5 Questions to Ryan Suleiman (composer)

Ryan Suleiman is a Boston-based composer whose music interacts with the simultaneous awe of engaging with nature and the impending dread of confronting the ongoing climate catastrophe. Aside from his activities as a composer and professor at Berklee College of Music, Ryan hosts a podcast titled “Reflections On Music and Nature,” where he interviews artists from a wide range of artistic disciplines. In season one, his conversations with artists such as Gabriela Lena Frank, Juhi Bansal, and Marti Epstein discussed how their creative work  considers our relationship with the natural world. Ahead of the podcast’s second season, which includes interviews with Chromic Duo and Kurt Rohde, we asked Ryan about music and activism, curating a podcast, and more.

Your podcast series “Reflections On Music and Nature” covers cross-disciplinary artists whose work has an intimate relationship with the natural world. What role do you think music can play in climate discussions and activism?

This is a great question and it’s exactly the thing I’ve been exploring in this podcast. The role of musicians, and of artists generally, might seem less obvious for most people than that of say, scientists, politicians, journalists, activists, and policymakers. But actually, it’s absolutely critical. Unlike all these other fields, music and art — at its best — helps us tell stories and grapple with complex ideas and emotions in a nuanced way. It helps us process trauma so that we can function without falling into despair — an understandable but counterproductive emotion.

Artists help us notice the everyday things that are in front of us, both scary and beautiful. It helps us take in the waves of the ocean, knowing they are both beautiful and polluted, and breathe in the smoke of wildfires with mindfulness. In art, one can imagine and explore something seemingly impossible that may in fact actually be possible. Artists and musicians, as shapers of culture, can also help bring about cultural shifts that we need to survive as a species and to tackle the climate crisis. They are uniquely positioned to critique and resist capitalism, consumerism, and hyperindividualism, and model alternate, better ways. That said, art is equally capable of reinforcing, intentionally or not, the kinds of systems that are killing the Earth and its inhabitants. This is why these conversations among artists are so important — so we can be sure we are part of the solution rather than the problem. It’s not easy and it’s not simple and we will make mistakes, but we all have to keep trying.

Ryan Suleiman -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Ryan Suleiman — Photo courtesy of the artist

Much of your own music deals with nature and the climate crisis, and composers have regularly turned to nature for inspiration throughout music history. How do you conceptualize the evolving relationship between music and nature in the 21st century?

In my teens, being in nature was very important for me both as a way of getting musically inspired and for grounding myself emotionally. As I became more aware of the climate crisis, I, like others, realized that it didn’t make any sense to engage with nature without engaging with what is happening to it. And all this of course made me interested in asking what “is” nature, and how the notion of “it out there” separate from us is an illusion we create daily at our own peril. Art can help us break this illusion. Hayao Miyazaki, for example, is a master in this regard. Kurt Rohde, Marie Lorenz, and Dana Spiotta break this false boundary in their floating opera, Newtown Odyssey (season 2, ep.1), which casts a polluted urban creek and its soundscape — human and nonhuman — as all nature. And there are of course many more examples.

Right now, our environment is changing in such shocking and rapid ways that it is completely disorienting and disturbing. Historically, culture is deeply tied with nature as a stable and reliable thing, bigger than ourselves — only in the last hundred years or so have humans been capable of destroying the planet. Artists today may choose to engage with the grandeur and awe of nature as they have done in the past. But unlike their predecessors, they also have to contend with this disorientation that humans have never before experienced on such a scale. They can and are helping reorient us and prepare us psychologically for what is happening and what is coming, so that we can both mitigate it and face it with strength.

Kurt Rohde, Marie Lorenz, and Dana Spiotta's floating opera, Newtown Odyssey -- Photo by Marie Lorenz

Kurt Rohde, Marie Lorenz, and Dana Spiotta’s floating opera, Newtown Odyssey — Photo by Marie Lorenz

The upcoming season of “Reflections” includes interviews with dramaturgs, visual artists, and dancers, besides composers and performers. What is your process for booking guests, and are you consciously curating a narrative across multiple episodes?

There isn’t exactly a narrative, but I am very interested in talking to people who have a wide variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and approaches in their work. For this season, the theme seems to be interdisciplinary work, which I didn’t plan at all. Every guest fits this theme in some way: I’ve mentioned Newtown Odyssey already. Composer Lei Liang collaborates with scientists at Qualcomm and the newly formed Lei Lab at UC San Diego; Alyssa Schmidt and Alli Ross bring their theatrical expertise in their collaborations with scientists, musicians, and educators; Chromic Duo creates installation performances exploring urban environments in NYC; and visual artist Peter London engages with nature and music in his work.

For some of my guests in both seasons, nature is central to all of their work and artistic identity. For others, it is merely an important influence. Some are internationally recognized, others are more active in their local communities. All of them are extremely smart people, serious thinkers about their craft, and do things that intrigue me. I honestly just choose people whom I want to ask a bunch of questions to, and they agree to talk since I am doing a podcast. It’s been so rewarding to share their insights and ideas with others. I initially did this out of my own interest, but I was really pleased to get lots of positive feedback from my friends and colleagues, which is partially what motivated me to put out another season — people, like me, want to hear about this stuff!

What purpose can podcasting serve the greater new-music community that traditional print media can’t?

Podcasts can have just as much rigor and intellectual value as written media, while being a lot more fun! There’s also the spontaneity of conversation and back and forth that doesn’t happen with written pieces. One thing I love about listening to podcasts is the chance to slowly explore a topic with nuance. Important and rich topics sometimes become trendy in the “new music” community. Buzzwords get thrown around and the complexity of a topic is lost in favor of expediency. My whole intention with these interviews is to resist that and seriously unpack topics I’m interested in with my guests and learn about their ideas and inner processes “beyond a catchy headline” so to speak.

Apart from the upcoming second season of “Reflections,” do you have any other concerts or recordings you’d like us to know about?

I just appeared on Doug Beilmeier’s podcast, “The Process,” talking about my violin duo fireflies and I may also be on your [Clover’s] podcast, “Song Sandwich,” soon! I’ve just finished an art song called, “july midnight,” which will be performed by Rose Hegele and Sakurako Kanemitsu at the Otter Creek Festival in Brandon, VT, with another performance in Boston TBD.


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