An unusual collaboration creates a musical ‘Forest’
“Everything in the forest is the forest. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree.”
These lines come from “The Overstory,” a vast and ambitious novel by Richard Powers published earlier this year. They embody, in concentrated form, the insights of a movement in environmental studies known as “the new forestry.” It is based on remarkable discoveries about the behavior of trees gleaned over the last few decades — specifically, that trees behave cooperatively rather than individualistically. They exchange nutrients, protect one another, even communicate through the air.
“For every act of competition, there are 90 of collaboration,” Powers said during a recent phone interview. It’s an idea that “completely flies in the face of the long-standing Darwinian understanding that it’s everybody for themselves, and that whoever is the strongest wins.” And it inspired Powers, in “The Overstory,” to create a story in which the interconnection between trees and humans is reimagined in an entirely fresh way.
Two summers ago, the New Hampshire-based Electric Earth Concerts series presented a program based loosely on Powers’s 2014 novel, “Orfeo.” When Electric Earth co-artistic director Laura Gilbert, a longtime friend of Powers, approached him about working together again, they quickly decided to start from the issues that had animated “The Overstory.”
While there are musical works new and old having to do with nature and trees, Powers didn’t feel that any of them dealt with the ideas that had motivated him. So he, Gilbert, and Jonathan Bagg, Electric Earth’s other artistic director, decided to create a new work: “A Forest Unfolding” for two singers, narrator, and chamber ensemble, which will be premiered at an Electric Earth concert on Aug. 12. (It will also be performed at the Portland Chamber Music Festival.)
But in keeping with the spirit of this new paradigm, the whole endeavor was conceived in an unusually collaborative way. Powers and three other writers — environmentalists Bill McKibben and Joan Maloof and novelist Kim Stanley Robinson — chose four prose texts (two excerpts from “The Overstory” among them) and three poems. They used these to create a narrative arc that begins with humans’ alienation from nature and ends with a glimpse of its return.
Powers, Gilbert, and Bagg also decided to enlist four composers to jointly compose what became a nine-movement cantata, with the poems set as arias, the prose sections as recitatives linking them together, and a couple of instrumental numbers. But rather than simply have the four write their various parts in isolation, the composers — Melinda Wagner, Eric Moe, Stephen Jaffe, and David Kirkland Garner — were to work collaboratively, sharing sketches and discussing possibilities. It was a scenario, Powers explained, in which “we were inspiring each other, listening to each other, hearing [each other’s] material, and working through some kind of ad hoc democratic process to figure out which direction we were heading in.”
A few composers’ collectives notwithstanding, this model is at odds with the familiarized view of composing as an intensely solitary activity, the product of a single human’s inspiration. In reality, though, “nobody is actually producing stuff ex nihilo out of their own brilliance,” Powers said. “They are in a tradition, they are eagerly and actively — and sometimes anxiously — looking over their shoulder at everyone else.”
The group also decided to select a “musical intertext,” a stretch of existing music that each composer would use as inspiration, which would provide an underlying unity to the separate contributions. They settled on Mahler’s song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde,” and specifically its final few minutes, where the music reaches a new level of ethereality as the words dwell on eternity and leave-taking.
Wagner, Moe, and Jaffe, the three more senior composers, each wrote an aria on one of the poems. That left Garner, the youngest, to write the recitatives, and Powers credits him with being “the mortar between the bricks. As somebody who writes eclectically and openly and generously, he would be in the position to look at everything that was taking shape, and . . . pull it together using a lot of the material from the other sections, to create a musical continuity where we had tried to create textual continuity. And he did a marvelous job.”
Garner, in an e-mail, said that he had enjoyed his role as “the glue guy,” and that even though the composers never met in person while the piece was being written, he found the more connected experience refreshing. “Composing ‘concert’ music can be isolating,” he wrote. “Often, this solitude is sought out — I am a mostly introverted person, and generally happy to work on my own. In this project, though, a magical creative energy emerged during this collaborative adventure between performers, authors, and composers.”
The origins of the piece in nature and forestry should not, Powers thinks, obscure the very human importance that he intends the piece to carry.
“We Americans, and we’ve managed to export this around the globe too, have really prized, and rightly so, the power of the individual,” he said. “But there have been costs to that. And I think anyone who’s paying attention to climate change, to the degradation of natural capital and the environment, to the challenges associated with continuing to exist in a world that could well lose 40 percent of its remaining large animal species by the end of the century — it doesn’t take a whole lot of paying attention to realize that so much of that crisis . . . fits too easily with a state of mind that’s willing to look out at a forest and see it not as other incredibly complicated and interdependent things that are providing us all the environmental services that we need to live, but as a series of short-term resources that are ours for the taking.
“I think if this piece has value,” he went on, “it will be in part as a kind of musical utterance in the name of thinking differently, respecting the idea that if we’re going to succeed, it’s going to be all together or not at all. Meaning, that humans are going to have to start taking nonhumans seriously. That’s not something that you hear musicians or even poets writing about a lot. But it’s a story that needs to be told and it’s music that needs to be composed — the music of collective survival.”
A Forest Unfolding
Presented by Electric Earth Concerts. At Unitarian Universalist Church, Peterborough, N.H., Aug. 12, 5 pm. Tickets $25. 646-522-3352, www.electricearthconcerts.org
Presented by Portland Chamber Music Festival. At Abromson Community Education Center, University of Southern Maine, Portland, Maine, Aug. 18, 7:30 pm. Tickets free-$35. 800-320-0257, www.pcmf.org