Odes to trees are nothing new. No doubt, many of us can recall the simply named poem “Trees,” in which the late poet Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918) praised the woody perennials, ending with the words, “Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.” Then there was the writer and mystic Kahlil Gibran, who once shared the thought, “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky,” while Henry David Thoreau boldly declared, “Trees indeed have hearts.”
But has there ever been an entire evening of music inspired by, specifically, the redwoods, sequoias, and Joshua trees of California, which have been decimated in recent years, especially by the wildfires of 2020? With that thought front of mind, Thor Steingraber, executive and artistic director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya), commissioned a response to the most destructive wildfire season in the Golden State’s history.
Dubbed Treelogy, the concert is both a celebration and call to action to save California’s cherished and iconic trees. A musical response to a lengthy article by New York Times journalist John Branch, the trilogy, if you will, features new works by renowned composers Billy Childs, Steven Mackey, and Gabriella Smith, all of whom — pardon the pun — have deep California roots of their own. Their compositions will be performed, for the most part, by Delirium Musicum, a string ensemble founded in 2018 by violinist Etienne Gara, who is currently The Soraya’s artist-in-residence.
Premiering at The Soraya on Feb. 23, Treelogy will also tour California, bringing together scientists, educators, activists, and advocates and spreading its musical message to other state campuses. Included are performances on Feb. 26 in San José, Feb. 28 in Chico, and March 2 in Rohnert Park.
Adding further environmental fuel to Treelogy is a partnership between The Soraya and TreePeople, the Southern California nonprofit founded in 1973 whose mission continues to reinvigorate the relationship between humans and trees. To that end, a virtual live event, “T.R.E.E. Talks: Can Art Save Nature?” took place on Feb. 17, while an ongoing social media campaign is asking audiences to recall their relationships with nature and, specifically, trees.
Steingraber, himself an avowed environmentalist, explained that the genesis of the concert was twofold, the first being Branch’s article about the deadly fires. “A few decades ago, The New York Times didn’t have a climate desk — there was one writer — and now they have double-digit writers, and every day there’s a climate-related story.
“To be honest,” added the director, “I can’t read them all because they depress me too much. They make me feel hopeless, but [The New York Times] sent John, who lives in Northern California, to write about the fires, and when I picked up the paper in December of 2020, the fires were a few months old, and what I read [by him] didn’t depress me. … There was something about John’s approach that lifted me up.”
Talk about a call to artistic action: In addition to having read about the catastrophic fires, as well as seeing them on the news — all while the pandemic was also raging — Steingraber had an idea. He’d recently underwritten a project, MusiKaravan, conceived by Gara and his partner, YuEun Kim. Traveling up and down the Pacific Coast in their 1971 Volkswagen bus — fondly dubbed Boris — the duo played their violins for essential workers. (MusiKaravan also won SF Classical Voice’s Audience Choice Award for Best Streaming Series in 2020–2021.)
“I would get reports from the road,” Steingraber recalled, “and after I read John’s article, I asked Etienne to read it. He’s sleeping in his bus, under the redwoods and not always in cell range, but when I reached him, I said, ‘I want to commission three composers — [one each] for the Joshua tree, the redwood, and the sequoia, just like John has written his piece in three parts.’”
Steingraber’s rationale was that the composers would essentially be writing about characters. “Because when you do it that way, it’s not that the world is flooding, burning, drought-ing — if that’s a word — but it’s about writing about something that has a personality and a meaning and has a place in the story. It would be a requiem for those trees, but I don’t want to depress people.”
Steingraber pointed out that Gara immediately said yes, but the director also wondered if, perhaps, the French-born musician had been “eating wild mushrooms.” He asked Gara to call back “when you get to a real phone signal. Our next conversation was a week later, and he said, ‘I have a list of 10 composers.’ I had my programming team make introductions to find these people, we approached them, and the first three each said yes. Just like Etienne did, with zero questions asked.”
The acclaimed composers were tasked to pick a tree, with Mackey choosing redwoods, Childs sequoias, and Smith Joshua trees. In the summer of 2021, Steingraber called Branch and introduced himself, explaining the project. And, voilà, a journalistic/environmental/musical journey was born. Indeed, The New York Times even invited The Soraya team to a global conference that was held in San Francisco last October.
“The captains of industry, philanthropy, and tech were there,” said Steingraber, “and one arts organization — ours — was holding up the fort. Can art,” he asked rhetorically, “can music, bring anything to this equation?”
The answer for Steingraber is decidedly yes, and he affirms that he was all for “letting composers do what composers do; they have to find their muse.” For five-time Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist, composer, and arranger Childs, who has recently been on the road with several world premieres, including a saxophone concerto performed by Steven Banks with the Kansas City Symphony, the commission was a no-brainer.
It’s also no coincidence that the Los Angeles-born Childs, 65, is a tree enthusiast. He snagged the 2011 Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition for “The Path Among the Trees,” from his album,Autumn: In Moving Pictures. Noted Childs: “I love trees. I love nature in general, and I do think that our future on this planet is very intrinsically tied to trees and how we take care of them.”
Childs’s new work, which will be performed by Gara’s ensemble along with stand-up bassist Dan Chmielinski, drummer Christian Euman, and Childs himself on piano, is called My Roots Spread Far and Wide. As for his process, Childs explained that he begins with “an impression I’m trying to convey, and then I’ll move into other impressions. In this [piece], there are three impressions that are very loosely tied together.”
