July 30, 2013

Taking the World By Storm? Weather Inspired Music

By Edward Ortiz

When composer Brett Dean stepped out of his Melbourne, Australia home one Saturday afternoon in 2009, he walked into another scorching 100-plus degree day. The air that day was rife with smoke and doom. The asphalt was so hot it almost seemed liquid, and its image rippled in the sun. That day, a deadly bushfire was raging outside Melbourne. The fire, known as the “Black Saturday” fire, eventually took the lives of 173 people.

It was a moment Dean would never forget. Two years later, he wrote Fire Music, featuring guitar riffs that mirror the sizzle of the high heat that settled over Australia that summer.

In writing the work, Dean joined a long list of classical composers — both past and contemporary — who have been influenced by the weather and used it as a subject for composing. From Vivaldi to Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams and Berlioz, musicians have been inspired by weather. However, it is a subject few have plumbed, and with climate change, the weather may become a more frequent generator of musical ideas.

The subject of weather in classical music formed the focus of a recent study by Oxford University atmospheric physicist Karen Aplin and atmospheric scientist Paul Williams, who works at England’s Reading University.

The study was born in 2010 when Aplin, a double bass player in a regional orchestra, and Williams, a novice pianist, started talking about the subject.

“I realized, quite a while ago, that weather was depicted in pieces we played,” Aplin said. “That got me thinking, especially when I started doing scientific work related to weather.”

A Deep Cultural Measure: Weather

Listen To The Music

Terence Blanchard discusses Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in this performance at Blues Alley in Washington, DC playing music from the Grammy award-winning CD, "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)."

The two scientists soon began seriously researching the issue on their own time. They catalogued more than 40 classical orchestral works with a link between weather and classical music composition. The study only catalogued orchestral music from the 17th century to the present, and involved analyzing depictions of weather. (Aplin and Williams excluded folk and vocal music because of the common use of weather imagery in poetry.)

The study, published in the journal Weather in 2011, concluded that composers are, generally, influenced by their own environments, with weather a big factor in the composing paradigm.

“We found that music can be a deep cultural measure as to people’s response to weather,” said Aplin.

Given the effects of climate change currently underway, it stands to reason that the weather may be the starting point for many current composers. Here the emphasis may be on the extreme impacts of the weather rather than weather as part of a landscape. Responses to climate change, especially in America, have become highly politicized, and those responses have seen musicians react to cataclysmic weather events in a myriad of ways ranging from anger to outright political criticism.

Human(Nature)

That was certainly the starting point for Dean in his Fire Music, whose writing was a defining point for him as a composer. “It’s indicative of the kind of composer I am,” said Dean.

“I’m aware of what’s going on around me and this one event, in particular, was influenced by climatic conditions in Melbourne.”

In writing the piece, Dean chose to use the electric guitar in the orchestration to depict the dizzying heat. “It’s like a motif — a split chord, with a kind of humming in the resonance,” he said.

Dean sees weather and politics as inextricably linked. Fire Music is as much social commentary as it is a depiction of a deadly bushfire. The work also has a spiritual connotation for the indigenous aboriginal population. “For them, fire is a necessity. They managed the country before we white guys came by. They burned off [brush] regularly.”

Dean said that Fire Music was the first time that his composing was directly affected by a singular weather event. However, weather had already crept in as an influence in his writing.

“I immersed myself in the glory of the German winter” - Brett Dean, composer

In 1994, Dean, who spends half of the year in Berlin, was asked to write a work for the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. He chose to write about the experience of confronting winter as a heat-soaked Australian.

The result was a three-movement work titled Winter Songs, written for wind quintet and tenor. For the libretto, Dean mined five poems by E.E. Cummings that draw heavily on winter imagery.

“I immersed myself in the glory of the German winter,” he said.

The challenge, Dean said, was conveying Cumming’s poetic imagery, such as when the poet described winter as a “yellow smear of November sunsets.”

Bringing Issues Center Stage

Another musician whose artistic life has been affected by weather is David Harrington, violinist with the Kronos Quartet. Kronos was scheduled to play quartet parts in Dean’s Fire Music at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, opening this weekend. However, conductor Marin Alsop injured her wrist in July, which forced the cancellation of that work and several others.

Harrington believes that composers tap the weather as a subject because of the drama inherent in weather events, especially ones that come from climate change. “Ultimately, I think everything is influenced by the weather,” he said.

