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This Avid Hiker and Flutist Makes Sweet Music Inspired by Nature

Harnessing the acoustics of national parks, Emlyn Johnson takes music into the wild.

What would it be like to play classical music under a wide-open sky in some of the country’s most celebrated landscapes? That was the question that came to 29-year-old flutist Emlyn Johnson’s mind as she hiked in Letchworth State Park, in western New York, on a colorful fall day in 2014. The question also led her to found Music in the American Wild, a series of contemporary classical music concerts held alfresco in national parks to celebrate the National Park Service centennial.

“I’ve seen in recent years that a lot of composers are taking their inspiration from our increasingly digital and electronic lifestyles,” Johnson says. “I was really interested in promoting more of a natural inspiration, kind of going back to the roots of where music started—a natural art form, based on nature.”

Johnson, a devoted hiker, performer, and professor of music, commissioned 11 composers to create new works of contemporary classical music inspired by national parks. Then, she created an ensemble with six other musicians, all 30 years old or younger. With the help of park rangers, Johnson selected venues with unique acoustics, from an echoing cavern to a moss-padded rain forest to an airy mountaintop in the Appalachians. This summer, the ensemble is performing a selection of the pieces at each of their concerts in Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, San Juan Island National Historical Park, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, and Olympic. The tour begins July 31 (see the full schedule here).

Naturally, there are challenges to playing in the outdoors. Weather is one concern. (Some of the musicians are bringing carbon-fiber instruments.) But there are also surprising benefits that the group hopes will inspire audiences to experience the beauty of parks in new ways.

“It’s pretty amazing to hear how a birdsong interacts with what you’re playing or how the sound of a far-off creek or the wind through the trees creates another level in the music,” Johnson says. “That’s something that I hope will be meaningful for the audience. I hope this will inspire a new connection to the parks.”

Desired Superpower: “Time travel, so I could go back in time and experience the first performances of musical masterpieces across history. Listening to a Beethoven symphony alongside an audience hearing it for the first time would be so incredible!”

Essential Field Items: “My flute, because I take it everywhere and feel naked traveling without it! And a headlamp, because it just always comes in handy.”

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