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The healing power of music: Living with the reality of fire

 

We’ve seen the horrifying images. Walls of flame incinerating Paradise, searing embers crackling over the escape route out of town. Wildfires eating up vineyards and buildings in Napa Valley, joining forces with a raging sister fire and leaping over I-80 near Vacaville. And here at home, last August, the Jones Fire —racing up the Yuba River Canyon, sweeping on to the campus of the Sierra Friends Center, devouring multiple structures, including 14 nearby homes.

With our Earth in turmoil and our climate in crisis, we in the West are confronted — brutally — with fires burning so hot they crack rocks and reduce homes to rubble and ashes in minutes. We are facing a harsh reality; some say Doomsday. And yet there are voices on the sidelines, and in the foreground too, speaking to us, if we’re willing to listen. Assuring us we can soften reality in the future if we agree to work with nature instead of against it.

No doubt, our planet is in peril, but here in Northern California, we have the means to gradually heal our forested landscape using traditional ecological knowledge. In the meantime, considering the stress we live with in fire country, we need to care for ourselves as well, to heal our psyches. And music is one of the greatest healing properties of all.



On that note, luckily for us, we’ll have the chance this Sunday, in a virtual concert, to hear a dozen instrumental works created by students in Mark Vance’s composers program, courtesy of InConcert Sierra. While normally the class collaborates with a nonprofit group for the semester, the focus in 2021 was fire, looked at from many angles, including forest management, climate change and cultural history — and their music reflects their studies.

A major highlight of the semester was a field trip to a controlled burn site in the Tahoe National Forest, arranged by Joe Flannery who works for the U.S. Forest Service. Away from Zoom, donning masks and hardhats, the kids observed the construction of a fuel break — looking first at a section where the forest had been thinned, with ground and ladder fuels removed, then at another, not yet touched, still a tinderbox. The contrast left strong impressions that the composers dispersed into their pieces.



Maybe Noah Prescott had this in mind when he wrote Coexistence with Fire — scored for piano, violin, English horn and bassoon. The piece begins with a pastoral mood, double reeds blending nicely with the piano coming in for support. But by Bar 17, we hear driving chordal patterns on the piano. Pulsating rhythms, embellished by the violin. Then lightning strikes, with dissonant chords, major 7ths and minor 2nds, pulsing on the piano, before the opening melody returns. According to Mark Vance, “It (the piece) sounds like it came straight from an English detective mystery.”

Like Noah, his fellow composers show masterful use of instrumentation to express the sense and sounds of fire. In Smoke, Baraka Anderson’s duo for piano and flute, arpeggios create a densely textured sonic landscape as smoke drifts across the mountains. In another piece, Ladders and Fuel, a string quartet by Eliza Hagy, rhythmic patterns, tricky accents and tremolo build a growing wall of sound; eighth notes switch to sixteenth notes as the fire intensifies.

In Kieran Dickson’s trio for violin, cello and piano, simply entitled: Wildfire, all is calm and sweet in the beginning. Half notes in the cello, flute playing faster, foreshadowing what’s to come. We hear the sound of a match striking, with violin and cello bowing beneath the bridge. Then the violin swirls as embers glow and multiply and the fire develops.

Back in April. Chris Paulus, a former battalion chief for Cal Fire, spoke to the composers via Zoom. Paulus is currently overseeing a major shaded fuel break along the North Fork of the American River, providing a buffer zone for Colfax. He emphasized the need to safely restore fire to the landscape, to reduce fuel and build up nutrients in the soil. To create healthy forests much as the Western Indians did in past centuries.

Ideally, low-intensity burns are done in late fall or early winter, after plants enter dormancy and their seeds are dispersed. Then come spring, as if by magic, the landscape freshens. Native bulbs sprout above ground. Native bunch grasses, ideal for water infiltration, pop up all over, along with mounds of Miner’s lettuce. Perhaps this emergence moved Levi Krautkramer to write his string quartet: Following a Fire — a lovely piece with ascending lines for violin, evoking a spirit of renewal.

The musicians in InConcert’s composers program are all in their teens, but artistry and maturity come through in their music. They are the generation that will live with the dire consequences of past environmental degradation and climate denial for years to come. So it behooves us all, those of us twice, thrice or four times their age to take note. To pay attention to their music, their passion and their concern for the community.

To tune in to the concert at 2 p.m., go to the InConcert website: http://www.inconcertsierra.org

Julie Becker is a member of the ICS Education Committee and lives in Nevada City

KNOW & GO

WHO: InConcert Sierra

WHAT: Composers Virtual Concert: Instrumental pieces with themes of fire. Recorded at the historic Miners Foundry in Nevada City

WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8

WHERE: Streamed live on InConcert Sierra’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Go to InConcert’s website for links: http://www.inconcertsierra.org

Kate Hershberger stands with musicians who recorded her brass quintet, Unnatural Disaster, at the Miners Foundry in Nevada City. From left, Glenn Smith, trumpet; Doug Thorley, trombone; Julian Dixon, tuba; Angelina Mejia, French horn; and John Frantz, trumpet.
Photo by Craig Silberman

 

Eliza Nagy, viola (on the right) rehearses her string quartet, Ladders and Fuel, with violinists Kristen Autry and Zoe Schlussel. Not pictured: Jia-mo Chen, cello.
Photo by Craig Silberman
Composers learned how controlled burns turn fire from horror to healing.
Photo by Craig Silberman

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