Arboretum is a work of music inspired by trees—and for the nature-loving bassoonist who wrote it, a passion project on two levels.
“I’ve always been really into nature since I was a little kid, and my professional path has diverged away from it,” composer Brad Balliett says. “And recently, I’ve been trying to get back to it and find all the ways that I can combine these two passions—can I bring some of my love of nature into my life as a bassoonist and as a composer?”
Happily for Balliett, his instrument of choice is one which has certain associations with the natural world.
“It looks a little bit like a tree; it’s made of this nice maple wood,” Balliett says of the bassoon. “I remember playing John Williams’ bassoon concerto Five Sacred Trees. And he says in the opening, ‘The bassoon is a tree itself.’ And I remember thinking as a middle-schooler, well, John Williams, that’s not exactly true, but I get your point. There is this kind of kinship between bassoons and trees. So, when Mike Harley, who is the [bassoon] professor here at University of South Carolina, invited me to make a piece to be performed at the Adkins Arboretum in Chestertown, Maryland, I returned to this idea of trees and bassoons together.”
Balliett’s Arboretum is comprised of multiple bassoon solos played simultaneously—each inspired by a different kind of tree.
“[Arboretum] is a bunch of solo pieces—a piece that could be performed on bassoon all on its own. And each piece is attached to a specific species of tree and the music will be inspired by that tree. So, there is the sweetgum tree which I find to be a very elegant tree with its star-shaped leaves. So I tried to make the music elegant and flowing. And the tulip poplar is a massive, imposing tree, so I wrote that for the contrabassoon—the big bassoon with its imposing sound.”
For the upcoming performance of Arboretum at South Carolina’s Congaree National Park on Saturday, April 10th, each bassoonist will play just off one of the pathways that run through the park, underneath the branches of the particular tree that inspired their solo. Although spread out through the forest, the performers will be able to keep their parts synchronized.
“The piece is constructed with the players using stopwatches to guide the pacing of the playing, so that all the pieces will work together and create harmony amongst the pieces,” Balliett says. “So, you might be standing next to the tulip poplar but you’ll be hearing in the background the sweetgum tree or the sassafras tree or whatever else is around. And all of the pieces work together to kind of create an ultra slow-motion chord sequence.”
Because a performance of Arboretum depends on the tree species present, the music at Congaree will differ from that heard in Maryland’s Adkins Arboretum for the work’s 2019 premiere. In particular, Balliett has added solos that reflect some of the park’s most iconic trees.
“Some of them are here like the white oak trees and a couple of the others,” Balliett says, noting that Congaree has a few tree species in common with the Adkins Arboretum. ”But there were other trees that are prominent here in the Congaree National Park—famous, even—like the bald cypress. So we decided that to really make it special for this location there should be new pieces that reflect this specific ecosystem.”
Although the Congaree performance of Arboretum will feature fifteen bassoonists, including students at the University of South Carolina School of Music, Balliett points out that there is no set number of performers. “If you have only three people and the trees, you can do it with three people. You can do it with one person if you love this particular loblolly pine in your backyard. You can play the loblolly pine piece in your backyard next to that tree and that’s just as much a performance of this piece as if you have twenty-five or fifty bassoons spread out in the forest.”
The work’s flexibility extends beyond those playing it. Audience members also have options when taking in a performance of Arboretum.
“It’s totally up to everybody that comes to the experience,” Balliett says. “So, you are certainly welcome to find a bench and enjoy all in one place, or to walk around until you find something you like and pause, or sort of speed walk around the whole loop of the forest and try to get a little bit of everything. In the performance on April 10th, the bassoonists will play through the whole piece twice, with a big gap in between, with the idea that you can intentionally go try a different pathway through it the second time through.”
Balliett adds that there may be special rewards for the audience member who takes the path less traveled. “We have a loop that’s reasonably densely-populated with bassoonists. It might be a one-minute walk from one bassoonist to the next. But then there’s a little spur—a path off of the main loop—for the adventurous audience member. And we want to reward that adventurousness so that if they go down, it might take three or four minutes of walking, but then you’ll find Professor Mike Harley down there playing the ‘Bald Cypress’ next to one of the most impressive trees in the entire park. So we want it to be rewarding and surprising.”
Ultimately, Balliett hopes Arboretum will impart a deeper understanding of the natural world to those who perform and hear it. “Hopefully, for both audience and musicians, they come out with a new appreciation for the trees and an eye towards differentiating the trees,” he says. “They’ll walk through the forest and say ‘This is my tree. Here I am right next to the white oak. This is the one that I spent some time learning how to play the song, and now I recognize it.’”
In this interview that aired Tuesday, April 6th on Sonatas & Soundscapes, SC Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with bassoonist and composer Brad Balliett about his work Arboretum and its upcoming performance at Congaree National Park on April 10th at 3pm. Fuller also hears from bassoonist and University of South Carolina music professor Mike Harley. More information about the performance, including weather-related scheduling updates, can be found at https://sites.google.com/alarmwillsound.com/arboretum/home.