Still Life in Motion
Duration: ca. 15 Minutes
I have a series of works that refers to Still Life, a genre of Western art where the subject matter consists of inanimate objects. I have, strictly speaking, misused that term in several the works I have composed that included “Still Life” in their titles.
Still Life in Motion is part of this contradiction in that it is inspired by the life that exists in the natural environment that surrounds me. When Ken Andrews, conductor of The Orchestra of Northern New York, and I discussed this commission, we decided upon a work that would “capture the effects of wind and water (and other weather-related phenomenon such as snow, fire, and ice) in motion on landscapes and/or seascapes and any wildlife within,” specifically as these effects pertain to the North Country and the Adirondacks.
In preparation for Still Life in Motion, I have taken several photographs and a few videos of the region while kayaking, driving, and hiking throughout the waterways, roads, and mountain trails with the intent that I would sonically reflect the colors and textures of the various ‘scapes at their most still. When doing this sort of activity, it is at times difficult to avoid other people in the area, who, at least in my case, tend to appear in the shots as unintentional photobombs. Even more commonly, however, is the appearance of wildlife – especially birds, who are in constant motion while in the sky, and are rarely still when resting on land or the surface of the water.
A few years ago, my friend Garth Bardsley and I collaborated on a set of pieces for chorus and large wind ensemble titled Adirondack Songs. Garth lived here in Potsdam for a year as he served as the Director of Opera at The Crane School of Music as a sabbatical replacement. Our families became very close and we collaborated on quite a few projects together. Garth and his family spent the summer following the academic year in Saranac Lake, where they were able to enjoy the dramatic serenity of the Adirondacks, which inspired his poetry in our collaboration.
Garth wrote a stanza in the first of these Adirondack Songs that captures an amazing moment when a bird flies down toward its reflection in a still water:
Two birds, their feathered-arms spread wide, quicken the air
And locked in dance, they rise and fall towards each other.
Their wing-tip touch across the silk divide
Ripples the glass and shatters this illusory world,
Blurring the echo in an instant
Water is water, Air is air.
The imagery is breathtaking, which is typically the case in Garth’s poetry. The moment where the bird touches its pristine reflection on the stillest of lakes at once ripples the sky also reflected in the water is brilliant to witness or to simply imagine. But it is also nearly impossible to photograph.
I am happy to say that I watched a heron do this while I was kayaking on the Raquette River. While I was able to capture this on video, the moment – the touch – is a blur. But it is a moment I will recall forever.
A moment is a still point in time. Time is a musical canvas, is it not?
Consider Garth’s bird: The touch-moment is still life, but the moment would not exist without the bird’s journey to that moment as it views the land-and-waterscape below, descending to touch its reflection, followed the departure from that moment to return to the air to view the world below.
Still Life in Motion is the context of that dramatic moment. It contains the bird, the flight, the views, the descent, the touch, and the departure. It is inspired by the natural beauty that flows throughout the entire North Country and the Adirondacks.
Free of the politics and human incivility that has become the norm in everyday discourse, I choose my everyday to be the moment I watch a heron ripple the sky in the water as she saw how beautiful she was in her reflection.
Still Life in Motion was commissioned by The Orchestra of Northern New York with generous assistance from The New York State Council on the Arts.
October 15, 2022
Helen M. Hosmer Hall, Potsdam, NY.
October 16, 2022
First Presbyterian Church, Watertown, NY
The Orchestra of Northern New York, Kenneth Andrews, Conducting.