program note

Pine Chant (2021) 

all we had to do was put our ears to the trees and listen very carefully

       —Valerie Trouet, Tree Story


Responding to this quote from dendrochronologist Valerie Trouet, Pine Chant represents a kind of tree-listening of my own. I composed music to align with the rhythms of annual tree growth, drawing on a set of data shared with me by the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But the work also reflects my own lived experience amidst the current climate uncertainty, as heard in the deep sadness pervading the harmonic cycles upon which I mapped the tree data.

Each of the work’s three sections deals with a particular tree species: Colorado pinyon, Ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir. I used the annual growth data to control various musical parameters including the temporal placement, density or length of the instrumental gestures. For the most part this plays out over a floating sonic landscape abstracted by the use of reverb, echo and distortion in the electronics. But in the faster third section of the work the sonification becomes more explicit: I wanted the listener to hear the changing climate.

Noticing a declining trend in the annual growth of Arizona’s Douglas Fir population across the twentieth century, I mapped this data to the space between each musical gesture (in this case rapidly falling arpeggios). The reduced growth over time creates an increasingly frantic texture as the gestures become closer together. We can also notice a greater synchronisation between the three instruments, and their coming together in rhythmic unison at the climax is for me symbolic: nature’s messaging is loud, clear and urgent.

In the work’s final moments, I added into the electronics the “voice” of another Douglas Fir dating from 1772, by far the oldest tree in the data set. These bell-like sonorities above the trio’s sustained chord hark back to a time before industrialisation. And I can’t help but think that the footprint of humanity is there in the trees, and it is upon all of us to listen, and to act.

— Lachlan Skipworth

Trouet, Valerie. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings. p. 89. © 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.