As part of the ‘Land Lines’/’First Chances’ events for pupils from schools in Fife, held in St Andrews on 12th April, the writer John Burnside gave a talk on music inspired by the natural world. He spoke about how the sounds of nature can have a profound emotional impact on us, and about the ways in which the voices of the wind and the sea and animals can infiltrate musical compositions. He played some examples, beginning with Cantus Arcticus by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, which combines samples of birdsong (shore larks and swans) with instruments imitating that song, followed by a passage from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, in which the orchestra mimics the sound of the dawn chorus.
John said that while we might be able to hear, to a greater or lesser extent, listening is a gift. Actively listening to the world around us can set us off on a voyage of discovery. His next example was Erland Cooper’s Solan Goose, which begins by immersing us in the world of gannets, with their voices gradually fading away as human-generated sounds take over. John felt that this composition showed that the human and gannet worlds were different but that each of them feeds back and forward to the other, and he told the group that this kind of creative interpretation of human/non-human interrelationship can help us to think about the environment, can contribute to our understanding of the world.
One of the most important features of this kind of music, in John’s view, is its rootedness in place – Rautavaara’s music on the arctic coast of northern Finland, for example, and Cooper’s in the Scottish Orkney islands. Cooper’s music is composed using an upright piano and home-made folk instruments such as might be found in houses on Orkney, as well as electronic sounds. John argued that we need to know the stories and songs of a piece of land in order to be able to keep that land alive. Birds too have their specific places, he said. It’s important when listening to bird song to note when and where the bird is singing – resident species sing more at certain times than others, and some birds sing together. We should also listen to the rhythms and textures of the sound. For John, this kind of paying attention is the beginning of creativity, the beginning of imagination.
Here is John’s full playlist from the talk:
The Dawn Chorus from Daphnis et Chloé by Maurice Ravel, played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Collins Bird Songs and Calls
What music would you recommend for a wild music playlist? We’d love to hear from you, either via comments on this article or on Twitter @Landlinesnature, using the hashtag #wildmusic!
Featured Image: ‘A history of British birds’, by the Rev. F.O. Morris