake, the dancers crawl through a small river. The Sleeping Beauty has a love scene that takes place beside a stream in a forest. Many of his ballets premiered in St. Petersburg (Russia), a nature-lover’s paradise known for its forested shores; often new productions echo those origins.

The musical group, Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, have performed in concert with ballet productions of “The Nutcracker” throughout the U.S. in recent years. In the original story of the Nutcracker and the King of Mice by E.T.A. Hoffman, Clara dreams that her toy Nutcracker turns into a prince, who takes her into an enchanted pine forest wonderland, the “Land of Snow.”

But there is another type of nutcracker: the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) a jay-sized corvid that lives in alpine wet meadows, rocky mountain fens and shrublands, rocky mountain forests and savannas. The little bird likes ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and white-bark pine. It’s found year-round in Montana and throughout the west. It, too, retreats to a dreamy pine forest.

Sleeping Beauty is the longest of the ballets. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan stretches along 35 miles of shoreline (Lake Michigan) and covering 3000 acres of park rich with bogs, marshes and swamps.http://www.nps.gov/slbe/naturescience/wetlands.htm I have visited “the Dunes” and explored the trails running through this national park. It is a beautiful, peaceful area. Visitors may agree it’s a true “sleeping beauty.” For those traveling to British Columbia, the Sleeping Beauty Mountain Provincial Park provides day hiking trails and opportunities to see wildlife, such as grizzly and black bears, moose, mountain goats and blue grouse. One major trail takes hikers 6 kilometers (about 3.75 miles) through hemlock/fir forest and sub-alpine meadow. The Sleeping Beauty Valley boasts the “quintessential Terrace experience” with overnight camping allowed and views of the alpine lakes and meadows. http://www.vancouverisland.com/regions/towns/?townID=3677 (This is not to be confused with Sleeping Beauty Valley in the Mojave Desert. Broadwell Lake is a dry playa at the center of this desert valley, home to 350 rare plants, including the crucifixion thorn.)http://theguzzler.blogspot.com/2009/09/sleeping-beauty-valley-heart-of-mojave.html

Swan Lake has been so popular for 200 years that women have had their wedding dresses made to resemble the costume of Odette, the enchanted swan princess, who turns into a swan by day and into her human form only at night. Throughout the ballet, Odette flees to the lake, where she is under influence of the “bad swan.” If the eternal vow of faithful love is broken, Odette will remain a swan forever. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake (This has become a trendy theme for weddings now thanks in part by a recent film production called “The Black Swan.”)

The “good swan” / “bad swan” dynamic also plays out in wetlands. In some states, the dredging of wetland habitat has stressed the population of the native North American trumpeter swan. Iowa DNR developed a plan to restore its population of trumpeter swans in 1993, successfully reintroducing 50 pairs of swans to wetland sites.http://www.iowadnr.gov/wildlife/files/swanrestor.html A collaborative group between the Blackfoot Challenge, Wyoming Wetlands Society, FWS, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have worked to restore the trumpeter swan from 2005-2010. http://www.wetlandslegacy.org/swan.html By contrast, a number of states have been regulating the invasive species, mute swans, which were introduced to states like Minnesota in the mid-1800s and early 1900s from Eurasia. Mute swans are aggressive, known to chase people or other waterfowl out of wetland habitat. Their wingspan rivals that of the majestic trumpeter swan.http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/
terrestrialanimals/muteswan/index.html

While there have been many reinterpretations of the ballet and new references to Swan Lake, so have many places shared the same name. For instance, the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri contains over 7,000 acres of wetlands.http://www.fws.gov/Midwest/planning/swanlake/ Swan Lake Nature Study Area in Lemmon Valley, Nevada has mudflats, marshes and high desert.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Lake_Nature_Study_Area As snow falls and winter creeps over fens and marshes, freezes creek beds and streams to skate upon, the wetlands become sleeping beauties waiting for spring’s kiss.

For a poem by the same name that I wrote for my grandmother, see: http://aswm.org/wordpress/110-2/swan_lake_leah_stetson/

Swamp Rock

And I can remember the fourth of July,
Runnin’ through the backwood, bare.
And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin’,
Chasin’ down a hoodoo there.
Chasin’ down a hoodoo there.
–Creedence Clearwater Revival,
“Born on the Bayou”

Several years ago my father and I went to a CCR concert in Maine. When they sang, “Born on the Bayou,” I asked my dad about the “hoodoo man.” He told me it was slang for “Swampthing,” or the southern equivalent of Big Foot. I pictured a gentle, moss-covered giant, misunderstood, just like Harry from “Harry and the Hendersons.” Since that stormy night listening to CCR with my dad, I’ve been a little fond of Swampthing, and enamored of all things swampy. Right after Katrina hit, a lot of extra people showed up in Bar Harbor, where I was living at the time, and a friend of mine dated the lead musician in the group called the Frozen Swamp Choppers, who moved up from New Orleans. Eric Green and the Frozen Swamp Choppers have a distinct sound—swamp rock. Check it out: http://www.swampsound.com/ Green has been making swamp rock albums since the mid-‘80s. Here’s a video of one of his performances with the Eric Green Party. Some other classic swamp rock artists include Tony Joe White, Claw Boys Claw, The Almighty Defenders, John Fogerty, Beasts of Bourbon, Screamin’ Witch Doctors, Muddy Feet, the Cramps, Trailer Bride, Deja Voodoo. Swamp rock is a combo of Zydeco (Louisiana folk music—usually involving washboards or tubs as percussion), Cajun music, swamp blues and swamp pop. It showed up in American rock and became popular in the 1960s. The music is funky, soulful and reverberates with a twangy guitar. Song lyrics tell stories from southern folklore with a “southern gothic” feel. Songs often describe life along the Mississippi River, in the bayou and in New Orleans. For me, it makes me think of easy summer days spinnin’ around in a hot black inner tube in the river and ridin’ in the back of my dad’s jeep.

Swamp rock is not unique to the south, however, as there are swamp rock festivals in the Midwesthttp://www.swamprockbash.net/ and British swamp rock bands like Hipbone Slim and the Knee Tremblershttp://www.myspace.com/hipboneslim

Listen to CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” and watch the videohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJphgxTMkQc&feature=fvw

Swamp rock blues guitar http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIpAN-cCoFE

Black swamp blues http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVTAwYQGQt8&feature=related

Swampy ooze http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUCQ3K7S4Lk&feature=related

Aussie swamp rock band (blog) http://elblogdearchi.com/2009/08/beasts-of-bourbon-2/
Louisiana swamp rock band (blog) http://pixiepages.blogspot.com/2009/07/little-swamp-rock-dirty-water-dogs.html