“Henry David Thoreau was a great musician,” wrote Charles Ives in “Essays Before a Sonata,” his ruminative preface to his “Concord” Sonata. That was so, Ives held, not because of whatever facility Thoreau possessed in conventional music making, but because “he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony.’ The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude.”
Oddly for such a dazzling musician of the written word, musical works inspired by Thoreau are rare. The most famous is the fourth movement of the “Concord,” the last of its evocations of New England transcendentalists.
The Electric Earth Concerts series seeks to fill that gap with “Music in Every Sound,” a Thoreau-centric concert Saturday in Peterborough, N.H. Going beyond settings of Thoreau’s words, the multimedia performance aims for the deep interaction between nature and sound that animated his writing.
Electric Earth Concerts Music in Every Sound: Reflections on Thoreau
Jonathan Bagg, codirector of Electric Earth, hopes that listeners will take from the concert “a renewed admiration for the sensibilities of Thoreau and of composers and artists who take from their environment something that motivates them and gives them that kind of enthusiasm for life. I want listeners to have a sense of how the temperaments of Ives and composers of this day are connected by Thoreau’s approach.”
Bagg curated the concert with his Electric Earth codirector, flutist Laura Gilbert. They hatched the idea for the program a few years ago, while they were still running the Monadnock Music festival. From their work there they’d gotten to know New Hampshire-based photographer Robert Sargent Fay, who’d been going around New England photographing places that Thoreau had visited and mentioned in his writings — not just Walden Pond but locations in the White Mountains, the woods of Maine, and on Cape Cod.
Fay, sadly, died in May — the concert is dedicated to his memory — but he’s very much present in the program. The opener is “To the Sea” for flute and guitar by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, whose most evocative works were inspired by nature. During the playing of its third movement, “Cape Cod,” a selection of Fay’s photographs will be projected, ending with those taken on Cape Cod.
A new work by Dominic Coles for flute, viola, and piano follows. Coles is a young composer studying at Yale and counts Gilbert as a mentor. When she mentioned the idea of a Thoreau-centric program, he immersed himself in Thoreau’s and Ives’s writings and wrote “To Know Beans.” Initially, “I was a little skeptical — I mean, he’s a 19-year-old kid,” Bagg says. “But I looked at the piece, and it’s incredibly sophisticated and very virtuosic.”
The first half ends with a true nature piece: “Talking to Vaseduva,” which the composer and percussionist Nathan Davis will play himself. He wrote the piece at the end of a sojourn in Vermont. Before leaving, he gathered about 30 stones from a riverbed he often visited and made a kind of xylophone out of them. A contact microphone picks up the resonance of each stone, and from those sounds Davis built the piece, which he describes in a note as illustrating “a process of expression, acceptance, healing, and transformation.”
More projections of Fay photographs open the second half of the concert, accompanied by a recorded soundscape by Nicholas Stoia. New Hampshire composer Lawrence Siegel contributed “I Went to the Woods,” a brief duo for flute and viola inspired by a famous sentence from “Walden”: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Readings from Thoreau’s journals are scattered throughout the program. At the end comes the “Concord” Sonata itself, played by Boston pianist Randall Hodgkinson. As recently as a few decades ago, the sonata (composed early in the 20th century) was considered a still-radical specimen of avant-gardism, chiefly the province of 20th-century specialists. Not only has the visionary scope and power of Ives’s language become clearer in the intervening years; so has its kinship with the transcendentalists’ own vision.
“[Ives’s] chaotic mingling of elements, the bringing in of a popular song into an atonal texture, is very much in a way Thoreau would have embraced,” Bagg says. “To sit in one place and hear what nature had to offer in an aleatoric way was elating. And I think Ives was that way too. He was elated by the clash of elements — it was a kind of counterpoint that was completely legitimate in his mind.”
Or, as Thoreau himself put it in a journal entry from 1841: “Unpremeditated music is the true gauge which measures the current of our thoughts, the very undertow of our life’s stream.”