The PBS documentary “Symphony for Nature” is broadcast nationwide tells the story of the premiere of Michael Gordon’s inspirational work Natural History for orchestra, chorus, and Native American drummers.
Gordon’s work, inspired by Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and commissioned by the Britt Orchestra as part of the 100th anniversary of America’s National Park Service, premiered the morning of July 29, 2016, on the rim of the lake with musicians spatially situated around the site.
The documentary follows Gordon, musicians, conductor Teddy Abrams, members of the Klamath Tribe and park personnel as they prepare for the premiere and reflect on the importance, beauty and spiritual-qualities of Crater Lake and how the site-specific performance of Gordon’s work combines with their experience of the natural wonder.
The work was performed by 40 members of the Britt Festival Orchestra (with conductor Teddy Abrams), plus a 70-voice choir, 30 brass and percussionists, and 15 members of the local Klamath Tribe who play and sing on the “Steiger Butte Drum”, a third-generation Northern-style powwow drum. Giiwas (Crater Lake), which means “A Spiritual Place”, is the ancestral homeland of the Klamath Tribal people.
Gordon visited the lake in the summer of 2015 and winter of 2016 and spent time with both Park Superintendent Craig Ackerman and Park Historian Stephen Mark. He also conversed with local writer Lee Juillerat who provided him with additional background on the history of the region and native lore and tradition. On his last trip to the park, Gordon spent a week in a ranger’s house in the dead of winter. During that period, he worked with the Klameth tribal drummers, who are the soloists of the piece.
For Gordon, this work is “designed to be an experiential spectacle. The idea is to draw out the natural sounds in and around Crater Lake and connect the natural sonic environment to the orchestra.”
In my time at Crater Lake last winter, the thing I was thinking about is the symphony that’s going on all year long: the sounds of the animals, the birds chirping, the wind blowing, even that sound of the expanse of the lake. I was imagining this chorus of the animals, the symphony that’s been going for centuries.
The circumstances of this piece are unique — to be able to write a piece of music that’s going to be played at Crater Lake and to work with such a variety of musical forces: Tribal musicians, a full symphony and chorus, brass orchestra and percussionists. It’s a pretty overwhelming feeling. It’s thrilling and humbling.