The quartet is in the midst of celebrating its 40th anniversary and has been performing a piece it commissioned from Laurie Anderson, titled Landfall. The work finds Anderson exploring the effects of the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, which was responsible for 148 deaths and was the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

“We’re definitely involved, for the foreseeable future, in bringing these kinds of topics into our concerts and recordings” - David Harrington, violinist

That commission fits in with a pattern for Kronos where weather figures prominently. In 2005 the quartet commissioned the 14-minute Cercle du Nord III, by Canadian composer Derek Charke.

“It definitely includes elements of arctic weather conditions,” said Harrington. “You hear things like the crunchy and distinctive sound of someone walking over snow.” In describing his work, Charke has said that arctic soundscapes hold a special place in his composing. The evocation of place in Cercle du Nord III includes Inuit throat-singing and the sound of barking sled dogs.

Performing works that have weather at their core is more than just a thematic outgrowth for Harrington; it’s a form of advocacy. “We’re definitely involved, for the foreseeable future, in bringing these kinds of topics into our concerts and recordings,” said Harrington. “The future is pretty clear to me about this sort of topic and the role that musicians will increasingly play.”

Water Everywhere

Bay Area-based composer Mason Bates addresses climate change in Liquid Interface, an orchestral work he describes as a “water symphony” that “heats up in each movement.”

“The work begins with actual recordings of glaciers calving in Antarctica and moves through water’s various states after that,” said Bates. “The central movement, “Crescent City,” explores the dangerous side of big water.” In its title, Bates was alluding to New Orleans’ ordeal after Hurricane Katrina, as well as to the Northern California city that was leveled by a tsunami in 1964. And that’s just one of a number of musical responses to Hurricane Katrina, which include Terrance Blanchard’s A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) and Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads.

John Luther Adams: Learning From Extremes

John Luther Adams may be the composer most involved with weather and climate change. An environmental activist in his 20s and early 30s, he was recently a recipient of a Heinz Award for “individuals who are working toward real and inspirational solutions for environmental problems.”

Listen To The Music

Composer John Luther Adams talks about his process with NewMusicBox in the piece 'The Music of a True Place'.

“The weather and the landscape has been at the core of everything that I have done the last 40 years,” said Adams.

Adams not only has composed many works representative of weather in northern Alaska and his latter-day outpost in the Mexican Sonoran desert, he’s also written two books about how weather and landscape forms a philosophical basis for his composing, and his life. That much is clear in Winter Music: Composing the North, in which he devotes a chapter to global warming.

Adams said weather plays out most explicitly in his piece Earth and the Great Weather. That operatic work uses a blend of sounds recorded in the field. “I call it a sonic geography of the Arctic,” he said. “The weather is a way for me to understand different extremes.”

“These extremes of darkness and light, they find a voice in my work and have done so for a long time, even before I was aware of it,” Adams said. “There is a winter mind and summer mind … and this resonates in the music.”

Since he moved to Alaska in the 1970’s, Adams has seen a change in the weather and this, too, has changed his composing philosophy. “I ran away to Alaska to get away from the world, but the world has found me,” said Adams. Some of those climate changes have been subtle, others overt — like the dramatic increase in the duration and intensity of Alaskan wildfire seasons.

“I ran away to Alaska to get away from the world, but the world has found me,” - John Luther Adams, composer

The 42-minute orchestral work Become Ocean is the latest of his “climate pieces.” Given its premiere on June 20 by the Seattle Symphony, the work is prefaced with the words: “As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

“We now see lightning and thunder in December, and we’ve seen winter come a full month later than usual, and spring arrive a full month earlier,” Adams said. “We hear red-winged blackbirds in the little marsh below our house, and that has never been a bird present in interior Alaska.”

He no longer sees himself as a composer living in a singular outpost sheltered from the world. Climate change has taken care of that, he contends. And so has living in Mexico, where constant winds borne from the nearby Pacific Ocean have added a new aspect to Adams’ relationship with the weather.

“These changes have challenged me to expand my understanding and awareness and aspirations in my music, so that the music is no longer specifically about a particular place, but about place,” Adams said. “It has gone from being specifically local, to being more global in focus.”

And those are aspirations that his composer forerunners would certainly have understood.

Edward Ortiz is arts and science writer for The Sacramento Bee and has written for The Boston Globe, The Berkshire Eagle, and The Providence Journal. He is also a contributor to Symphony Magazine and www.newmusicbox.org.