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Earth Sounds – Listening for the Music of the Earth

5 Composers Who Celebrate the Earth in their Music

On Earth Day (April 22) more than one billion people around the globe celebrate the Earth and raise environmental awareness. through in-person gatherings, music concerts, art projects, television specials, nature walks, online campaigns, and through other actions and activities. Last year, we learned about five ways we can honor the Earth through the arts. In 2019, we learned how to make kid-friendly musical shakers by upcycling household materials. On Earth Day 2022, we will learn how to listen to the the music that is all around us and how composers have used the sounds of nature as a source of inspiration. In today's post, we will learn about musical works of five different 20th and 21st-century composers, John Cage (Sept. 5, 1912 – Aug. 12, 1992), Bernie Krause (b. Dec. 8, 1938), John Luther Adams (b. Jan. 23, 1953), Tan Dun (Aug. 18, 1957), and Mileece Abson (b. June 19, 1978).

John Cage

The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operations.

John Cage
John Cage

John Milton Cage, Jr. was born in Los Angeles, CA, on September 5, 1912. His father, John Milton Cage, Sr., was an inventor and electrical engineer and his mother, Lucretia Harvey "Crete" Cage, was a journalist. Growing up, John studied piano. After two years studying liberal arts at Pomona College, he spent eighteeen months in Europe where we pursued various creative fields. He dabbled in poetry, painting, and architecture, until finally finding his place as, as he called "an inventor of music."

Cage is most well-known for his collborations with his partner choreographer Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919 – July 26, 2009), his philosophy of Indeterminacy, and his works for "prepared" or altered pianos. You can experiment virually with Cage's pianos in the Official Cage Pianos App. In Indeterminacy some musical elements are left up to the performer or to chance. (We first learned about it in the post What Is Chance Music?.)

Cage earned notoriety for his work 4'33" (pronounced "four minutes, thirty-three seconds) (1952) for a any instrument or combination of instruments. The score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece. The object is to encourage the audience to pay attention to the sounds that occur naturally in the room around them.

Branches (1976)

Branches is a work for percussion with any number of players using amplified plant materials. Its score is performance notes without musical "notes". Amplified plants are the only instruments used; they include pods, cacti, and other plant materials, such as pod rattles from a Poinciana tree. Other instruments are to be selected by the performers through I-Ching chance operations. Cacti are played by plucking needles with toothpicks. Watch the video above to see how Prism Percussion interpret the score.

Bernie Krause

The fragile weave of natural sound is being torn apart by our seemingly boundless need to conquer the environment rather than to find a way to abide in consonance with it.

1. Geophony, non-biological natural sounds

2. Biophony, the collective sounds produced at once by all sound-producing organisms in a given habitat

3. Anthropophony, sounds generated by humans

Author, soundscape ecologist, and musician Bernard L. Krause was born in Detroit, MI on Dec. 8, 1938. He is one of the founders of Soundscape Ecology, the acoustic relationships between living organisms and their environment (a.k.a. ecoacoustics). He coined the terms, geophony, biophony, and anthropophony. Geophony is non-biological natural sounds, such as the effect of wind in trees or grasses, waves at the ocean or lakeshore, or movement of the earth. Biophony consists of the collective sounds produced at once by all sound-producing organisms in a given habitat. Anthropophony is the human-generated sounds in a environment. He has spent many years cataloging the sounds of nature. He studied electronic music at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music).

Growing up, Krause studied violin and later on classical composition and guitar. Krause began his musical career as a producer and audio engineer and also worked as a session guitarist for pop, folk, Motown, and jazz recordings. Later, he studied electronic music at the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music). He now focuses on collaborating with other artists, combining field recordings with accessible orchestral music and visual media.

The sound installation, The Great Animal Orchestra: A Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes was composed with his friend and colleague, British composer Richard Blackford (Jan. 13, 1954). Its theme is based on Krause's 2012 book of the same title. The work integrates natural soundscapes into the full orchestral symphonic work. Listen to the third movement in the video below.

The Great Animal Orchestra: A Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes, Movement III: Elegy (2014)

In 2016, the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris, France opened the first major natural soundscape exhibit in a contemporary art museum. The Great Animal Orchestra exhibit includes Krause's recordings along with multimedia. See part of the exhibit in the video below.

The Great Animal Orchestra Installation (2016)

John Luther Adams

Music is not what I do. It's how I understand the world. For me, the whole world is music. When we are listening, we are more fully present in the world. And in this time when we humans have become a geologic force, I believe that music can serve as a sounding model for the renewal of consciousness and culture.

John Luther Adams was born on January 23, 1953 in Meridian, MS and grew up in New York, He began playing music as a teen as a rock drummer. He earned his degree in music from the California Institute of the Arts. After graduating, he worked full-time as an environment activist, but later made the deliberate decision to become a full-time composer because he believes that the arts have more power than politics to change the world.

