Rachael Cusick, “Nature in Her Manner of Operation”

Throughout our class, I’ve spent most of my time listening — partly because musicology is so new to me that I saw this class as an opportunity to absorb it all in — but mostly because I was trying to process our discussions while reflecting on my own interpretations that weren’t always represented. After a few months of white male-centric readings, I began feeling a disconnect between our class material on nature and these authors’ inability to mention women who are responsible for making so much of that nature possible.

For my project “Nature in Her Manner of Operation” — a title inspired by the John Cage quote from our syllabus — I tried to bridge this gap by creating a small-scale radio documentary that focuses on women and their interpretations of nature. To do this, I interviewed women of different ages and backgrounds from Cornell about what nature is to them. I asked them about scenes and sounds they associate with nature, and how those fit into their interpretations of nature from their own unique perspective. Then, I edited each down to brief but potent 1-2 minute clips. The excerpts are anonymous in order for the listener to focus on these women’s words as part of a larger theme.

In addition to the interviews, the piece has two different soundscapes playing underneath the tracks of the interviews. The broader water-based soundscape is a series of sounds I collected as I followed a stream from the top of a hill, through tunnels, and down into Ithaca Falls. The sounds provide an ambient, music-concrete inspired backdrop that help each woman’s story flow into the next. Additionally, I collected sounds that corresponded with themes referenced in the interviews — wind, footsteps in grass, etc. A few of the sounds that I couldn’t find myself were taken from Cornell’s Macauley Library. Together, I hope this soundscape helps scaffold off of meaningful clips from the interviews to emphasize the diverse mix of interpretations of nature in the piece.

I had several sources of inspiration for this piece. An underlying motivation for this piece was Kate Soper’s “What is Nature?” This was a question we asked in class almost every day, but I was curious to see how individuals outside our class bubble interpreted the question. Another source of inspiration was Barry Truax’s “The Listener”. In this reading, he discussed the need for active listening and the need to recognize sounds that are missing — something I connected with the female voice in the context of this class. This concept, echoed by Pauline Oliveros’s “The Earth Worm Also Sings”, highlights an emphasis of deep listening I tried to focus on throughout the piece. In the documentary “The Sensational Nature of Sound”, Oliveros explains that deep listening is essential in order to “create a kind of community of the moment so that everyone, everything, every sound is included in what I play and I acknowledge it all.” The final piece that motivated this project was R. Murray Schafer’s “Music, the Soundscape, and Changing Perceptions”. In this chapter, he discussed the explorations and curiosities we build for ourselves in a world that’s more and more disconnected from “pure” nature. His mention of an art gallery and how in this “room with a thousand avenues of departure one loses the door back to the real world and must go exploring,” inspired my own sound collecting for this project and throughout the course.

The underlying purpose of this project is not to say one interpretation of nature is more valuable or nuanced than the next. Rather, my focus on the feminine interpretation of nature is meant to highlight a voice that’s by and large under-represented in musicology discussions.

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