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

This Rock We're On:  Imaginary Letters

“This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters” is an extended work for jazz orchestra, voice, cello, and percussion.  Structured like an oratorio, it will give voice to a cast of "protagonists" who dedicated their lives (past and present) to celebrating and protecting the natural world.  These literary and artistic characters will “speak” through the device of imaginary letters, providing the basis for extended compositions.

Each song will take the form of a letter to or from a “protagonist” – authors, artists, naturalists, and adventurers whose literary and artistic insights have helped fuel the environmental movement. The songs will range in style from 20th century art song (such as Samuel Barber Hermit songs) to recitative passages, or jazz ballads.   Each song will be followed by an instrumental jazz orchestra piece that reflects on the text of the letter.  The jazz orchestra pieces will be through-composed and feature improvised solos.  There will be approximately 16 compositions, with a single act length of 80 minutes.  

The work will have a historical trajectory, starting with early naturalists and adventurers, and culminating in the present day, when scientific awareness of climate change has irrevocably altered our relationship to nature.  The piece will conclude with a final imaginary letter in which a young person contemplates an earth denuded of Muir’s “good tidings.”

In 2017 Mike was named the inaugural Stuart Z. Katz Professor of Humanities and the Arts at the City College of New York, which provided seed money to research the project.  "This Rock We're On" has also been supported by residencies at The Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts and The Ucross Foundation in November 2019, and The MacDowell Colony in February 2020, which enabled the beginning of the composition phase. 

Completed compositions include: 

Ansel Adams  
Song: Dear Virginia 
Jazz Orchestra: Domes 

Rachel Carson  
Song: Always, Rachel 
Jazz Orchestra: Tides 

Sigurd Olson 
Song: Three Words for Snow 
Jazz Orchestra: Boundary Waters 

Terry Tempest Williams 
Song:  Refuge 
Jazz Orchestra: Erosion