Adams relocated to northern Alaska in 1978 and spent nearly 40 years living there, where he "discovered a unique musical world grounded in space, stillness, and elemental forces." Also, during his time in Alaska , he performed as a timpanist and percussionist for the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. After leaving Alaska Adams and his wide, Cynthia, have lived in the deserts of Mexico, Chile, and the southwestern United States.

Become Ocean (2014)

Adams music has indeed raised awareness for environmental preservation, using works like his orchestral work Become Ocean (2014), which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Sila: The Breath of the World to illustrate impending environmental collapse. In Become Ocean, Adams illustrates the power of the natural elements. In 2014 in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, he said, "With these elemental forces that are so much bigger and more powerful, not only than I am, but than I can even imagine. And that can be both terrifying and profoundly reassuring." Musically Adams evokes the oceans with changing, undulating sequences, near repetition, and large legato string passages.

Sila: The Breath of the World (2014)

Sila: The Breath of the World (2014) was his first piece meant to be performed outside by five different ensembles of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and voices who perform Sila in any combination, successively or simultaneously.

Become Desert (2019)

While both of the previous pieces draw inspiration from Adams' time in Alaska, Become Desert (2019) draws inspiration from Adams current home, the deserts of the southwestern United States. It is meant to be the sequel to Become Ocean. Adams evokes the feeling of the desert with long, drawn out sustained notes and the dry, hard surfaces with sparse metallic percussion.

Tan Dun

Organic music’ is not only based on the natural materials in our lives, but also embodies the commonality between nature and our hearts.

Tan Dun draws inspiration from ritual and nature
Tan Dun draws inspiration from ritual and nature

Tan Dun (Chinese: 谭盾) is a Chinese-born American composer and conductor. He was was born August 18, 1957 in Hunan, China. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and as such he was discouraged from pursuing music, but music remained a central part of his life and learned how to play traditional Chinese instruments. At 17, he was the village musician. He has said that when he discovered the music of Bach, it was "like a medicine curing everything you were suffering" after losing his family and culture. In 1978, he was accepted into Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in composition. He later on received his doctorate at Columbia University in New York City.

Growing up, Tan Dun was fascinated with traditional Chinese shamans and observed their rituals. Drawing inspiration from them, he has composed works in genres which he calls music rituals and organic music. Organic music uses what he calls "organic instrument," such as a pair of stones, bamboo, a leaf, or bowls of water. His most famous work is the score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) which includes organic instruments. He incorporated ritual in his Western-style, Chinese language opera Tea: A Mirror to the Soul (Chinese: 茶) which draws inspiration from traditional tea ceremony.

Water Passion After St. Matthew (2000)

Water Passion was inspired by J.S. Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, BWV 244. On this piece Tan Dun has said, "In my hometown, in ancient times and even in my childhood in the village, the people were always washing rice in the river before they cooked it, and washing their clothes in the river, washing their bodies in the river. I had the experience of living with the water, playing with the water, listening to the water. It was very important to me." He goes on to say, "When my wife was pregnant, we went to the doctor for an ultrasound, and there I could see this beautiful baby and hear the heart. Suddenly I heard this beautiful water sound and I realized: this is the sound all human beings hear first. At that time I had just gotten the commission for the Water Passion. I said, 'I’ve got to start with water'— it’s the beginning, and the beginning is the ending, and the end is the beginning. That’s the meaning of resurrection. Resurrection isn’t just a new life, but a new idea."


I try to facilitate connections between people and plants for the sake of people understanding that plants are 100% equivalent to life on earth as we know it – it’s about changing the paradigm of an individualistic society into one of collaboration.

English sound artist and environmental designer Mileece Abson (known professionally as Mileece) was born on June 19, 1978 in London, UK. As a child, her gamely ran a recording studio and she studied violin and piano. By her teens, she had played DJ gigs as a teen and hosted a jazz radio show. She lived in the U.K.. California, and rural France. She returned to the UK and earned her bachelor's degree in Sonic Art.

Formations (2004)

Supercollider is free to download.
Supercollider is free to download.

Mileece has released a series of works using the audio synthesis and algorithmic composition music programming language and environment Supercollider and has toured extensively playing live generative compositions via her custom made interactive instruments. Her music is inspired by cycles and formations in nature. She not only draws inspiration from nature but uses nature, plants themselves, to create music. She uses instruments that capture the electromagnetic current generated by plants which is then fed into self-authored software that turns the data into musical notes via MIDI, creating a literal musical garden. Her music is meant to appeal to both human listeners and plants. (There has been research that shows that music can both encourage or discourage plant growth!)

Her installations have been exhibited at the Migros Museum, Zurich, the Hayward Gallery in London, MOMA, and others. Mileece is the founder of Children of Wild, an organization of technology partners and conservation groups who are engaged bringing people in closer connection to nature.

Closing Questions to Consider

How does learning about these five composers who incorporate inspiration from nature into their music inspire you?

How does nature influence your art?

Do you feel that nature's sounds are music why or why not?

What is the geophony, biophony, and anthropophony in your day-to-day life?

How do you integrate both technology and nature in your creative process?


For Further Information

John Cage

Bernie Krause

John Luther Adams

Tan Dun



Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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