“This Rock We’re On: Imaginary Letters” is a new multi-movement work composed by Mike Holober for the GRAMMY® nominated Gotham Jazz Orchestra, and is scheduled for release as a double CD in March 2024. Written for jazz orchestra, voice, cello, and percussion, it features art songs set for chamber ensemble that take the form of imaginary letters to or from selected “protagonists” -- naturalist authors, artists, and environmental activists whose insights have shaped our appreciation of the natural world. Each of the vocal works is followed by an instrumental jazz orchestra piece that reflects upon the text of the letter.
The GRAMMY® nominated Gotham Jazz Orchestra brings together a star-studded roster of New York City musicians. Featured soloists include Chris Potter (tenor saxophone), Jason Rigby (tenor saxophone), Ben Kono (alto saxophone), Charles Pillow (alto saxophone), Marvin Stamm (trumpet), John Patitucci (bass), Jared Schonig (drums), Nir Felder (guitar), Jody Redhage Ferber (cello), James Shipp (percussion), and the up and coming Brazilian vocalist Jamile Staevie Ayres.
Mike Holober has been described by Downbeat Magazine as “one of the finest modern composer/arrangers of our time.” He was awarded the 2022 American Academy of Arts and Letters Andrew Imbrie Award in Music, and his GRAMMY® nominated double-CD “Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra: Hiding Out” (“Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, 2020”), garnered rave reviews in the jazz press. Downbeat Magazine proclaimed it a “long anticipated, epic work,” while others praised his “daring compositional voice,” “powerful orchestral magic,” and “profound artistic vision” -- confirming his place in “the front rank of the most accomplished and inventive composers in jazz,” and “leading the charge to shift what a big band can sound like.”
The American photographer Ansel Adams is best known for his iconic images of the American West, and a life-long advocate for environmental conservation. For Adams, the wilderness was “a mystique: a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience,” and his photographs have inspired my own explorations of the remote reaches of the Sierra Nevada range.
The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “To Virginia,” and is set to a poem the photographer wrote for his wife Virginia. The jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Domes,” referring to the unique geology of Yosemite Valley, and the subject of some of Adams’ most memorable photographs.
Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and nature writer who is best known for her publication Silent Spring (1962), which is widely credited with launching the environmental movement in the U.S. The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Another Summer,” and is set as a letter to Dorothy Freeman, who Carson met in 1953 (their deep friendship is preserved in a published collection of their correspondence). The title for the jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is “Tides,” reflecting Carson’s lifelong preoccupation with the sea; it is followed by an “Epilogue” that is set as a letter from Dorothy Freeman to Rachel Carson.
Sigurd Olson was a nature writer and conservationist, best known for his books about the North Woods wilderness of Minnesota. The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Three Words for Snow,” evoking the circumstances of the author’s death, at age 82, while snowshoeing in the Minnesota woods. The jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Boundary Waters,” referring to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where I spent a memorable summer as a trip leader during college. Olson worked as a guide in this region for more than 30 years, and was instrumental in its establishment as a designated wilderness.
Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams is an author, naturalist, and activist whose wide-ranging works of creative non-fiction address issues of social and environmental justice. The jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Erosion,” referencing her powerful collection of essays on the theme of climate change. A second jazz orchestra piece for this protagonist is titled “Tower Pulse,” and was inspired by the audio recordings made of the sounds produced by Castleton Tower, one of the largest free-standing towers in the world. The vocal work for this protagonist is called “Refuge,” and is conceived as a letter from Castleton Tower to Terry Tempest Williams.
Wendell Berry is a novelist, poet, essayist, and activist, who maintains a small farm in rural Kentucky. The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “On This Rock,” reflecting the author’s appreciation for the solitude of nature, and the jazz orchestra piece is titled “A Dirt Lover’s Almanac,” evoking a farmer’s commitment to soil and weather.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Robin Wall Kimmerer is an environmental scientist and member of the Potawatomi Nation. Her 2013 publication Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants was the inspiration for a jazz orchestra composition titled “Skywoman Falling.” The vocal work for this protagonist is titled “Noetry,” and takes the form of a letter written by a tree.