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Tree Ride (World Premiere Performance) by Justin Ralls (b. 1987)

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Published on Oct 3, 2013

Justin Ralls Tree Ride

"I drifted on through the midst of this passionate music and motion, across many a glen, from ridge to ridge; often halting in the lee of a rock for shelter, or to gaze and listen. Even when the grand anthem had swelled to its highest pitch, I could distinctly hear the varying tones of individual trees,—Spruce, and Fir, and Pine, and leafless Oak,—and even the infinitely gentle rustle of the withered grasses at my feet. Each was expressing itself in its own way,—singing its own song, and making its own peculiar gestures,—manifesting a richness of variety to be found in no other forest I have yet seen."

- John Muir, published in The Mountains of California

Tree Ride was inspired by John Muir's famous essay "Wind-storm in the Forests of the Yuba." The first time Muir consciously chose to make himself the subject of his writing, he recounts the ecstasy of climbing a douglas fir to "obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles." Muir's prose uses music as a persistent metaphor to relate his experience of listening to the wind. He describes the "profound bass" of branches and "boles booming like waterfalls; the quick tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur."

As if Muir was already describing an orchestra (which in a sense he was), I sought to compose a piece to Muir's program. Tree Ride begins smack dab in the tumultuous exuberance of the storm; perhaps Muir is already swinging in his tree. This opening sound world abruptly shifts, morphing into an elegiac and lyric orchestral crescendo—Muir and the listener swaying from the purely elemental realm and into the imaginative. The shifting textures work much like the wind, keeping the listener's experience always in flux. The use of color and orchestration are both derivative of natural process and an homage to the descriptive legacy of pastoral orchestral tone poems.

The storm continues in perpetual motion, pushing the listener through several climaxes only to finally pass over, fading into the distance, with the trees, as Muir states, "hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, 'My peace I give unto you.'"

I find Muir's translation of experience using poetic metaphor deeply captivating as I too strive to translate the experience of natural beauty through music, recounting my own time spent enjoying a proud thunderstorm, high in the Yosemite backcountry. Theodore Roosevelt said "conservation is the great moral dilemma of our time," and if we are to spiritually engage this dilemma and achieve harmony with our environment we must listen to what nature has to say—whether it is bird song or the prescient wisdom of storms. By listening in this way, we can, perhaps like Muir, transform our relationship with the natural world.

I would like to thank the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the endowed Highsmith Award, friends, teachers and family, without whose support this piece would not have been written.

-Notes by the composer

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