The relationship between music and nature is innate in the world we live in: think of birdsong or the buzz of bees. Composers have looked to the natural world to create some of the greatest pieces of music of all time.
Our friends at BBC Wildlife Magazine have gathered some of the best nature documentaries available to stream online now.
Jean-Philippe Rameau: 6 Concerts transcribed in sextet: I. The hen
The Musicians of the Louvre / Marc Minkowski
DG Archives 4775578
It is a glorious and powerful portrait of a rather modest creature: the hen. She may lack grandeur, but Rameau created a witty portrait of her nonetheless. There is a challenge for musicians – hens don’t make their sounds in notes of equal length, do they? Rameau wrote down the music in simple eighth-note patterns, knowing full well that any real musician would play them. molto rubato. It’s a mystery how Les Musiciens du Louvre are able to play in unison here. It’s incredibly organic, like it’s just one creature – one hen!
Beethoven: Symphony No.6, ‘Pastorale’: I. Awakening joyful sensations upon arrival in the countryside
Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner
DG Archives E4470742
The symphonies of Haydn and Mozart were precious and perfect jewels. After that, however, the music got more gritty, with Berlioz’s opium hallucinations. Fantastic symphony. The central figure here is Beethoven.
The first movement of his “Pastoral” symphony is not music about nature itself, but rather about the process inside of a human being leaving the demanding bustle of the city for the peaceful countryside. It’s very different from anything Beethoven wrote. Listen to 4:55 in this recording, for example. This is the start of the development section, when one would expect the main themes to be drawn into a maelstrom of fast and choppy modulations. While Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony took this to a feverish and tumultuous extreme, it now gently draws us into a joyful state, both swinging and static: 40 loops of a small pattern. These are 40 bars without any chord change, except for an unexpected but rather dizzying upbeaming from B flat major to D major.
Messiaen: The blackbird
Patrick Gallois (flute), Lydia Wong (piano)
When people tell me they hate atonal music, I say ‘Oh so you hate it birdsong then?’. They look puzzled, exclaiming: “Of course not, it’s beautiful!”. But the only bird I know of that sings tonal is the cuckoo, whose song is so boring that it has to compensate by granting a wish when we hear it in the spring. Almost everyone else is happily atonal.
Messiaen is the real master of birdsong. Although he is in search of a new genre of music, he rejects the serialist systems of Boulez and Stockhausen, finding them too cerebral. Instead, he developed new ways of make music from non-western music and birds, whose song he transcribed in the summer in the countryside. Thanks to them, he found direct access to the divine, untouched by human hands. This piece is for flute and piano, inspired by the song of the black merle (‘the black merle’).
Pierre Henry: Variations for a door and a sigh: VII. Gestures
It was not only Messiaen who opposed the purist approach of many prominent composers in the years following World War II. The Paris-based Concrete Music movement used new technologies like tape recorders, sound filters, and artificial reverb to capture the dirty sounds of the real world. The artists involved achieved this with the anarchist approach of surrealism and Dadaism, mixing strangeness, shock and humor.
A central figure in this movement was Pierre Henry. The physicality and plasticity of his music seduced Maurice Béjart, one of the best modern dance choreographers. The recommended recording that we have featured here was created as a tribute to their collaboration. Here, in his “Variations for a Door and a Sigh,” Henry uses the real sound of a creaking door and a human sigh.
Xenakis: Pleïades (1978)
Kroumata percussion ensemble
Another composer criticizing serialism was Iannis Xenakis. He also used nature for artistic contribution, through natural Sciences. Stochastic mathematics is a branch of probability theory and is a way for us humans to tackle the seeming unpredictability of nature.
The resulting music is as raw and refreshing with human emotions as a a mountain or a river. The title of this piece for six percussionists comes from the star group ‘Seven Sisters’ and its counterpart in Greek mythology, the daughters of the sea nymph Pleione and the titan Atlas.
Rolf Wallin: Stonewave (1990)
SISU Percussion Ensemble
Non classic NONCLSS037
When Kroumata Percussion asked me to write for them, Xenakis was a natural model. And in this case, I was studying another way that humans have tried to mimic nature through mathematics: fractal algorithms. They are relatively simple, but generate fascinating and surprisingly organic designs. They have been used by scientists to mimic the patterns of trees, clouds, tigers, and mountain ranges. The mysterious figure on the cover of TWINE is the exact graphic equivalent of the three-minute music in this latest Stonewave track. On the CD itself, you can see what the music “looks like” after two minutes.
One would assume that such a mathematical approach would lead to sterile, theoretical music, but Stonewave’s sonic world is not what you would associate with dense math books.
Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin works with nature, fractals and mathematics in his music, and recently released “Twine” on the non-classical label in collaboration with the SISU Percussion Ensemble. The album explores the texture and patterns of nature through sound. Download the album here.