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Longleaf: Nature, History, and Music

Longleaf is a new multimedia work I composed in collaboration with the Houston-based ensemble Loop38. The piece tells the story of the longleaf pine forest, the native pine forest habitat of East Texas. The work traces the history of the tree and the timber industry in East Texas with video projections, historical photographs, natural soundscapes, and music, raises awareness about the ecological importance of native forests, and encourages forest preservation and appreciation. In this post, I’m going to share the inspiration and process behind creating this project.

 

One of the ways I get to know a place is by hiking and experiencing the history and nature of a landscape. After living three years in the hiker’s paradise of Boulder, Colorado, I moved to Nacogdoches, a small town in rural East Texas, to work as a composition professor at Stephen F. Austin State University. One of the things that drove me to move to this place was my colleague

Composing in the Wilderness 2023 Cohort

Stephen Lias, who is known in the composition world for creating an ambitious program known as Composing in the Wilderness. I did Composing in the Wilderness in 2023 and highly recommend it to anyone who loves both the outdoors and music composition. You trek out on long day hikes in Denali National Park, camp by the Teklanika River, and write short chamber pieces inspired by your experience. Steve and I joke about marketing our composition department as the “adventure composer” department, as we both enjoy traveling and creating work about our natural world.

 

Nacogdoches is not exactly known for being an outdoorsman’s mecca, although it is deep in the

heart of what are colloquially known as the “Pineywoods” of East Texas. So, my partner and I found a few local hikes to enjoy these landscapes, hiking amongst the pines. At the time, I was reading a book called The Overstory by Richard Powers, about how trees interconnect people over vast spans of time. The book opened my eyes to the world of old growth forests and led me to explore several national parks known for their very old, large trees, including Sequoia and Olympic.  Since my local environs in East Texas were named after the woods, I was curious if there were any old growth trees left in East Texas. I did notice that most of the trees on our East Texas hikes were pretty short (and young)…

 

Turns out, aside from a few isolated pockets of old bald cypress trees in the bottomlands, most of the old-growth trees were logged out in the beginning of the 20th century. I became painfully aware of this on our two-hour drives down to the Houston airport to travel, noticing that most of the trees on the side of Highway 69 were pine plantations ­— rows and rows of pines farmed for paper and cheap timber products.

 

Old Growth Longleaf Pine

I dug deeper, reading a few more books about the subject (check out Looking for Longleaf: The Rise and Fall of an American Forest by Lawrence Earley), and learned that there was an original forest that was mostly logged out between 1900-1930. This was the longleaf pine, the iconic tree of the south that originally covered 90 million acres of land. The tree thrives on fire—its lifecycle is such that it thrives when fire clears out the competition and creates an open savannah landscape that draws many species (mostly notably, the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, which lives in old trees) and is one of the most biodiverse environments in North America. The small saplings of the tree are extremely fire-resistant and develop a deep network of roots under the earth. Both natural lightning burns and indigenous fires kept the savannahs open for centuries, until the forest was logged out by settlers and lumber barons, who saw endless woods to exploit for turpentine, ship masts, and other uses to bolster the American economy going into the 20th century.


Fire suppression also kept the longleaf forests from growing back (Smokey Bear, anyone?), as faster species like loblolly and slash pine dominated the landscape. We still have an appropriate fear of wildfire, but many folks don’t know that responsible prescribed burns are healthy for ecosystem revitalization and actual help mitigate dangerous wildfires. Only in the past 40 years or so did the idea of responsible prescribed fire come back in conversations about ecology and preservation.

 

These trees and their story stirred my imagination—acres and acres of old growth trees and miles of gently burning fire is a strong image, one that triggers many sonic and musical ideas. So, when I conveniently got a call from Loop38, a ensemble of old friends from my Rice and Da Camera days

back in Houston, about potential projects, I knew that I wanted to work on a project that would directly engage the community through an important ecological issue. I reached out to the Texas Longleaf Team, and they recommended I contact Shawn Benedict, who runs a plot of longleaf called the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary through the Nature Conservancy. I called Shawn and he was gracious and eager to help teach me about the woods and give me more inspiration for my piece.


Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary

I knew from the beginning that this piece was going to be a multimedia presentation, including impactful video of burns and audio of natural soundscapes. I’ve been on an immersive media kick recently, so I went and bought a Zoom H3-VR Ambisonics Recorder, which records sound in 360 space and translates to multiple speakers through a system called ambisonics. I brought the recorder and my video camera out on several hikes with Shawn, recording birds, wind, and, most importantly, fire.

 

Capturing Ambisonic Field Recordings

Shawn took me on an early morning burn at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary into the heart of growing longleaf in March 2024. In the past, I've typically associated fire with environmental disaster and catastrophe. Wildfires are all over the news nowadays—I was living in Colorado during the Marshall Fire, which destroyed several of my friends’ homes, and in 2023 we’ve seen a series of devastating wildfires in the Texas panhandle. So going to the prescribed burn, I was understandably a little nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew we were in good hands with a seasoned fire expert. Shawn took us out on an ATV on private lands adjacent to the Nature Conservancy’s unit, where they were working closely with a contracted company to burn lands with the aim of expanding acreage of longleaf forest.


