The Inspiration of the Natural World

Whenever they are away from their New York City studios, painter Rebecca Allan and her partner, composer Laura Kaminsky, spend as much time as they can hiking. They work together in the same place, but take different things from it. Allan might set up to paint on a rock overlooking river rapids, and Kaminsky might put on headphones and compose. They experience a specific landscape more richly through the other’s creative endeavor.

Growing up, Allan lived near the Great Lakes. The seasonal cycles of Lake Erie and the gradual erosion of a familiar shoreline along that lake became visual touchstones of her early experience of the world. A position at the Seattle Art Museum led her to the Pacific Northwest, where, as a painter, she initially found the size and scale of the Northwest mountains and forests intimidating. “I was overwhelmed by the scale,” Allan says, “especially compared to the Northeastern woodlands. But I became close to two painters, who helped me come to terms with the scale of this place.”

Hikes in Mount Baker National Park coincided with Allan’s decision to use round canvases, or tondos, an historic form that was popular in the Renaissance, used by Michelangelo, among others. “I thought about how dynamic the sky and glaciers might look if they were viewed through this shape,” Allan says. “My point of reference was the oculus in dome of the Pantheon. I began to use the geometry of the circle in combination with the irrational aspects of nature and try to express, in both representational and abstract terms, the fragility of our ecosystems, and the unpredictability of nature’s cycles.”

In the same way that Allan conveys her experience of the natural world in painting, Kaminsky translates that experience into music, describing rapids, mountains, or even icicles through instruments, rhythms, and motivic elements. “When I was working in West Africa, I was really paying attention to the texture of the dry savannah, the bite of the mosquitoes, the smells in the village, the sounds of drumming patterns, and the struggles of daily life,” she recalls.

“Similarly, in the Swiss Alps, I saw cascading waterfalls, glaciers, and crevasses, and wrote a piece in an attempt to capture the energy of that environment,” Kaminsky says. The lonely and quiet sections reflect the high alpine meadows, while the fast-moving, thunderous parts are about the power of the waterfalls and glaciers. Translating my experience of the natural world into music means paying very close attention to the physical environment and being open to it in all its forms. Sometimes this triggers synesthetic experiences, for example, when I perceive a color—the gray-green of a shallow glacial lake—and hear it as sound.”

Kaminsky also thinks about the observation of the natural world as a means of exploring subtle levels of feeling in human relationships. On a hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies, Kaminsky was struck by the range of blues she encountered: the purple-tinted lupines in the alpine meadows, cerulean glacial lakes, slate blue of the rocky tundra, and indigo of the night sky. These distinct shades of blue filled her with specific images and feelings, as well as a new series of questions. When does blue become gray, or green, or purple? When do you move from liking to loving someone? How do you express, musically, that continuum of emotional experience?

In her piece for chamber ensemble, “The Full Range of Blue,” the quality of blueness is always being transformed. Small musical motives, or color ideas, distinguish one movement from another and unify the work as a whole. The movements are: “Dawn/Mist Rising,” a flute and cello duo with very low clarinet and very high violin; “Slate/ Riverbed,” a clarinet and cello duo with fast-moving and interlocking parts; “Tundra/Waterfall,” for all instruments, to reflect the waterfall’s power; “Lupines,” played andante; “Glacier,” with a walking bass in the cello; “Stars in Still Night,” a quiet flute melody above the violin and cello; “Boulders/Avalanche,” for all instruments, with loud and rhythmic lines; and “Aftermath/Ash,” with a slow, somber melody dying away to silence.

Kaminsky’s most recent work, the percussion concerto “Terra Terribilis,” came about as a result of seeing the earth from an airplane, and the beauty of the earth’s surface, with the knowledge, she says, “that the fuel-burning process of getting to my destination was actually compromising this fragile place.” 
Terra terribilis means “terrible earth” in Latin, and refers, in part, to the state of urgency connected with the preservation of the environment, Kaminsky says. The work features three percussion soloists against the full orchestra, and explores different percussion families (skins, metals, mallets) in each of its five movements. The concerto plays with sound in space, allowing for different configurations of players and instruments in each movement. Three percussionists literally envelop the orchestra, taking up various positions behind and in front of the orchestral musicians.

The concerto is comprised of five movements: “Exuberant Earth,” featuring percussion to evoke the geologic underpinnings of the earth; “Glacier,” introduced by low drums, whose heavy and slow opening moves faster toward the end of the piece, reflecting the rapid rate of glacier-melt; “Ozone,” a mysterious and atmospheric movement punctuated by wispy metallic sounds; “Fauna,” which uses woodwinds in conversation with a marimba solo to evoke the movement of animals; and finally “Enduring Earth,” a high-energy, pulsing culmination for the full orchestra with all three percussion soloists at the front of the stage.