The article below was written by flutist Emlyn Johnson, who conceived and directed the project “Music in the American Wild.” It is a wonderful example of bringing an innovative project to life and Emlyn takes us through the journey from the raw idea through the successful completion of the project. Be sure to check out the videos included here as well!
When I attended the INNOVATE. LEAD. MUSIC. conference at Eastman this past October, one of the panelists made a great comment about timing. She said that entrepreneurial musicians should carefully consider each new project idea they have to determine whether it’s a sooner or later kind of endeavor. Sometimes you have an idea that brings immediate fireworks, and you can commence work right away. Other ideas are slow-burning, and it’s okay to wait for their particular moment, even if it’s five or ten years down the line.
This comment encouraged me to think about my own list of ideas, a list I had cultivated since my time as a student at Eastman School of Music. During my doctoral studies, I was constantly struck by inspiration for new projects that never quite fit in the lines of the school environment but seemed like someday possibilities. This particular panelist inspired me to consider more clearly what I can do now, what I can do soon, and what I need to hold for a future date when I have more experience and a richer network of resources and collaborators.
This comment also led me to reflect on my most recent, and certainly largest-to-date, musical accomplishment, a project entitled Music in the American Wild. MAW began, like any other idea, with a spark of inspiration. It jumped off the page and into reality, though, because of several external factors, most important among them a larger purpose to tie into, a grant that helped shape its course, and enthusiastic collaborators who believed in its mission.
Back in the fall of 2014, cellist Dan Ketter and I took a walk through Letchworth State Park, enjoying the fall colors and crisp air. After we left, the question of why I had never heard about any concerts at Letchworth nagged at me. In my mind it was an obvious place to combine the beauty of music with the beauty of nature, not to mention the proximity of Eastman.
Inspired, I began to research the interaction between classical music and parks on the local and national scale and quickly learned that the National Park Service would be celebrating its centennial in 2016. Soon after, I learned that the National Endowment for the Arts and the NPS had teamed up in honor of this milestone to offer grants to artists looking to create national parks-related projects. Armed with my own inspiration and these two noteworthy factors, I felt like the stars had aligned and all signs pointed to embarking on a project that combined classical music with the national parks.
The idea behind MAW succeeded because of two key points. First, it was timely, relevant, and had a larger purpose. The NPS centennial provided the perfect opportunity for a new generation of artists and musicians to honor the national parks, and the excitement surrounding this celebration would certainly work in our favor throughout the process. Second, this idea filled a niche that was waiting, even asking, to be filled. With federal grant money aimed specifically at this kind of project, it was too good an opportunity to pass by.
In order to apply for the NEA grant, I needed a nonprofit sponsor with a respected history of performance, so naturally I turned to Eastman, my musical home, for support. I wanted to employ all Eastman-affiliated musicians, both composers and performers, in this endeavor, so it was a logical connection to ask the institution to sponsor the grant. It was certainly an adventure putting a federal grant application together for the first time, but the needs of the grant really helped to shape the final product of MAW. In the end MAW was billed as a commissioning, touring, and recording initiative created to honor the NPS centennial with new works of classical music inspired by our national parks.
I contracted eleven composers, eight instrumentalists, and two A/V techs, and worked, over the early months of 2015, to secure venue partners for our eventual performances of a new national park-inspired repertoire. The resulting list, seven national park sites and five more traditional venues, fleshed out a tour that would take place over the summer of 2016. In the ensuing months, I traveled to each national park site in advance of the tour, meeting with park rangers to discuss logistics and scout possible performance locations. This experience was, by far, the best part of the preparation, as I met many interesting individuals who had devoted their lives to protecting these American treasures. While it might not seem like park rangers and musicians share much in common at first glance, we do share a passion for the work we do and the masterpieces, of nature and art, respectively, that we have devoted our lives to preserving and sharing.
In June the MAW ensemble embarked on our first tour, performing concerts and making recordings in Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah National Parks, as well as more traditional venues, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We played in park gathering spaces, including campground amphitheaters and visitor centers, but more often than not we performed in the open air, playing in meadows, on mountaintops, and even in caves. Two of the most memorable experiences of this first tour illustrate some of these extremes. At Mammoth Cave we took an elevator 30 stories down into the earth to record music in silent, low-ceilinged caverns. At Shenandoah we hiked, with our instruments and gear in tow, to the top of Hawksbill Mountain to perform a piece written specifically for that scenic spot.
The NEA grant was a huge gift to this project, as it covered the costs of the first tour entirely and gave our undertaking an official seal of approval. For the second tour, however, we had to mount a fundraising campaign with a quick turnaround. Dan, my fiancée by this point, and I approached friends, family, colleagues, and foundations to ask for their financial support. We also ran a Kickstarter campaign, and in the end we raised enough money to fully fund our second tour to Washington state. While we were successful in campaigning, we learned that the people who want to support you are most often the ones with whom you’ve formed relationships, and it’s sometimes better to approach them personally and directly rather than through a crowdfunding platform.
Whereas our first tour was a success, with good turnout and great reviews, we really hit our stride connecting with our audiences in Washington at Mount Rainier, Olympic, North Cascades, and San Juan Island National Parks. We ran each concert as a Q&A session, performing and talking about the works but also encouraging our audiences to interact directly with our musicians during each concert. This kind of give-and-take allowed even our biggest concerts to feel intimate, casual, and organic.
When I first had the idea for MAW, I envisioned a group of pioneer-musicians hiking through the woods playing new music in wild and inspiring places. I thought we would come back changed, empowered to travel anywhere on earth on further musical adventures, and ready to push ourselves to the limits as performers and individuals.
I did come back changed, inspired, and empowered. But what turned out to be more incredible than the scenery, in the end, were the people we connected with along the way. To be honest, at the outset I didn’t realize what a community-focused project we had created. Over the course of the tours, though, I began to see that the real takeaway was the connection we helped to foster between listeners and these public lands. Something about being outside in these beautiful spaces, away from the walls of the traditional concert hall, encouraged our audiences to engage with new music without fear, many of them for the first time. Listeners of all ages were eager to ask questions about the music and share with us their thoughts on how it interacted with the environment. Many audience members remarked on how listening to these new pieces allowed them to experience their own environment in a new way because now they were focused on how our man-made sounds interacted with those of nature. Their ears attuned differently, and they were able to experience their surroundings with more sensitivity and depth than they had before.
This is the magic of music. Music can do things. It can celebrate, it can bring change, and it can connect people to their surroundings and to each other. At each of our performances we created a community of performers and listeners, however briefly, that could openly communicate with each other – and with nature. As a musician, it’s never too early to be thinking about your purpose, your audience, and how you will communicate the former to the latter. The best kind of performance is always a generous one.
My experience as the director of MAW was not without its challenges. As the leader of a fledgling project, I was responsible for everything from the artistic aesthetic to the booking of flights, and much of it was brand new to me and everyone involved. When I look at what we all created together, though, returns were worth every hour of preparation. The joy created and shared at our summer’s concerts make me optimistic about the future of music as a means to build and sustain connections, and the relationships formed this summer will undoubtedly lead to future projects, new collaborations, and surprising adventures.