Childs, who received his first commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1993 and whose Violin Concerto No. 2 will be performed by Rachel Barton Pine with the LA Phil on July 27 at the Hollywood Bowl, added that although sequoia trees are 3,000 years old and the biggest in the world, “they’re fragile, and the activity of humankind, the pernicious activity of humankind upon the planet, affects them greatly, which in turn affects us.
“It’s a delicate balance,” he continued, “so I started with an impression of leaves falling, although the leaves are not like leaves that you would associate with fall and autumn — they’re almost shoot-shaped — but still, that suggested to me a kind of fragility. That’s how the piece starts, and then it goes into a melodic theme which has been going on in my head for years and years, and I finally found a place to use it.”
Childs, whose latest album, The Winds of Change, drops on March 17 from Mack Avenue Records, said that a portion of the work, which runs about 20 minutes, depicts a fire. “It’s like jagged, angular music that has a lot of action and motion in it. Then there’s a kind of duet that’s an imagined conversation between two trees, like the tree herders in The Lord of the Rings. I think that’s such a cool concept, that trees would have personalities and speak to each other. Maybe they’re telling each other things from over the last 3,000 years.”
With improvisation also a large part of Childs’s musical arsenal, the composer explained that he’s given Delirium Musicum’s 16 musicians “little cells to improvise [on]. There are sections where I wrote what I wrote, but I [also] want them to play in an improvisational manner when it’s just piano and string orchestra. I don’t want this to be by the numbers.
“The majority of the piece is specific,” added the composer, “but there are certain sections that are give-and-take [with] cadenza-like group improvisations. It’s like a suggestion. There are the notes, but I want them to play them as long as they want to but at different times, and then I’ll play in between them. One part is supposed to sound small, like raindrops, then it turns into Hurricane Sandy.”
Gara, 38, agreed that Childs wanted to “push his composition. He was trying to discover new techniques on instruments to create sounds that could continue to ornament his music and to push that language. We had a few meetings, and he would give me things to play, and we would also have conversations about music and other things to get to know each other and exchange how we feel about the trees, about music. I would ask him about jazz, and he would also share recordings.”
As for the other trees in this musical forest, Grammy Award-winning composer Mackey, who is on the faculty at Princeton University and whose honors also include a Guggenheim Fellowship, will be joining Delirium Musicum on electric guitar. In a January press conference on Zoom, the Northern California-raised Mackey called his work “a double concerto with Etienne and I as soloists” and also “a mix of Led Zeppelin and [Béla] Bartók.”
Mackey, 67, pointed out that he “grew up under the redwood trees and was drawn to that connection. Redwoods are home to me. The way they feel, smell, all that stuff is home to me.” He enthused, “Their beauty puts humans in their place — just the size, the height, and the girth. It’s obvious I’m not a poet — putting things into words is hard — but it was easy for me to musicalize.”
The redwoods also appealed to Mackey, a self-declared “musical omnivore,” because along with their size and venerable age — some are more than 2,000 years old — these trees are, in the composer’s words, “wonderful citizens” because “they share a root system.”
Then there’s the 31-year-old Smith, who grew up in Berkeley and whose 2021 concerto for organ and orchestra, Breathing Forests, was premiered by the LA Phil and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Her modus operandi is exploring new sounds in order to connect listeners with the natural world. In fact, many of her works address the climate crisis, meaning she might very well be considered the Greta Thunberg of composers.
Indeed, in the Zoom press conference, Smith called herself an environmentalist composer. “Environmentalist is a tricky word, but everybody should be one. We all need to be involved in climate action. This is something everyone needs to make an integral part of our lives. Music can be a part of this because it’s good at bringing people together. Individual action is ineffective as opposed to communal action.”
And Smith has certainly been walking that walk: Her first instinct upon taking the commission, she noted, was to go to the desert. “I [had] spent a lot of time around redwoods but not much time around Joshua trees, so I knew I had to go there and become familiar with the ecosystems. Last year I went camping at the Mojave National Preserve and brought a field recorder and recorded myself playing desert plants as instruments, as well as animals and the wind.” Three of the five movements in her opus make use of these sound recordings.
For Steingraber, activism is inherent in Treelogy. “Music and performance picked up the mantle of civil rights and of social justice quite a while ago,” he contends. “That was a watershed moment. Who’s picking up the mantle on behalf of climate and nature now? They are two halves of a whole.”
Not missing a beat, Steingraber continued his artistically driven quasi-diatribe: “Who’s writing music on behalf of the climate or theater or drama on behalf of the trees — or the mountains, oceans, lakes, or rivers? It’s a healthy argument. Yes, there were plein-air painters — that’s decorative — they were not activists or advocates. They were doing something beautiful, and amen to that.
“Others will say,” he added, “there was [the film] Erin Brockovich or Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. But those are documents. The movie is about a living person. Silent Spring is a masterpiece and the most pivotal book in the environmental space, but that’s not art. That’s documentary. Who’s making art on behalf of the trees?”
Answering his own query, Steingraber confessed to happily inhabiting the space he calls “environment-inspired music” and hopes that people will also take the cue to inhabit it, adding, “No one’s going to be depressed leaving Treelogy. I made sure it wasn’t a catastrophe piece. It’s the opposite. It’s a call to action to revere, celebrate, and, at all costs, protect something we love. How could we sit back and watch them perish without, at a minimum, celebrating them or eulogizing them?”