Near Pretty Pass, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA (Photograph:  Mike Holober)

Near Pretty Pass, Sierra Nevada Mountains, CA (Photograph: Mike Holober)


Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn. ”

— John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901

But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” - Bill Mckibben

What the Warming World Needs Now is Art, Sweet Art

This Rock We're On:  Imaginary Letters

A meditation on the natural environment and the fate of the planet, “This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters” is an oratorio for jazz orchestra, voice, cello, and percussion.   Giving voice to a cast of “protagonists” who “speak” through the device of imaginary letters, this multi-movement work features art songs, set for chamber ensemble, that take the form of imaginary letters to or from naturalist authors, artists, and activists whose insights have deepened our appreciation of nature, and awakened us to its fragility.  Each of the vocal works is followed by an instrumental jazz orchestra piece that reflects on the text of the letter.   

Launched with support from the inaugural endowment of the Stuart Z. Katz Professorship in the Humanities and Arts at the City College of New York, “This Rock We’re On:  Imaginary Letters” was written during artist residencies at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, Ucross Foundation for the Arts, and MacDowell.    Funding from the PSC-CUNY Research Foundation has been secured to partially support a premiere in Spring 2023 by the GRAMMY-nominated Gotham Jazz Orchestra.  Featured artists will include Jason Rigby (tenor saxophone), Nir Felder (guitar), Dave Eggar (cello), Marvin Stamm (trumpet), John Patitucci (bass), James Shipp (percussion), and the up and coming Brazilian vocalist Jamile Staevie Ayres.  

Mike Holober, the group’s leader, composer, conductor, and pianist, has been described by Downbeat Magazine as “one of the finest modern composer/arrangers of our time,” and was awarded the 2022 American Academy of Arts and Letters Andrew Imbrie Award in Music.  His GRAMMY® nominated double-CD “Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra:  Hiding Out” (“Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, 2020”), garnered rave reviews in the jazz press.  Downbeat Magazine proclaimed it a “long anticipated, epic work,” while others praised the composer's “daring compositional voice,” “powerful orchestral magic,” and “profound artistic vision” -- confirming his place in “the front rank of the most accomplished and inventive composers in jazz,” and “leading the charge to shift what a big band can sound like.” 

Featured protagonists:  

Ansel Adams  
The American photographer Ansel Adams is best known for his iconic images of the American West, and a life-long advocate for environmental conservation.  For Adams, the wilderness was “a mystique: a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience,” and his photographs have inspired my own explorations of the remote reaches of the Sierra Nevada range.  

The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Dear Virginia,” and takes the form of a letter from the photographer to his wife.   It is set as a jazz ballad, with lyrics based on some of the more evocative passages of Adams’ published letters, as well as insights from the photographer’s granddaughter, a fellow jazz musician, who has generously agreed to be interviewed for this project.  The jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Domes,” referring to the unique geology of Yosemite Valley, and the subject of some of Adams’ most memorable photographs.     

Rachel Carson    
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and nature writer who is best known for her publication Silent Spring (1962).  The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Another Summer,” and is set as a letter to Dorothy Freeman, who Carson met in 1953 (their deep friendship is preserved in a published collection of their correspondence).  The title for the jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is “Tides,” reflecting Carson’s lifelong preoccupation with the sea.   

Sigurd Olson   
Sigurd Olson was a nature writer and conservationist, best known for his books about the North Woods wilderness of Minnesota.  The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Three Words for Snow,” evoking the circumstances of the author’s death, at age 82, while snowshoeing in the Minnesota woods.  The jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Boundary Waters,” referring to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where I spent a memorable summer as a trip leader during college.  Olson worked as a guide in this region for more than 30 years, and was instrumental in its establishment as a designated wilderness.   

Terry Tempest Williams   
Terry Tempest Williams is an author, naturalist, and activist whose wide-ranging works of creative non-fiction address issues of social and environmental justice.  The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Refuge” (the title of her most influential book), and is inspired by an extended visit to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, where I spent a day immersed in the location that formed the backdrop to the book.  In January 2020 I had the opportunity to meet the author to discuss ideas for the project, and she expressed interest in collaborating on the section devoted to her.  The jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Erosion” (the title of her recent collection of essays), but my meeting with the author unexpectedly inspired an additional jazz orchestra piece titled “Tower Pulse,” which was inspired by the audio recordings made by a team of geologists of the sounds produced by Castleton Tower, one of the largest free-standing towers in the world, near the author’s home in Utah.  

Wendell Berry  
Wendell Berry is a novelist, poet, essayist, and activist, who maintains a small farm in rural Kentucky.  The vocal work for this protagonist has not been started, as I am hoping to secure an interview with the author before beginning; the working title for the jazz orchestra piece is “A Dirt Lover’s Almanac,” evoking a farmer’s commitment to soil and weather.  

Robin Wall Kimmerer  
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an environmental scientist and member of the Potawatomi Nation.  Her 2013 publication Braiding Sweetgrass:  Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) was the inspiration for a jazz orchestra composition titled “Skywoman Falling.”