The Inspiration of Nature in Dr. Donald Sloan's Red Sky at Morning

Date: April 3, 2023
Author: Susan Abercrombie

Hints of nature have a way of showing up in the music we listen to as it’s often a form of inspiration that many composers and musicians grasp onto when in search of creativity. What better place to draw inspiration from than the physical world that constantly shifts, evolves, and moves beautifully around us? To prove my point, we can merely look back on the Masterworks series we’ve had this season; nature has shown up in almost every concert, from William Grant Still’s Wood Notes to Meira Warshauer’s Ahavah.

I got to pick the brain of one of our featured composers for our last Masterworks concerts of our 35thanniversary season, The Planets. Dr. Donald Sloan also took advantage of the large, awe-inspiring canvas that is nature when writing his latest world premiere, Red Sky at Morning.

Can you tell our audience a little about your world premiere piece Red Sky at Morning? What was the inspiration behind it?

This the third piece of mine that the Long Bay Symphony has performed and the second written specifically for them. The title comes from the old sailor’s adage: “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.” The notion is one of an impending storm rolling in, as foretold by the sunrise. The previous piece I wrote for LBS, “…the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind” was one in which I explored the relationship between the sea as we perceive it and the way it tends to control our mind and mood. After all, what is more relaxing than to sit by the water’s edge and watch the waves roll in and out? In Red Sky at Morning, it has the opposite effect. Rather than lull us into a daydream, it is a call to prepare. I have always loved the tradition of ‘water’ pieces, whether all the way back to Handel’s Water Music to the piano music depicting fountains by Liszt, Ravel and Griffes, to the sea depictions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Debussy’s La Mer, or Britten’s Sea Interludes. In Red Sky, one can imagine a feeling of a quickening breeze and choppier waves. A buildup to a calmer sunrise follows, but is short-lived; the motives of the wind and waves intensifies and eventually peaks. Of course, that is only one way to listen to this piece—I am a big believer that everyone should listen to their music in a way that is meaningful to them, and therefore there are no ‘wrong’ ways to feel a piece of music. Paradoxically, music is perhaps the most abstract of the arts. It is the language of emotions, our interior world, more than a precise depiction of the world around us. I have written pieces that stay in that abstract world, but more often than not I try to make some extra-musical associations in order to link to things we can perceive or share better. In a way, the choice of associations can be somewhat arbitrary. If I told you this piece is about roller skating or the path of a skier going down a mountain, a listener can be drawn in that direction just as easily. So, while the ‘program’ may seem to fit once one hears the work, it is not the only way to hear this and the association with nature, however intentioned, can be arbitrary.

The other inspiration for the piece is to honor the memory of Christopher Rouse, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer who passed away a few years ago. Chris was a mentor to me from the time I was an undergraduate at Cornell while he was working on his doctorate. He opened my ears to a great many things and gave me license to follow my own voice rather than try to make my music resemble everybody else’s. A few years later he was on the faculty at Eastman while I was working on my doctorate, and I copied music for him for several years. Chris had a sly habit of making obscure references in his pieces to many other works, most of which were unknown to virtually all the listeners. He would be smiling at the references I made in Red Sky to some of his pieces. Lord knows, after the many hours I spent copying out orchestra parts for him, I can say I am quite familiar with his works!

Nature is a common theme woven into the pieces of our last Masterworks concert. Why do you feel artists and musicians so often pull inspiration from nature to incorporate into their various pieces? Did you feel that similar sort of pull when writing Red Sky?

The simple answer is that nature is an inescapable part of the human experience. It is both all around us all the time as well as inside each of us. I think nature is both familiar and overwhelming to all of humanity regardless of culture and location. Every time we think we have conquered nature, it has a way of reminding us that at best we can live with it but not control it. Every belief system, whether the polytheistic religions’ notion of different gods controlling various aspects of nature, the monotheistic concept of a single God who created and orders all, or the notion of nature as a force whose origins and purposes are unknown to us, has tried to explain why things are the way they are. All art offers examples of what it means to be human and music is no exception. Therefore, it is ‘natural’ (pardon the pun!) to both depict nature and portray our own feelings in our interactions with the world around us.

As for Red Sky at Morning, on one level it evokes images of one of our interactions with nature. But it can also be taken as a kind of warning that changes in the world around us must affect how we live and hopefully persist. One doesn’t have to engage in the debate as to whether climate change is caused by human behavior to realize that it is us who must adapt; nature will do what it does.

You have been a long-time patron and supporter of the symphony. As we round out our 35thanniversary season, how have you seen the symphony change over the years? What has been your favorite Long Bay Symphony experience so far?

The symphony orchestra in America has always struggled to find its true role in society. If it is only an emblem of the elites of our society, then there will be difficulties drawing audiences in sufficient numbers to be economically viable and relevant to our culture. Therefore, it cannot be merely a curator of European Art Music. We always have an opportunity to redefine what the orchestra is to us, and this goes on in every community across the country.

I have greatly appreciated the efforts of my friend, Maestro Charles Evans, to program new or unusual works alongside the accepted classics. He knows it is difficult to ask an audience to ‘try a new dish’ rather than exist on a diet of only comfort food, but in an era in which one can listen to virtually anything at any time for minimal expense, the local symphony cannot try to merely duplicate an experience one can get anywhere else. I believe the goal is to send the audience home somehow different or transformed from where they were when they entered. And the LBS has largely succeeded with each concert. I don’t know if I can single out a particular concert or experience that stands out above the others. Rather, the fact that we are able to hear 60 or so musicians who have devoted their lives to touching us with their music making led by a master architect giving us a range of musical expression all in an afternoon is nothing short of a miracle.

In the 15 years that I have lived in Myrtle Beach I have seen the versatility of the LBS as it presents a wide variety of music, from pop to Broadway to the classics. There is a movement afoot here and across the country to present new voices, and this is appropriate. When people of a future date look back at our society, when they examine our programs, listen to our recordings, assess the range of expression, it would be awful if all they found was a repetition of 18th and 19th century pieces, as though we had nothing to say for ourselves.

Having been on the LBS board for ten years, I understand how vital yet how precarious this orchestra is. The community must find a way to continue to support it, because there is nothing else like the live orchestra experience. I don’t know where the orchestra will take us in the next decades, but one way or another we need to keep it going.

We hope to see each and every one of you at The Planets on April 16th as we end our 35th Anniversary Season in the best way we know how to: celebrating the classic and wholly embracing the new.

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