The Dodo resides in our collective consciousness as the iconic symbol of mass extinction caused by humans. We learn early on in childhood of the innocent flightless bird that once populated the island of Mauritius in the seventeenth century, free of natural predators until the arrival of the Europeans and their domesticated pets decimated the species in less than a century. I once had a surreal dream about this almost mythical bird. “Last Flight of the Dodo” takes us on an epic fantasy wherein the utopian society of the Dodo is destroyed by the arrival of man and his feral cats and dogs, and out of the midst of chaos arises a hero; an intellectual who discovers the secret of flight through machines, and whose bravery rallies the flightless birds together to vanquish their human oppressors. The heroic themes cycle back to chaos in the end and we are forced to confront the truth: that we are the stewards of the Earth and have the power to preserve or destroy our environment.
A glacier, we learned in grade school, is a great river of ice that moves so slow as to be undetectable by the human eye and may travel but a few inches a year in its journey to the sea. In the 1970’s my family traveled by car to Seattle from Vermont in one of our epic vacations and I photographed some of these awesome parapets of ice creeping down the majestic mountains of Glacier National Park. Forty years later, my daughter and I were perusing the same photographs and discovered, through an internet search, that the glaciers are all but gone. Of the 150 glaciers that gave the park its namesake, only 25 remain and these will likely disappear within the next two decades. This was the first part of the suite I wrote, almost four years ago, and since then we have seen an alarming increase in polar ice melting, drought, and severe weather caused by global warming. The world has not been left in better shape for our children; we should at least do what we can to save a few glaciers for them to enjoy.
Throughout my young adult life I’ve had the privilege to hike many portions of the Appalachian Trail, although I’ve never attempted the whole stretch. I wanted to capture that exhilaration of the hike through music, and I was hearing Appalachia (if bluegrass could be played on english horn, that is). I was reading Bill Bryson’s highly educational and humorous account of his own attempt in “A Walk in the Woods” and came upon his anecdote describing the National Park Service’s bungled program to introduce non-native rainbow trout into Abrams Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains. After dumping drums of poison to ‘cleanse’ the stream, “the Park Service biologists managed the wonderfully unusual accomplishment of discovering and eradicating in the same instant a new species of fish”. This is for those who love the trail and have not given up the search for the disappeared smoky madtom.
During a family reunion in the beautiful island of Maui, my brother Simon had a close encounter with a monk seal while taking a morning swim. This seal is endangered having suffered from commercial fishing, human encroachment and climate change and at this time number about a thousand. They are a curious species, and this fellow took to playing a game of ‘Simon says’ with my brother as they communed quietly in the sea. I used a simple fugal approach, hoping to convey a sense of playfulness and respect.
There are many “Rivers of Fire” throughout the world. For my first six years in New York City I resided next to one of the worst. Newtown Creek, a tributary that separates the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and empties into the East River, is the site of one of the largest oil spills in history spilling up to 30 million gallons of oil into the local harbors and aquifers. A huge subterranean explosion in Greenpoint in the 1950s was the first indication of the disaster, but it took until 1978 before a Coast Guard patrol would discover the massive plume of oil contaminating the river and the neighborhoods, and the issue has remained in litigation ever since. There were times when, if the wind was just right, the smell and whatever was in the air would force tears out of your eyes. For more information you can visit newtowncreekalliance.org or riverkeeper.org, two of my favorite environmental watchdogs. Bass clarinet might seem an unlikely agent of anger and frustration, but try putting it through a fuzzbox and over-driven guitar amp!
For Martha, the last known living passenger pigeon on Earth who died in the Cincinnati Zoo September 1, 1914. The birds numbered between three and five billion and flocks were so thick they darkened the skies and filled the woods with their cries. In just a few decades they disappeared forever, partly due to deforestation but mostly to rampant hunting by humans. What would it be like to be the last of your species?
Iron Eyes Cody strode into our living rooms on horseback and canoe during the 1970s’ “Keep America Beautiful” public service television ad campaign. The commercial seems dated now and controversy has swirled about the man's identity, but the ‘crying Indian’ had a profound impact on my generation with his message: “People start pollution, people can stop it!”. My daughter deserves full credit for proferring her 'Tree Frog' melody for my offbeat arrangement.
The largest tree in the world by volume is still the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park. My family makes a pilgrimage to the redwood forests of California every year to bathe in its profound silence and majesty. There is nothing comparable to a grove of giant redwoods, and through extensive logging the massive old growth trees have been pushed to the brink of extinction. It takes political will to make actions that save, and President Bill Clinton did so by creating the Giant Sequoia National Monument that preserves over 300,000 acres of this fragile habitat.
Climate change is on everybody's mind these days. We've seen dramatic premonitions in the form of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, drought in the west, extreme cold in the east, and many more subtle indicators of a changing climate. Charles Keeling began recording the rise of carbon dioxide back in the 1950s, and the startling graph charting this data known now as the Keeling Curve serves as an inspiration for this piece.
Children are our most valuable natural resource and our greatest hope for change. This piece is, appropriately then, inspired by a melody volunteered enthusiastically by my daughter.
"Don't Blink" was recorded by the Ben Kono Group in February of 2015, engineered by Paul Wickliffe of Skyline Pro Studios. Mixing by Brian Montgomery and mastering by Mark Wilder at Battery/Sony Studios in New York City. It was made possible in part by a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Commissioning and Ensemble Development Grant, generously funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.