Composition for Forests

Composition for Forests was designed so that the concert pianist Janice ChenJu Chiang could perform inside it, and for the viewer to be allowed to wander inside the installation while they listened to the performance. 

Ashurst Recital Hall, Northern Arizona University Campus, Flagstaff, 2016

Composition for Forests was part of the Flagstaff Science Festival and the School of Music's Horizon Concert Series.  It was funded by the School of Music, Arizona Commission for the Arts and the Puffin Foundation.

During her forty-five minute performance, Janice played a program that included: Earth Mother Fantasy (1990) by James Penberthy, Birds: A Suite of Impressionistic Studies (1971,1973) by Seymour Bernstein, Nigerian Suite (1961) by Ayo Bankole, Danza del Cuervo (1957) by Manuel Gomez Carrillo, Feu from Trois esquisses (1982) by Masayuki Nagatomi, Winter Waters: Tragic Landscape (1915) by Arnold Bax, Lament (1958) by Paul Pedersen, and El Amor y la Muerte: Balada from Suite for Piano Goyescas, Op. 11 (1911) by Enrique Granados

Materials: Steinway grand piano, filament, crow specimens, charred Ponderosa pine timbers, ceramic sewer pipes, cottonwood leaves, water, digital projection


In 2013, during the opening reception of my exhibit, Virga: the Hunt for Water, Janice ChenJu Chiang approached me and asked if I would ever consider having someone perform inside one of my installations. That question initiated three years of preparation culminating with Composition for Forests.

To prepare for this project, I asked Janice to read The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, which became the conceptual kernel behind my work and her performance. Lenore, the lamented and lost love in the poem, symbolizes, for me, in this installation, Mother Earth, as I attempt to make something beautiful out of a traumatic, and at times, a terrorizing event – catastrophic wildfire caused by a hundred years of fire suppression, and global warming.

Throughout the poem, the narrator asks the ebony bird questions, and with each question, the raven croaks, “Nevermore,” and with each “Nevermore,” we readers become the narrator, driving us to the terror that afflicts us. Our terror is the result of our creation. We have followed the recipe, baked the cake, and now we must eat it. Our goods have become our gods.

          And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; 
          And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor 
                                         Shall be lifted- nevermore!

In January 2014, I sat in the Ashurst Recital Hall listening to Janice perform in a concert. Her music inspired me to start drawing out a composition for an installation that allowed the audience to walk around while Janice performed, something that Janice had wanted to happen. During this same time, I was also asked to be the curator of the exhibition, Fires of Change. As I prepared for that job I delved into the science behind the beliefs that I had acquired twenty five years earlier while in art school — of fire’s vital importance in sustaining healthy forests.

During a week-long workshop with the participating artists and fire scientists in preparation for Fires of Change, we learned the science behind fire ecology and climate change in the Southwest. Wildfires can both rejuvenate and devastate a landscape; they can be an ally and an enemy in the forests we live in. They are natural processes that have shaped many ecosystems in this region for centuries. Dry conifer forests of the Southwest burned frequently with low-severity and mild effects. In a warming climate with unnaturally dense stands of young trees from past management practices, high-severity fires can create treeless patches so large that forests are not likely to return. On the other hand, maintaining a regime of frequent low-severity surface fires can help create forests that have a better chance of surviving droughts and our changing climate.

Two weeks before installing Composition for Forests, I returned home from a two-week artist-in-residence program at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, Alaska. During my time there, I spent a day climbing on the Root Glacier, headed toward the third biggest ice fall in the world. I explored its kettle lakes and eskers, and its icy blue slot canyons. It was, by far, one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I also spent a day exploring the toe of the glacier where the tongue meets the glacial lake surrounded by a hummocky topography of moraine peaks and ravines. I bore witness to the reality of climate change through the sound of melting ice and the constant hypnotizing orchestra of falling stone and rock. It was truly a reality of global warming on a massive scale.

For thirty years I have been exploring the concept of Manifest Destiny and the marks we have made on the earth and how those marks have affected peoples and cultures. My aim is to question and critique the destinies made manifest over time and how those manifestations have disrupted what I call the “other”: other peoples, cultures, or ecosystems. Perhaps, melting glaciers and catastrophic wildfires are the consequences of this mark making, our destiny being made manifested.