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Forests: A Parallax View in Music

[youtube] By Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky “To speak truly, few adult persons can see Nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature It’s been said that wilderness holds answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask. Here’s a question: How would you make a composition out of a forest? Would you have instruments...


By Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky

“To speak truly, few adult persons can see Nature.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

It’s been said that wilderness holds answers to questions we have not yet learned to ask. Here’s a question: How would you make a composition out of a forest? Would you have instruments made from wood? Well, that’s already been done for hundreds of years – every single instrument that influences our modern sensibility comes from wood or metal. Whenever you listen to classical music, you’re already hearing a symphony of the forest. For example, most violins and other instruments like cello or viola come from Rosewood, Maple, Spruce, Ebony, Boxwood, and Willow trees. The back, neck, ribs, and scroll of a violin are usually made of Maple wood while Spruce trees usually make up the top, blocks, and linings.

But what about the information that forests generate? The roots and branches of a tree embody a kind of predictive symmetry of form and function.That’s what I thought about when I began work on a symphony about forests.

It’s been decades since Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer coined the term “soundscape” but for me, a 21st century update is the term “acoustic environment.” It’s an idea that informs my work, and that gives me inspiration for a project that, at core, is as much about the collision between code and culture, as it is about the massive disruption of the ecosystem that accompanies all human activities.

The forest and river (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

It goes without saying that we are, as so many scientists have proven beyond a doubt, entering a period of extreme climate change. As a composer, I’ve read books like Bill Mckibben’s “The End of Nature,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction,” Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers,” and many other works that make one really have a deep sense of dread about the new century we face. There are some basic facts that are foundational to any discussion of climate change:

First – deforestation is one of the major issues facing humanity. The permanent destruction of forests will haunt humanity for many centuries to come, and for what? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates as much as 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) – a region about the size of a small country like Panama – are lost every year and about half the world’s tropical forests have been cleared already.

Second – Forests currently cover about 30% of the world’s landmass.

Third – deforestation adds between 6-12% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions.

Fourth – around 36 football fields of trees are cut down every minute.

When you look at the idea of turning those fundamental facts into a music composition, you are faced with some pretty grim ingredients. I’ve made music out of the sound of ice. I’ve made music out the sound of the Van Allen belts. I’ve made music out of the sound of whales. But nothing compares to this current scenario: making music out of the sounds of an experimental forest.

(Photo courtesy Paul Miller)
In the sound booth getting ready for the concert (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

Some background:

“The clearest way to the Universe is through a forest Wilderness”
John Muir, founder Sierra Club

A couple of years ago I received an invitation to visit the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon from a couple of organizations: Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and The Written Word, at Oregon State University, and Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Program, and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse! During the course of developing the premise for the project, I settled on a basic idea: to visit the forest in all four seasons and compose a work dedicated to celebrating not just this incredible forest in the Northwest of the United States. The basic idea was to create a composite that would celebrate re-forestation and renew a dialog between the arts, science, and eco-activism. HJ Andrews Experimental Forest was the perfect place to start this kind of project: it’s a research station that explores how forests, streams, and watersheds weave together. Nearby woodlands like Oregon’s huge Williamette National Forest also serve as a stunning “natural” reflection of what’s going on in HJ Andrews.

From the mountainside (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

Most people simply ask: “What is an experimental forest?”

What makes HJ Andrews unique is that it’s about 16,000 acres of forest that was restored in 1948 from logging and commercial use in Oregon’s western Cascade Mountains and that examined how iconic Pacific Northwest old growth forests of Cedar, Hemlock, and moss-drenched Douglas Firs, steep terrain, and cold running streams could all recover from deforestation. And that, combined with multiple initiatives that looked at how entire ecosystems respond to restoration and transform in the face of when new species migrate through the region, allowed for careful analysis of the region for several decades. It’s rare that a forest has that much attenuated data derived from continuous monitoring. But that’s what makes this an “experimental” forest.

Think of the combination of all the acoustic resources within a given area – natural sounds and human caused sounds – as modified by the natural environment as a kind of composition – and that’s a good starting point for my “Heart of a Forest” compositions. The main precedent for what I was thinking about with my project was one of the major works of the late Baroque era in Europe: Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (Italian Le Quattro Stagioni ) which was written at the height of the Age of Reason between 1723-1725 AD. Each section was written as a musical expression to a season of the year. He called his composition “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention” (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione).

(Photo courtesy Paul Miller)
With the team and our drone collecting visuals (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

Other composers have explored themes in nature with sound, such as Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Forest Symphony,” that marked music from the sound of photosynthesis, Meredith Monk with her “On Behalf of Nature,” John Luther Adams “Colorado,” and younger composers like Justin Ralls with his “Anthrophony,” Dana Reason’s “Oregon Jazz,” and David Rothenberg with his insect and whale compositions. There’s even incredible art installations like bioacoustician and musician Bernie Krause whose work “The Great Animal Symphony” uses sound recordings made from the literal sounds of different species throughout different biomes to generate art and music. Krause has been recording soundscapes of the natural world for several decades, with everything from sounds generated from coral reefs to elephant stomping grounds, to the Amazonian rain forests. One of my other favorites is the artist Adrien Segal who sculpts wood from data, and the stunningly lyrical installations of conceptual artists like Andy Goldsworthy and Ursula Von Rydingsvard. These were all inspirations.

Needless to say, if I was stepping into this context, there was a rich and robust history of composers and artists looking at nature. But I wanted to explore tempo, pitch, duration from the poetic and lyrical to the actual data of how forests create networks of roots. I read material like David Haskell’s wonderful book “The Forest Unseen” and went through Vivaldi’s notes for his original Four Seasons, then distilled that into a series of “acoustic portraits” that relate some of the material to the impressions I gathered during each season. The result is a tour through the way that nature sculpts experience. I wanted as much as possible to respect the hybrid nature of the forest with the hybrid nature of electronic music.

Experience the concert for yourself below.


Join Dj Spooky on his project of making music from forests by following him on Facebook or Twitter @djspooky

The Heart of a Forest project will evolve over the next year. Stay updated at


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“Heart of a Forest” on Facebook
Facebook Event Page
Facts of Deforestation

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Meet the Author

Paul Miller
Composer, writer, and musician Paul D. Miller's multimedia performances, recordings, art installations, and writings immerse audiences in a blend of genres, raising awareness about climate change, sustainability, global culture, the role of technology in society, and other pressing environmental and social issues. His multimedia composition, book, and installation "The Book of Ice" creates an experiential visual and acoustic portrait of Antarctica's disappearing environment. In "Nauru Elegies," he explores, through a string ensemble, video, animation, and live Internet feed, problems facing the environmentally exploited South Pacific island of Nauru. He also founded Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation, a sustainable arts center on the island of Vanuatu. Miller first rose to worldwide fame as hip-hop turntablist "DJ Spooky" and is now a sought-after lecturer and performer at prestigious venues, arts institutions, and universities on every continent. His free, open-source iPad app, DJ Mixer, has been downloaded over 20 million times. It gives users DJ tools to mix, scratch, and add electronic effects to tracks from their own digital libraries. He was the first artist-in-residence at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.