Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.
John Muir’s words inspired the title of my latest piece, In the World, for string quartet and soprano. The piece was written for a commission resulting from the Hoefer Prize, generously granted to me by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
I directed my attention to John Muir because of his connection to the Bay Area, and to California in general, since the work was to be composed for the SF Conservatory. Initially, I was attracted to his writings that chastised humanity for disrespecting and dismantling nature.
Then I came across the quote above, in addition to several beautiful writings overflowing with affection for nature, and I realized that the piece needed to express and promote nature itself, and our deep-rooted love for it. (As far as “political” issues go, I prefer to be pro-disposed than con-disposed, these days.)
The result is three meditations on nature, filtered through the lens of my experiences in national parks over the course of the past year. I visited three beautiful parks in that time-frame: Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, and Zion.
I found myself stumbling upon a serendipitous coincidence: this year marks the National Park Service’s 100 year anniversary, as it was formed on August 25, 1916. John Muir is considered the “Father of the National Parks,” as his preservation efforts helped to form Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Mount Rainier National Parks. The NPS was formed two years after his death.
This couldn’t be more perfect! Three national park visits. A piece for the SF Conservatory. An attraction to Muir’s writings. Et voilà!
The first two movements are entitled ‘Joshua’ and ‘Zion,’ each functioning as reflections of my experiences in those parks. Both movements are entirely instrumental, and they are quite atmospheric in an attempt to be “in the world” and its surroundings.
The third movement, entitled ‘Muir,’ is a song for soprano, set to words by John Muir. As mentioned above, I decided to choose texts that convey a tenderness for nature. Here are the texts:
We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.
– June 9, 1872 letter to Miss Catharine Merrill, from New Sentinel Hotel, Yosemite Valley
Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.
– from My First Summer in the Sierra (1911)
Muir’s prose is vivid and poetic, expressing both his zeal for nature, and a profound understanding of humanity and our connection to the natural world. In my mind, the most beautiful part of his message lies in this phrase: “He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creed and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.”
Not only is it good for the earth that we are stewards of nature, but it is also good for us to partake in it, as it transcends our divisions.
In the World receives its world-premiere performance on 4 December 2016 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with the Thalea String Quartet.