Warner Free Lecture: The ‘other’ sounds of nature in music – Harvard Press

Explosive, turbulent, violent—these are not the usual words to describe classical music inspired by the sounds of nature. And yet, by contrast, their musical presence adds richness to the perfect pitch of the hermit thrush’s song, the jazz riffs depicting clouds, the rhythmic sound of the surf at the seaside, and more.

David Phil. (Courtesy photo)


Steve Peisch. (Courtesy photo)

Local musicians Stephen Peisch and David Pihl will present a concert of piano music titled “These, too, are the sounds of nature … ” as part of the Warner Free Lecture Series, Friday, Feb. 17, in Volunteers Hall, at 7:30 p.m. The program features late 19th-century to modern-day composers who share a love of nature, from German romantic Robert Schumann, through impressionist Claude Debussy, to contemporary composers, including Peisch himself.

The concert is co-sponsored by the Harvard Conservation Trust. Trust Director David Outman wrote in an email that the collaboration is an especially good match because nature is portrayed as a “wellspring for the arts.”
Harvard resident Peisch, with his longtime friend and internationally acclaimed pianist Pihl, designed the program. “We got the idea that some sounds of nature would not necessarily be pleasant—like the sound of a hurricane, or a predator doing its work. Which is a little bit different, especially when you think of the sounds of nature as being little bees buzzing around and birds—and we want to include that, too,” said Peisch in a recent phone interview.

Peisch premier

Peisch is true to his word. The program includes some of his own music, three pieces inspired by waves, running the gamut from calm to crashing. This work will be premiered by Pilh. It is the first time the set will appear together.
“The three pieces by Steve are a tremendous contrast,” Pihl said by phone. “There is tonality versus dissonance, with some harsh intervals but striking clarity. It is very dramatic in places, with lots of dynamics.” Pihl described the first piece in the set, “Waves of Midnight,” as having various moods, a “really nice figuration,” and considerable dissonance—though, he said, a “wise, judicious use of dissonance.”



Warner Free Lecture Series

February 17, 2017, 7:30 p.m.

Volunteers Hall

David Alan Pihl, piano

Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

  • Entrance

  • Hunter in Ambush

  • Lonely Flowers

  • Haunted Spot

  • Friendly Landscape

  • The Wayside Inn

  • The Prophetic bird

  • Hunting song

  • The Departure

From the Diary of a Fly
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Two Transcriptions by Rachmaninoff

  • Daisies
    Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

  • The Bumblebee
    Rimsky-Korsakoff (1844-1908)

Six Etudes from 24 Etudes for Solo Piano
William Thomas McKinley (1938-2015)

  • The Condor

  • Storms

  • Leaves

  • Mists

  • Clouds

  • Volcanoes


Amy Beach (1867-1944)

  • A Hermit Thrush at Morn, Op 92, no. 2

  • Morning Glories, Op. 97, no. 1

Stephen Peisch (1952- )

  • Waves at Midnight

  • Waves at Sunrise

  • Waves on the Beach

Edward McDowell (1860-1908)

  • To a Wild Rose, Op. 51, no. 1

  • Of Salamanders, Op. 61, no. 4

  • Of Br’er Rabbit, Op. 61, no. 2

  • From the Depths, Op. 55, no. 6

Claude Debussy (1862-1913)

  • L’Isle Joyeuse

“Waves on the Beach,” the last in the set, is a “radically different piece,” Pihl said, “with lots of pentatonic-type stuff, very tonal and melodic. It’s beautiful, and easier on the ear.” An unusual innovation in this piece is the use of a wooden block covered in felt. Pihl uses the block to press down a section of keys, simulating the sound of the surf on the beach.

Between the two is “Waves at Sunrise.” Pihl describes the piece as a transcription for flute and piano. He explains that the flute part of the melody, played “intelligently” on the piano, has a “recitative-type aspect to it.”
“He [Peisch] is a terrific composer, and I’ve recorded one of his art songs [referring to Peisch’s recordings of Langston Hughes poetry put to music] and a lot of his piano music,” said Pihl.

Recreating nature’s sounds

Pihl is both an avid outdoorsman and a self-described “high-high-level amateur” birder—with more than 300 birdsongs committed to memory. Pihl said he was excited to perform “A Hermit Thrush at Morn,” Op. 92, No. 2, written in 1921 by New Hampshire composer Amy Beach. “[It is] one

of the most effective utterances of an actual bird call being fit into a piano texture,” said Pihl.
Pihl will be performing Robert Schumann’s “Forest Scenes.” “Contrasting that,” said Pihl, “I’ll be playing a one-minute piece by Bartók, all from the diary of a fly. It’s totally different.”

Pihl continued, “From there, I go to the romanticist Rachmaninoff’s ‘Daisies,’ absolutely, utterly beautiful. Very, very difficult.” The program also includes Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Pihl added, “But the harmonies are unmistakable Rachmaninoff—beautiful impressionistic augmented chords.”

Following the “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Pihl said: “I’m ‘flying’ right into William Thomas McKinley’s ‘The Condor.’ It’s utterly different. It’s hard to describe McKinley, very modern but extremely tonal. And he was a magnificent jazz pianist.”

Mckinley, MacDowell, Debussey

Pihl will be playing six nature-themed etudes from McKinley’s “24 Etudes for Solo Piano,” a collection that was written for Pihl, which he premiered in 2007 at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. “I know him pretty darn well. He was a formidable American composer, who gave me the honor of recording the world premier of the ‘24 Etudes.’” Pihl said the recording of the Etudes was a five-year project: “I loved doing it and it’s the thing I’m most proud of recording.”

McKinley taught as a professor of composition for 25 years at the New England Conservatory. He was the founder of MMC (Master Musicians Collective) Recordings.

The program ends with four pieces by Edward MacDowell and Claude Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse.” MacDowell, Pihl said, “is really wonderful, a late romantic impressionist. MacDowell’s ‘Depths of the Ocean’ is very profound, in B flat minor. It’s very thought-provoking, very grandiose.” Pihl described the last piece as Debussy’s personal favorite. According to Pihl, Debussy developed a new style of composition based on pentatonic traditional harmonies from Indonesia.

“I tell you, I just love to play. There is nothing else I’d rather do,” said Pihl. Music and being open to the sounds of nature have him in the outdoors every day: “It’s something you’ve got to do. You just can’t practice all the time. I was out snowshoeing yesterday. And then I was out shoveling, too.”


Write a Reply or Comment:

Your email address will not be published.*