Amusing Monday: How one composer connects music to nature’s wonder

Classical composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on San Juan Island, has a nice way of connecting music with her passion for the local waters in Puget Sound.

“When I’m not crawling around the shoreline and shooting photos of wildlife, I’m working on becoming a more adept note alignment specialist,” she writes in her blog “Notes from the Kelp.” “I compose music, mostly for chamber ensembles and symphonic wind bands who kindly offer my notes to the air and anyone within earshot.”

“Notes from the Kelp” is a nice play on words, since it is both the name of a blog and an album of music, two ways of communicating with people about what Alex calls a “heartbreakingly beautiful part of the planet.”

The first video on this page is Alex’s composition “Deep” from “Notes from the Kelp.” When I close my eyes and listen to this piece, I think about scuba diving along the bottom of Puget Sound in very cold waters. In my vision, I first encounter all sorts of bottom-dwelling organisms, such as sea pens and sea urchins, but the music also inspires a feeling of doom, which I associate with low-oxygen dead zones where nothing can live.

Here’s what Alex writes about “Deep”: “Sometimes I make the mistake of believing that I’m not being unless I’m doing and moving. This piece was my challenge to myself to be still and present. And in doing so, I’ve never been as much before. Like the sea, my truth lies below, and I am happiest when I am immersed.”

The second video shows clarinetist Jeff Gallagher performing Alex’s “Water Crossing” during a concert in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2016. Alex writes about what she was thinking during the composition process in the “Recordings” section of her website. She describes a mythical voyage in a canoe that turns into a sailboat. Dolphins dance ahead of the boat before it returns to the safety of shore.

I have spent some time lately perusing this “Recordings” page for a smorgasbord of music and observations on life. It’s here you can find a list of Alex’s musical contributions, listen to recordings and read about her music.

I first learned about Alex and her work from the third video on this page. It was created as a promotion for the University of Washington, yet Alex finds a way to talk about the importance of science and how her music is like scientific exploration. The San Juan Islands, where she lives, has always been an important place to study sea life and shoreline dynamics — and it’s not just because the islands are home to the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Alex has been traveling a lot lately and working on various projects, as she freely describes on her Facebook page. Also, as it turns out, she is moving from the home on San Juan Island that she has written so passionately about. But she’s not going far, since her new home is another waterfront location on San Juan Island. I look forward to further notes from the kelp.

Composer and music professor Kyle Gann wrote about Alex and her life in Chamber Music magazine (PDF 108 kb) in May 2008.

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