Shawn's ATV, Driving Past the Burn
A Closeup Young Longleaf

It’s an extremely immersive and sometimes frightening experience being part of a burn—you see people “dropping dots” of fire on dry grasses and forbs with drip torches, black smoke, distant walls of orange flames, and deer, rabbits, and insects fleeing the scene. The most interesting and immersive thing for me was the sound—soft crackling building up into crescendos of trees

“torching” up as the fire ignited dry timbre and shrubs, and flames roaring and then fizzling out as they reach the firebreaks, or the manmade boundaries of the unit being burned. I was capturing video and ambisonic audio, right up next to the fire capturing all the intricacies of the sound. Up close, you can see and hear the resilience of the longleaf tree and how it thrives with fire. The young trees survive the burns with their buds intact, and you can see the dense thicket around the trees get burned away, giving the young trees room to thrive. Very quickly, the forest regrows—it’s almost like a “cleansing" of the land. In my piece, I wanted to explore this cycle of birth, disruption, death, and rebirth.

 

Standing right on the firebreak with the fire, smoke, and heat charging towards us was frightening—and you feel the sheer power and potential danger of fire. But in the aftermath, you see how these species live and adapt to fire in moderation. “Prescribed fire” seems like a paradox—how can people control something so wild and dangerous? But these trees have been living with fire for thousands of years, as evidenced by their adaptation to it. The indigenous people of the area, the Alabama Coushatta, have burned the woods for many generations. I think it’s a reminder that the forest isn’t some perfect aesthetic object exclusively for our enjoyment, but rather an imperfect system in which we are an active participant. We are stewards of the land and need to contribute to its health for future generations. 


Standing Right on the Firebreak

After recording the video and audio footage of longleaf in different context and collecting historical video and pictures from the East Texas Digital Archives at Stephen F. Austin University and the Texas Archive for the Moving Image, I set out to compose for the ensemble— a unique group of trumpet, horn, trombone, string quintet, harp, and percussion. The conductor and ensemble leader, Craig Hauschildt, tasked me with featuring the brass in the work, a group that doesn’t often get featured in chamber “new music” settings like this.  

 

I composed in and out of the natural soundscapes I had recorded, allowing the musicians to improvise fragments and imitate bird calls, fire sounds, wind blowing, and even trees fallings and sawmills operating. These fragments interacted in several open soundscapes sprinkled throughout the work. I meticulously transcribed several bird calls, including the bobwhite quail and red-cockaded woodpecker.


Notated Bird Calls

In addition to these soundscapes, I created a grander architecture in the piece based on the life cycle of the tree—the three stages of its growth (Grass Stage, Rocket Stage, and Mature Stage) which I then map onto the long history of the tree, from its beginning in the pre-colonial days to the clearcut to the days of fire suppression and Smokey Bear to the recovery to the present of prescribed fire. I manipulate a few motifs (the “big tree” motif, the fire motif, the recovery motif, etc.) that return in the piece to create a long emotional arc, taking the listener on a journey. The piece is broken up into fifteen movements, each capturing a snapshot of a period in history with video and music and flowing in and out of each other. There are bold brass chorales, groovy and detailed music like fire spreading and burning grasses, slow and melancholic music, and aggressive, loud music depicting the clear cutting of forests and the cacophony of sawmills. There’s even a bit of cowboy blues fiddle for the early settler days, and a section of trance-like repetition to depict lines and lines of pines, kind of like Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi.


Then came the laborious process of syncing music to video in Logic Pro, creating a click track that Craig could follow so the visuals matched up with the music, leading to a seamless work that blended video, 5.2 surround sound audio, and music.


Loop38 Performing at MATCH with a Video from Aldridge Sawmill

We had a successful premiere and residency at Stephen F. Austin, where we performed and recorded the work and had several masterclasses with composers and instrumentalists. Shawn Benedict also participated in a helpful panel talk. We then presented the work in Houston at Midtown Arts and Theater Center to enthusiastic response. After each performance, we invited the audience members for a curated walk in Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary hosted by Shawn. I was pleasantly surprised by the cross-section of people drawn to the piece — forestry experts, nature enthusiasts, music lovers, art/theatre lovers, city and rural folks, etc. It opened a whole world of music and nature lovers, bringing them all together in one place.


Shawn Benedict Describes Longleaf Pine on a Walking Tour

The whole experience was a friendly reminder of the positive impact music and art can have on specific communities, engaging and combining disciplines.

 

 


This project is generously funded by Mid-America Arts Alliance, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the states arts agencies of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Additional support from the Texas Commission on the Arts, The Nature Conservancy in Texas, Stephen F. Austin State University Cole Fine Arts Faculty Excellence and School of Music Professional Development Grants, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the City of Houston.

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