Music-and-Poetry Collaboration Evokes Spirit of Environmental Prophet

Music-and-Poetry Collaboration Evokes Spirit of Environmental Prophet

Mi Casita, a 1912 cabin built by Aldo Leopold in New Mexico, at a time he was discovering ideas that would transform how we think about the land and ecology. (Photo by Andrea Clearfield)


Andrea Clearfield is an award-winning composer who has written more than 150 works for orchestra, opera, chorus, chamber ensemble, dance and multimedia collaborations. Clearfield creates deep, emotive musical languages that build cultural and artistic bridges.

Recent works are inspired by Tibetan music fieldwork that she conducted in the Nepalese Himalaya. She was recently appointed the Steven R. Gerber Composer in Residence with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for the 2018-2019 season (Dirk Brossé, Artistic Director). Dr. Clearfield was awarded a 2017 Independence Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts and fellowships at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, American Academy in Rome, Yaddo, Copland House and the MacDowell Colony among others. A strong advocate for building community around the arts, she is founder and host of the renowned Salon featuring contemporary, classical, jazz, electronic, dance, and world music since 1986. 

“Although I did not write this work at BMC, I believe that my several residencies there exposed me and opened me up to creating socially-conscious work,” Clearfield says. ” I am deeply inspired by the activists, writers, musicians and artists with whom I’ve been fortunate to share BMC residencies. The conversations, friendships, and art sharing there have led me to explore ways that my own work can make a difference in the world—writing on themes and issues of cultural preservation, ecology, health, gender and freedom from oppression. I am indebted to BMC for helping pave the way to this new body of work.”


I was grateful and honored to have been awarded an Aldo & Estella Leopold Writing Residency along with poet collaborator Ariana Kramer in August 2017. As part of the residency, I had the opportunity to live and compose in the 1912 cabin that Aldo Leopold built for his then fiancé, Estella. Owned by the U.S. Forest Service and managed by the Leopold Writing Program, the cabin sits in front of a large area of boulders and forestland in northern New Mexico. The retreat was designed to provide space for writers and thinkers (I was the first composer) who are interested in a contemporary re-envisioning of the relationship between humans and the natural world.

Ariana and I were interested in Aldo Leopold’s changing perception of wolves—how he transformed from a wolf  hunter to a conservationist who valued predators, and the event that became the catalyst for that change. In his essay on wolves and deforestation “Thinking like a Mountain”,  from his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, he describes how as a youth full of “trigger-itch”, he shot a mother wolf. She was close enough that he could see the” green fire” dying in her eyes. He was haunted by those eyes for 35 years, as he rethought the role of wolves in the ecosystem. In the same essay he wrote:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold’s idea of  “land ethics” speak of a holistic view of the land we live on, and the necessity of studying its ecosystem and its history. “To think like a mountain means to have a complete appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of the elements in the ecosystems,” says Leopold.  And he adds, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”

Leopold’s story of personal transformation, his writings and life, informed the poetry and music for a collaborative work with Ariana Kramer, “Transformed by Fire“. Ariana wrote an evocative 12-movement poetry cycle that explored not only Leopold’s experience but also that of the wolf: man encounters wolf/wolf encounters man. In the month-long residency, it wasn’t feasible to create the evening-length work that we imagined, so I wrote a shorter version. Scored for baritone, chorus and piano this first version was five movements with a duration of 20 minutes, premiered at the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico on August 30, 2017 with baritone Mark Jackson and myself at the piano, and with members of  the Taos Community Chorus. We also presented the evening as a multi-media/multi-sensory presentation which included a slideshow with background information on Aldo Leopold and wolves, and a display of a wolf fur, cast of wolf tracks, deer antlers and vegetation that we encouraged people to touch.

Music-and-Poetry Collaboration Evokes Spirit of Environmental Prophet 1

Andrea Clearfiled (left) and Ariana Kramer

There was much interest in the work and so we offered an encore performance at the Harwood Museum the following week. The piece was performed again this past April, presented by SOMOS as part of National Poetry Month. Ariana and I are currently seeking funding to create the full work (12 movements) for a large-scale cantata with chamber ensemble or orchestra. We also believe in the educational possibilities of the work as a way to demonstrate, through the arts, a story of personal transformation that continues to resonate and expand as we look at what land ethics might mean today.

Since the work is about transformation, the musical materials undergo transformation as well. There are several leitmotivs varied throughout; “Fire (burn, spark, green fire)” is a series of dense, crunchy chords, recalling the friction necessary for building a fire. Leopold’s theme (“I see her eyes”) employs repeated chant-like notes both in the voice and the piano, pondering, contemplative. There are lighter moments as well— “Spark” is a playful movement referencing Leopold’s love for cranes and small Draba verna flowers with quickly shifting harmonies. There is a movement dedicated to his love for Estella, nodding to early 19th-century popular song. The last movement is about the essential message at the heart of Leopold’s work – interconnectivity. The piece concludes with Ariana’s text, inspired by Leopold’s writing, “Everything on, over, and in the land, belongs together”, making a large harmonic circle.

Here is a video of Clearfield’s remarks before the Taos concert

 You can see a preview of the Transformed by Fire score here