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Exploradio: The natural origins of music
The sounds and rhthyms of nature help a Cleveland composer make the most of summer's passing glory
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
A unidentified bush katydid. Katydids differ from grasshoppers by sporting long antennae and in their ability to 'sing', which grasshoppers can't do.
Courtesy of Lisa Rainsong
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From the Exploradio archives, as the waning days of warm weather give way to autumn's embrace: It’s late August, and summer is winding down.  Song birds will soon head south, and the frost will silence the nightly chorus of crickets, katydids, and singing insects. 

In this week’s Exploradio, a Cleveland composer shares her exploration of the natural origins of music in tribute to the sounds of the fading season.

Exploradio - The natural origins of music

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Summer's final chorus

It’s a windy day in rural Geauga County.  

Composer Lisa Rainsong is here listening for inspiration. 

She teaches music theory at the Cleveland Institute of music, but says her favorite musical experience did not happen in a concert hall…

“I was up in a meadow.  It was late at night.  The insects were singing all around me, all the crickets, all the katydids…  It had been a little cloudy, and when the clouds moved aside and the full moon broke through, I was surrounded by coyotes, and they all started to sing around me.  The insects, the moon , the  coyotes.  It was the most amazing concert stage and I felt so at home and I felt so honored to hear it.”

Rainsong brings the sounds of nature into her classroom to teach musical intervals, asking students to name the space between the notes of song birds.
“And they’re on it.  And the next time they hear a chickadee outside the window they look out the window because they know that bird.”

Nature is not just a classroom tool for Rainsong, it helps her face the challenges of middle age.  

One of her works is named after the flowering witch hazel, a shrub that she says, like her, is a late bloomer, and she says each movement of the song cycle has to do with the urgency of mid-life.

In one of the movements of 'Witch Hazel', the song of the katydid is a reminder of the oncoming end of summer - 

“The katydid rhythm becomes, 'time is short, faster, fall is coming'…I also have the cello pick up that same motif that same rhythmic pattern and that becomes almost an ostinato that runs through the piece.”

From Bartok to the backyard 

As a trained composer, Rainsong has learned to pick out the unique sound of each of the percussion players of the nighttime chorus, learning their names and notes. She says each one becomes like a separate instrument.

It’s a trait she shares with Bela Bartok, who borrowed the rhythms of birds, insects, and a Hungarian frog in his work ‘Night Music'.

Throughout the summer Lisa Rainsong teaches the art of identifying birds and insects through song at the Holden Arbotetum, and in workshops with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Geauga Park District.

She says it’s just as important to develop an ear as it is an eye for the beauties of nature.

“To me, working with the sounds of nature is so compelling both because it’s the origin of everything, but also because we’re in such trouble with climate change and habitat loss.  What really strikes me as an important part of my life work is to get people listening to what’s going on all around us so that they know what’s here. They know what they stand to lose; they know what should be here but’s not.” 

Like players in an uptown jazz ensemble, each insect in Rainsong’s Cleveland Heights backyard takes a solo, interweaving rhythm and melody into an intricate blanket of sound -- the sound that lulls us to sleep in the campfire’s glow during the glory days of late summer.



Related Links & Resources
Lisa Rainsong's website

Related WKSU Stories

Exploradio - Dragons and Damsels
Monday, July 1, 2013

Exploradio: Inside the Cloud
Monday, July 18, 2011

Exploradio - Blue Penguins and other mysteries
Monday, May 9, 2011

Listener Comments:

I cannot fathom what is possibly so interesting on tv, or other media forms that continues to pull people away from some of the most beautiful sounds they will ever hear, simply by being outside. I want to know all of the birds songs that I hear, but many times I do not. Also, the songs of birds change slightly from region to region (about 30 minutes away by car). Very cool. What is better than being lulled to sleep or gently awoken by our outdoor creatures?

Posted by: betsy thomas (canton) on August 22, 2011 11:08AM
I enjoyed this tribute very much.

Posted by: Anonymous on August 22, 2011 10:08AM
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