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Michael Gordon’s Music Meets Native American Culture in Symphony for Nature, New Documentary from Owsley Brown Presents, Now Airing on PBS
Source: 21C Media Group


Teddy Abrams and musicians in Symphony for Nature (credit: Anne Flatté, courtesy of Owsley Brown Presents)
New music meets ancient Native American culture and outstanding natural beauty in Symphony for Nature: The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake, now airing on select PBS stations nationwide. Directed by Anne Flatté for Owsley Brown Presents, this new half-hour documentary chronicles the world premiere performance of Natural History by composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon. This once-in-a-lifetime event took place in 2016 at Oregon’s breathtaking Crater Lake, a site sacred to the local Klamath Tribes. It was the lake that inspired Gordon’s work, a Britt Music & Arts Festival commission to mark the centennial of America’s National Park Service. Under the galvanizing leadership of Britt Festival Orchestra music director Teddy AbramsNatural History’s first performance not only featured the 40 members of the orchestra, a 70-voice choir, and 30 brass players and percussionists, but also a Klamath family drum group known as the Steiger Butte Singers, with several members of the Klamath Tribal Council in attendance. Symphony for Nature: The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake is a co-production of Owsley Brown Presents and Britt Music & Arts Festival. Southern Oregon Public Television is the presenting PBS station. Click here for local PBS listings.
Watch the video trailer for Symphony for Nature: The Britt Orchestra at Crater Lake.
As Symphony for Nature reveals, Crater Lake has been a source of inspiration for many thousands of years. Situated on the original homeland of the Klamath Tribes, it has represented their “giiwas,” or spiritual place, since the volcanic eruption that first formed it some eight thousand years ago. Fed since then by rain and snow, it is now, at 2,000 feet, the deepest lake in the nation and one of the most pristine found anywhere on earth.
Michael Gordon’s music merges subtle rhythmic invention with incredible power, harnessing, as the New Yorker’s Alex Ross put it, “the fury of punk rock, the nervous brilliance of free jazz and the intransigence of classical modernism.” To create the text and score of Natural History, he spent time with the Klamath drum group and researched such influential thinkers on nature as Henry David Thoreau. Envisioning the work as “an experiential spectacle,” Gordon explained:
“It’s about our relationship to the natural world. There’s a Crater Lake symphony going on all year long, we’re just going to add our voices to it.”
Conductor Teddy Abrams adds:
“So much of the piece really is actually about nature, and it’s about our relationship to the natural world, and in a way that I didn't realize would be quite as philosophical. And I think it starts with the tribe, because their relationship to nature and their way of celebrating nature through music is so deeply spiritual for them.”
Abrams’s world premiere of Gordon’s composition drew compelling acclaim. Oregon Arts Watch wrote:
“The piece evoked geological creation, the region’s first inhabitants, and a sense, simultaneously, of cyclical repetition and unflagging historical motion. When the traditional drumming of the Klamath Tribes members blended with the brass and percussion sections positioned behind the crowd (for maximum 3-D effect!), the impact was transformative and moving. … Unforgettable.”
Similarly, according to Second Inversion,
Natural History was conceived with a keen awareness of Native American issues and culture. … Pieces like these, which openly confront and explore the serious issues facing our wild spaces, are leading the way.”
Perhaps most movingly, Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry said afterwards:
“I could almost envision the sounds of our ancestors. I didn’t know I was going to be moved to tears, but I was. It incorporated and integrated our native drum, our Klamath language, the animals, and the true spirit of giiwas – Crater Lake.”
Klamath drummers in Symphony for Nature (credit: Anne Flatté, courtesy of Owsley Brown Presents)
Symphony for Nature follows the creation of Gordon’s work, interweaving footage of rehearsals, interviews, and its first performance with legends and stories from early visitors to the sacred space. Director Anne Flatté explains:
“It was essential to show the dynamic interaction between this extraordinary work of musical art and the spectacular setting, and also include historical photos and legends that help reveal the eternal power of Crater Lake. The movie will allow many more people to experience the vision, sound, and spirit of this once-in-a-lifetime musical collaboration.”
In its emphasis on music and faith, the project is characteristic of its executive producer, Owsley Brown III, who recently told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“I feel so drawn to these – I don’t know if you’d call them more serious subjects, but a little bit more on the serious side, I guess. I’m hungry for that kind of thing. Life is imbued with profound meaning. I want so badly to be connected with that. That’s what I think I feel the responsibility to share.”
Since making his Independent Spirit Award-winning debut in 2000 with Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles, Brown has turned repeatedly to musical subjects. His previous collaborations with Flatté include Serenade for Haiti, which documents the triumphs and tragedies of a Port-au-Prince music school, and won both the Orlando Film Festival’s “Most Inspirational Award, Documentary Feature” and the Virginia Film Festival’s “2017 Programmers Award, Documentary Feature”; and also the original web series Music Makes A City Now. Spotlighting the role of modern-day music makers in building community, the series’ inaugural season, which premiered in September 2014 on YouTube and, depicts the arrival in Louisville of then 27-year-old conductor Teddy Abrams and his rapid ascent to local hero as Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra. Abrams’s recording of the work – captured live at its historic first performance – was released last month on the Cantaloupe label.

About Owsley Brown Presents

Owsley Brown Presents (OBP) is an independent motion picture production company that produces original contemporary media works with an emphasis on artistic integrity and creative exploration. OBP productions include award-winning, feature-length documentaries that have enjoyed distribution via film festivals, and theatrical and broadcast television release worldwide. OBP also develops and produces creative programming for distribution on the worldwide web and other digital platforms. Filmmaker Anne Flatté has produced, directed and edited many independent documentaries, and has focused on music-related subjects over the past 15 years. She is director/producer of the original web series Music Makes A City Now, and producer of Serenade for Haiti (Serenad pou Ayiti), directed by Owsley Brown.
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