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Composing Environments and Ecologies

Posted On June 22, 2021 | 08:50 am | by mayw | Permalink
David Crowell evokes ecological beauty with a new string quartet

David Crowell, New York City-based composer, instrumentalist, and producer, was our Early-Career Musician for spring 2021. His research report, “Cloud Forest,” described the process and inspiration behind composing a forthcoming string quartet.


Q&A with David Crowell

What is the story behind your new composition, Cloud Forest?

Cloud Forest is a two-movement string quartet for the New York-based Argus String Quartet that will premiere at the Tribeca New Music Festival in the fall. It loosely narrates an experience I had in Polipoli, a cloud forest on Maui in Hawaii. Cloud forests are elevated forests near the equator where, because of various environmental and meteorological factors, clouds are omnipresent—the forests are like a different world. In the piece, I try to evoke clouds wafting over and settling into the forest in the first movement and to trace the life force and energy of the forest in the second movement, combining very slow introspective music with an energetic conclusion. 

The first movement traces the descending fog and clouds, and to evoke this I use string harmonics, which produce beautiful, ethereal tones. The first movement slowly morphs, instrument by instrument, from this world of harmonics to normal pitched notes, and then back to harmonics. I’m even considering an electronic effect for the harmonics sections that boosts the volume and adds some reverberation to enhance that cloud forest atmosphere. The gradual migration between aural worlds is created though a very slow, rhythmic cycle that is probably almost imperceptible to the listener but is the basis for a lot of my musical compositions. The second movement takes a small section of the first movement and slices it up into little bits, rearranging and using those pieces as the basis for further development.


Where do you draw inspiration for your compositions from?

A secondary passion of mine is hiking—I’m from Alaska, and am used to being in beautiful environments, and many of my pieces reference those experiences. Sometimes I set out to compose about certain experiences, or sometimes after starting to compose—as was the case with Cloud Forest—I start thinking about what the music reminds me of. I didn’t really start off composing about a cloud forest, so to speak, but as I was listening to it, it evoked this cloud forest I had hiked in.


What else are you working on?

The amount of time I’ve had to completely focus on composing during this fellowship has been really unusual, and I’ve been able to work on a few upcoming compositions in addition to Cloud Forest. I’m working on a percussion quartet for Sandbox Percussion that will premiere at Dumbarton Oaks next April. This is my third piece for Sandbox, who performed at Dumbarton Oaks in March 2020, and the origins of this piece are from a composition of mine from a couple of years ago called Cascades. I decided to revise it for this April 2022 concert, and it ended up as a completely new piece. 

Apart from the fellowship, [Artistic Director of Music] Valerie Stains has commissioned me to write a piece for the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Music at Dumbarton Oaks, for the string orchestra A Far Cry. Dumbarton Oaks has a very rich musical history—this Early-Career Musician program started only a few years ago, but Mildred and Robert Bliss commissioned composers like Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber well before that. So the idea for the anniversary is to present the older commissioned works like Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto with pieces by recent fellows like Jessie Montgomery, Caroline Shaw, and me, bringing together the old with the very new in celebration of music at Dumbarton Oaks. I’ve been admiring the space of the Music Room in the livestreamed concerts this year, and it will be really nice to be there and hear all this music together.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.