“Thinking like a mountain” is a term coined by Aldo Leopold in his influential book A Sand County Almanac. In the section entitled “Sketches Here and There” Leopold discusses the thought process as a holistic view on where one stands in the entire ecosystem.
The essay “Thinking Like A Mountain” crystallizes Aldo Leopold’s philosophy about the balance of nature and our ethical relationship towards its preservation. It is the personal confession of one who momentarily upset that balance and whose remorse became the catalyst which prompted him to become a leader in the environmental movement.
In setting this powerful essay, I wanted to paint a portrait of the mountain. I was fascinated by the overlapping life cycles of the many elements which shared the mountain’s space, from the slow progression of the rocks to the flickering instant of the insects. They simultaneously inhabited the same world and I saw a parallel in the music, where multiple tempos and melodic lines can co-exist. Rather than illustrating the literal sound effects of nature, this music seeks to give voice to an inner natural order built on the primary elements of acoustics as described by Pythagoras. At this level, mathematics and the natural order have much in common with the structure of mountains. This composition was commissioned by a consortium including Explore Park in Virginia, The Billings Symphony in Montana, The Elgin Symphony in Illinois and the Shanghai Symphony in China.
On the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, I composed this work as the sun was rising over the ocean in the mornings and gently sifting through the clouds against the lingering fog. As the piece developed, it took on a shape of its own and gradually became centered around diminished chords and the interval of a tritone (diminished 5th). I love these chords for their angst and for their sadness, but also for their flexibility.
My piece is very textural in nature; and yes, it does have a melody of sorts, and yet this melody comes and goes, and is never quite grasped until the end. Portions of it are repeated and spun out creating layers of sound without the heaviness of form. It is indeed a depiction of mist, where one minute you see things and the next they are gone. As you move through the piece, you find that the trumpet is also an antagonist, creeping in with a haunting cry; a reminder of things unsettled. Throughout the piece, we are quietly searching. We search for a tonal center for stability, and also for a melody that will make us feel fulfilled. Once found, we hold them for an instant, and then like the clouds and like life itself, they are gone. We are warmed by their presence and saddened by their loss.
I hope that you will reflect upon your own memories of life’s quiet moments as we enjoy the New York premiere of this new work together. “Mist” is not a piece to be analyzed, but rather a piece to be experienced and absorbed. As you listen, release your mind, embrace your emotions, close your eyes, and allow the mist to creep in.
A gifted and eclectic composer, Griffes was born in western New York in 1884 and died prematurely in 1920 at the age of 35.
Although he studied with German pianists and composers, he was most influenced by early 20th-century French and Russian composers, and by oriental music. He developed his own unique style of American Impressionism, which clearly comes through in his Three Tone Pictures.
He originally composed these pieces for solo piano in 1915, and then orchestrated them for small ensemble. An avid devotee of poetry, he chose the titles of these atmospheric pieces from texts in three poems – William Butler Yeats’ The Lake at Innisfree (“The Lake at Evening”); Edgar Allan Poe’s The Sleeper (“The Vale of Dreams”), and Poe’s The Lake (“The Night Winds”).