Into the Wild

In October 2014 Dan Ketter and I took a hike through western New York’s Letchworth State Park, where we daydreamed about how great it would be to make music in such a grand and beautiful place. Days later I was still thinking about this idea, and I started imagining outdoor music-making on a national scale, wondering if it would be possible to arrange concerts at scenic parks around the country. With a little bit of research I learned that the National Park Service (NPS) would celebrate its centennial year in 2016, and with this fortuitous coincidence in mind I knew I was on to something.

Luckily, I had an in. Dan, my then boyfriend, had some relatives working at Yellowstone National Park, and they connected me with a network of NPS employees who had been crafting centennial events over the course of the past few years. After a brief conversation with the national office, I made a list of all the national parks that I would most like to visit, and I started sending emails explaining my idea of honoring the NPS centennial by filling the parks with music.

A few parks were quick to say no for one reason or another, but here’s the amazing thing: a lot of people said yes. And those who said yes to the idea were – and continue to be – extremely enthusiastic.


(design: Laura Blair)

As locations fell into place, so too did the concept for the project. Music in the American Wild would have three main objectives: commissioning a new set of works inspired by the national parks; premiering these works on tour of the parks that inspired their creation; and making a studio recording of the pieces post-tour.

With recommendations from friends and colleagues, I found a group of eleven composers, all affiliated with Eastman School of Music, who were excited to write works for this centennial celebration. I assembled a team of seven performers, all Eastman alumni like me, who are not only fantastic musicians and dear colleagues, but who also share a passion for new music and an enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Then I got to work. Over the past year and a half I have developed relationships with our composers, performers, park contacts, and representatives from organizations and venues around the country to make our project a reality. I have written grant applications, gathered pockets of supporters to help promote our tour, visited park sites, and worked to make this initiative one that everyone involved can be proud of.

Along the way I have had help from myriad individuals and organizations, without whom Music in the American Wild couldn’t happen. We’re grateful to have received a considerable amount of private and in-kind donations that will make many elements of the project possible. We’re also recent recipients of a 2016 Art Works/Imagine Your Parks grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is a huge vote of confidence for our fledgling endeavor. Among other things, it will help us to pay our musicians for their time and their talent and assist us in bringing our performances to broader audiences across the country. We’re still working hard to fund the remainder of our tour, but so far the hard work has paid off, and we hope it continues to do so!

As we gear up for our summer tour, which is just a few weeks away, we are excited to bring a new opus of inherently American music to fantastically scenic natural venues across the country. We’ll tour the American Southeast in June, with concerts at Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah National Parks; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Locust Grove Historic Estate; and The Theatre at Washington, Virginia. In August we’ll head to Washington state to perform at Mt. Rainier, Olympic, North Cascades, and San Juan Island National Parks, with a few performances lined up in Seattle. Along the way we’ll post photos, videos, recordings, and anecdotes from our travels so that even those who can’t make it out to the wild this summer can share in the pioneering spirit of our ensemble’s musical trek through the parks.

The mission of Music in the American Wild is two-fold. On the surface, it’s a concert series in the national parks, an opportunity for a collective of emerging and established artists to share their music on a national tour. On a more philosophical level, our mission is to rekindle the integral bond between the arts and nature. In this increasingly digital age, it’s easy to forget that for most of its history music has been inspired by the natural world, whether that meant the imitation of birdsong, the physical process of using the breath or the bow to draw sound from an instrument, or the universal exploration of man’s relationship with his surroundings. We are excited to celebrate and reconnect with the creative spark offered by our own backyard wilderness, and we hope to inspire audiences and other artists to connect with our national parks through creative acts. We mean to inspire a new generation of listeners to become stewards of what we believe to be two of our country’s greatest assets: the arts and the parks.

The past year and a half has been filled with ups and downs, long hours put into project development, and many “firsts” that come with directing any sort of large-scale creative endeavor. The one constant throughout this process is the realization I’ve had time and again that music brings people and places together in unexpected and wonderful ways. Working with NPS rangers and employees has been especially rewarding, because I have gotten to interact with a whole network of people whom I would have never otherwise encountered. The employees of the NPS are smart, creative, generous people who are deeply dedicated to preserving our treasured parklands and helping others to explore and appreciate them. They have been fantastic allies throughout the planning process.

Furthermore, the inspiration provided by the natural theaters and vistas of the parks has led to collaborations with composers whose musical languages I may never have explored, and the world deserves to hear them. Working with my fellow musicians has been a huge source of inspiration, because they are the heart and soul of Music in the American Wild, and I believe in sharing and promoting their artistic voices. And to end on a personal note, Dan Ketter, the Music in the American Wild cellist and assistant director who made an appearance as my boyfriend at the beginning of this narrative, is now my fiancée, a joyful development that I have to credit in part to the time and teamwork we’ve put into this undertaking. It’s worth saying again: music brings people together.

Emlyn Johnson (flute) and Dan (cello)

Emlyn Johnson (flute) and Dan Ketter (cello) (PS: Blair Hornbuckle).

We would love to connect with you on tour this summer. We hope you can join Music in the American Wild at one of our participating parks, or follow along with us online. For more information on when and where to catch us in the wild and how to get involved, check out our website [] or our Facebook page [].

Media links:




Twitter: @playtheparks

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