When patrons visit National Parks, they expect to hear the wild sounds of nature — the wolves howling, geysers churning and insects humming, but perhaps not plucked spines of an amplified cactus.
For the nationally recognized New Music Ensemble at Grand Valley State University, the possibilities of contemporary music are endless. Comprised of the school’s top undergraduate instrumentalists, the group connects diverse audiences to an ever-evolving art form through unconventional performances and projects.
As they focus on music created in the past 20 years, they aim to challenge the very notion of what music is and can be.
“If students don’t have an open mind when they join the group, they certainly will after they’ve spent time with us,” said Bill Ryan, the director who founded the group in 2006.
Their ongoing National Parks project is one such musical adventure. An outdoors enthusiast, Ryan aimed to employ contemporary composers and support the environment when he first arranged the project in 2014. That year, the New Music Ensemble commissioned composers to write pieces about and inspired by National Parks, then toured each park to perform the works.
The group commissioned eight new works for the National Parks System’s centennial celebration this past summer. With support from a National Endowment for the Arts grant award — the university’s first — the group traveled to the Badlands, Wind Cave, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
A selection of these pieces will be performed by the group at its fall concert on Nov. 4.
“All the audiences were very interested in the music performed,” said Hannah Donnelly, a member of the New Music Ensemble. “Some people commented on how the music we played was reflective of their own experiences in the parks. It was very rewarding to hear that what we were doing as a group was reaching the audiences.”
Each composer in the National Parks project took a different approach to the assignment. Paula Matthusen, composer of “on the analogical understandings of space,” traveled to Wind Cave National Park, captured the sounds of caves and incorporated the recordings into her piece. Phil Kline’s “Dawn Chorus” used recordings from the Western Meadowlark, a common bird found in Badlands National Park. “Vixen” by Alexandra Gardner imitates the eruption rhythms of a geyser.
Other pieces are a meditation on time and space, commenting on the soundscapes of the nation’s treasured wilderness. David Biedenbender, the rising Michigan-based composer of the “Red Vesper,” asked the ensemble to hike through the park, recording natural sounds. When performed, the recorded sounds blend together with the live sounds surrounding the players and the audience.
There are 59 National Parks in the United States. With nine parks down, the New Music Ensemble still has 50 to go. Ryan said he’s already working on commissions for a 2018 tour. He hopes to take the project to every National Park — a task that grows easier as the network of composers, park rangers and supporters grows.
“I don’t know if I will be working long enough for us to visit all 59, but it is a secret dream of mine,” Ryan said.
New Music Ensemble Fall Concert
Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m.
GVSU Performing Arts Center, Large Dance Studio
1300 Performing Arts Center, Allendale