Nature’s Soundtrack

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is conventionally portrayed as a reflection of life. This is understood both in the inward sense of expressing an artist’s feelings, and in the outward sense of depicting the world in which the artist lives. No matter how abstract the design, art is thought to be an analog of reality. This conception has obvious limits. While it is true that the creative process is frequently sparked by life situations and environmental influences, momentary concerns and artistic output are not always in alignment.

In his 1937 essay, “Fictions That Have Shaped Musical History,” Alfred Einstein deconstructed the old canard that art must mirror life. Art, he reminded us, is just as likely to reflect the times as it is to flee from them. He proved the point with Renaissance music, which exudes an aura of balance and harmony without any trace of struggle or discord. It is easy to forget that this musical style developed against the backdrop of an agitated world—a Europe that saw feudalism give way to the middle class, religious reformations and counter-reformations, and political powers vying over the New World. Rather than record this unrest, Renaissance polyphony projected a mood of order and peaceful resolution. It was an artistic ideal fundamentally at odds with reality.

Einstein tied this phenomenon to painterly portrayals of the natural world, which typically imbue the environment with an idealized essence. Our view of nature is powerfully and unconsciously shaped by such art. Rembrandt’s attention to half-lit rooms heightens our focus on the half-lit rooms around us. Constable’s English landscapes inform how we see real-life countrysides. Einstein went so far as to claim, “We become aware of natural things only when a great artist has first seen them for us and has given them the form that we see” (emphasis added).

This observation is, one would hope, overstated. We assume we can appreciate nature without the guiding brushstrokes of the painter. Still, we cannot deny art’s potential to color our vision.

Musical examples of this are plentiful. Generally, nature-inspired pieces translate stereotyped features of the natural world into abstract sounds. Sometimes, the impressionistic tones become so ingrained that gazing upon a scene brings the music to mind. Sunrises stir the “morning” theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Falling snowflakes evoke Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” The American wilderness conjures passages from Copland’s oeuvre. Flowing rivers call up Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (as do floating spaceships, thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Likewise, hearing these pieces can immediately trigger the associated images.

Importantly, such music is, by definition, additive: it does not actually exist in the phenomenon it depicts. Thus, more than simply mirroring reality, it sways our perception of it. In this subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) way, our awareness of nature is at least partly in the hands of artists.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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