“Everything,” John Cage once declared, “is music”: not just the highly organized sounds of professional musicians, but the acoustic events that surround us in every moment. It’s a concept Seattle-based composer Nat Evans has been exploring through projects that mingle guided improvisation, the sounds of nature and ad hoc communities of listeners — all to encourage a deeper awareness of our experience.
This Saturday brings a chance to sample one of Evans’s site-specific music events, “Hungry Ghosts” — along with work by colleagues Neil Welch and John Teske, who are presenting this one-time-only happening in the forested surrounding of Ravenna Park at dusk.
Thomas May: What is the focus of your work as a composer?
Nat Evans: I write music for the concert hall, site-specific pieces and pieces that involve collaboration with other artists — for dance, video and installations. My focus is on pieces that bring people together in new and interesting ways: by taking sounds that you might hear in the concert hall or sounds from the everyday world and recontextualizing them to create a sense of community, so that people can view their lives in a new light.
How do you describe what you do and the kind of music you compose to people who tend to get hung up on labels like classical, experimental or avant-garde?
I like to say that I’m doing things that are all about reexamining and being in dialogue with our everyday lives — not only in the present moment, but also as our lives relate to our experience with the ancient and with the natural world. That twofold sense of connection, with nature and with our past, is important to me.
You can see that in a piece like “Hungry Ghosts,” which the Indianapolis Museum of Art commissioned me to write (originally for a sculpture park). It’s a chamber ensemble piece that reflects and responds to the surrounding environment as well as my own ancestors. The title refers to Asian festivals based around the idea of deceased ancestors coming to visit the human realm from the hungry ghost realm. For the audience, the open way the sound is structured lends itself to a closer examining of one’s self in the moment than what often happens when you’re in the concert hall.
Is Seattle a good place for an artist doing this kind of work?
I’ve been in Seattle for nine years now, and over that time I’ve had the opportunity to work on lots of collaborations. There’s a rich tradition and history of people coming here to do whatever they want as artists, with a lot of freedom and flexibility for interdisciplinary work. You can see that goes back at least to John Cage, when he was here in the 1930s and developing his ideas in dialogue with dancers and visual artists. This collaborative spirit is the most natural to get at the things I’m interested in.
So for this event, John Teske and Neil Welch invited me take part. Our music is different, but we’re interested in similar ideas. They’re composers, improvisers and performers. This is the third year in a row they’ve curated a series of shows in the forest at Ravenna Park. In addition to “Hungry Ghosts” — which brings the event to a close — there will be pieces by John and Neil that are guided improvisations, including John’s “Swell.” He describes it as “a spacious abstraction of a simple tide.” So the whole evening is about music that responds to the natural world through a series of guided improvisations.
How did you get interested in the ghost festival tradition?
I came to it through my practice in Zen and also from living in China for a brief time. And there’s also an event within our own community in Seattle that represents this tradition: the Japanese Bon Odori festival in summer.
The idea of reflecting back on my own ancestors and making an offering to them is something I think applies both to artists who have influenced me and to my own family. For example, one of the movements we’ll perform from “Hungry Ghosts” involves breaking down and recontextualizing the Big Band Americana tune “I’ll Get By” as a loose cannon. It’s the music that was closest to my grandfather’s heart and so an homage to a man who introduced me to many different kinds of music. And there’s a visual component as well as a sonic one, since we’ll be lighting candles at the end.
What sort of instrumentation works in this setting?
“Hungry Ghosts” needs at least five people to function, and the instrumentation is open, but when I originally wrote it for the museum, I had in mind an ensemble of 25-30 players. For this performance we’re planning on having a cello, bass, two saxophones and trombone, and I’ll be playing an Indian shruti box [a harmonium-like instrument that produces a sustained drone] and a conch shell to signal the different movements. There’s also a moment when rocks are played by rubbing them.
What experience do you want to impart to audience?
The open, atmospheric setting allows you to listen to music that might be relatively familiar in a new way — the music is open enough to let in the natural sounds happening around the audience. I think the event becomes an opportunity for people to reframe their own experience and to develop a sense of place and of community. Usually in my events, even though a lot of the people who show up won’t have known each other, there’s a feeling of community that arises. That’s what I hope will happen here, by taking part together and lighting up the forest for a moment.
If you go: Encounter the music of Nat Evans, Neil Welch and John Teske at a free site-specific performance in Ravenna Park this Saturday, June 15. The happening begins at 8 p.m. Map to the exact location at the bottom of this link.