The Natural World(1987)
John Harbison's song cycle The Natural World sets the poetry of Robert Bly, Wallace Stevens, and James Wright for soprano (or mezzo soprano), piano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello.
The Natural World began in 1984 as a kind of return letter to the Wisconsin setting in which I do most of my composing. One song was written each summer until 1986. This was done in a diary-like fashion, interspersed with other pieces. Many of my most fortunate projects spring up that way. Some, like my Violin Concerto or Mottetti di Montale, remain "volunteer pieces." Others, like my Wind Quintet or First String Quartet, are fortunate to find sponsors and patrons. It is a special joy for me that the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, the organization with which I was most closely associated during the period of The Natural World’s composition, has commissioned the work. It is a fortunate and (I now believe) inevitable union.
Every cultural era has to redefine its relationship to nature, and in recent times these definitions seem to become increasingly urgent, artificial, and even anxious. Already by Wordsworth's time a "simple" relationship had become hard to achieve (harder than for Goethe not long before), and if Wordsworth believed his world to be overly urbanized and driven, where are we now? As nature becomes more remote from the daily reality of most of us, its images hardly diminish in our art. In fact, the less we have it, the more we seem to need it. With each new generation we refashion our artistic emblems for the natural. Thus the musical images in this piece are far distant from Beethoven's rustling brooks and the broad mountain space of Mahler's open fifths. They are also far from the meticulous mimetic accuracy of Messaien's birds. The crickets in my second song and the crow in the first are transcriptions. but transcriptions made to navigate in our world of phase shifts and "migrating" harmonies. And the rhythm of rationality in the second song, which would have been three in the year 1400, is now five! Composers have always wanted to describe their own landscapes with accuracy and with feeling, transformed by the wonderfully convenient screen that music provides. (Among all arts it is the most tenacious resistor of the literal).