"Learning music through trees, and forests through music."
Developed by composer Nick Roth with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland, The Ark A Cultural Centre for Children, the California Academy of Sciences and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Little Woodland Heights is an interactive music project for children exploring the world of forest canopy ecology.
The work was developed at the California Academy of Sciences, and presented to the scientific community at the Forest Solutions Summit in San Francisco in January 2015. The world premiere took place in Dublin in April 2015 at The Ark and Rathfarnham Educate Together National School, with subsequent performances at the Irish Museum for Modern Art (IMMA) and Creative Residence MC6, Ukraine.
Little Woodland Heights creates an immersive educational environment that translates ideas and concepts from ecology, botany, phyllotaxis and anthropology into the embodied language of music.
Eduardo Kohn proposes in 'How Forests Think' that “self-organizing dynamics are distinct from the physical processes from which they emerge and with which they are continuous, and within which they are nested.” 1 In ecological terms then, “species composition and tree size distributions become more diverse with increasing stand age...with increasing age stochastic processes play increasingly important roles in creating structural complexity.” 2 In linguistic form, although beautiful, these ideas are prohibitively complex for primary curricula. Yet the practical lessons of forest canopy ecology offer many simple and easy to understand analogues that can demonstrate the "timid and green advance" 3 of emergent pattern. Such forms find expression quite naturally in musical discourse – indeed the very structure of music making, or any making for that matter, forms itself a clear expression of both self-organising dynamics and stochastic processes.
Little Woodland Heights provides a mechanism for learning about the living world, in direct engagement with it. This translation process is child-centred and fosters meaningful personal relationships with the network of ideas embedded in the piece. Through the translative process, the child learns core tenets of contemporary scientific thought through the development of important musical fundamentals. This symbiotic bond is both a new and an old form of learning; to study tree architecture through rhythmic clave mapping, to explore phyllotaxic pattern through melodic frequency, or to conceive of ecosystems phenologically through formal structure are all ideas unique to the work. Yet to understand our world through careful study of its elements and their relationships, and for these to form a societal practise, is something inherently human.
Both Art and Science are learnt most efficiently, and pursued most keenly, when they provide an immediate social impact for their participants. Thus, collaborative STE(A)M projects provide epiphytic environmental hubs where the children may develop their skills and understanding of the world as a totality. The way that we learn will become the way that we teach. If our primary aim is to provide the healthiest environment for the development of childhood learning to ensure that future generations are environmentally informed, have a deep sense of cultural vibrancy, and are capable of independent and direct engagement with the living world, then we must look to projects that drive the evolution of education in contemporary society in ways which address this array of themes simultaneously.
In our era of rapid development and global urbanisation, the world’s natural environments, resources and biospheres have become increasingly impacted by human activity. The Ituri Forest, ancestral home to the BaMbuti, whose music and culture were a primary sonic influence on this work, has become inreasingly ravaged by the encroaching destructive force of the Anthropocene. Scientists argue that “the overarching driver of species extinction is human population growth and increasing per capita consumption. How long these trends continue—where and at what rate—will dominate the scenarios of species extinction and challenge efforts to protect biodiversity.” 4 Ecologists seek to discover not only the impact of our actions on the planet, but also the driving forces behind these actions, leading ultimately to questions of a sociological or anthropological nature. In ‘The Ecological Thought’ Timothy Morton argues that “if there is an inevitable experiential dimension of ecology, there is an inevitable psychological dimension.” 5
The project posits the notion that music and the arts are specific ways of understanding the realm of information that the world presents us with; and in terms of child engagement, may prove complimentary to standard linguistic / numerical educational techniques as additional ways of developing and expressing understanding. In fact the Arts and Sciences, as a dual mechanism for understanding the world, are inseparable and symbiotic by nature. As such, the project positions itself within the STE(A)M movement. This work is a mechanism for children to experience enhanced ways of expressing the endlessly intricate patterns and forms in nature through translative languages that encourage meaningful and lasting social discourses and durable ethical frameworks.
As an educational tool to inform and empower children, teachers and musicians, this work forms a living network that enables children to form embodied relationships with the trees and forests that keep us alive, seeking to inspire new perspectives and priorities in the next generation and a global behavioral shift towards more sustainable and deeply engaging ways of being in our world.
“Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of canopy research – all scientific research for that matter – to produce a sense of the vast and the infinite and to promote our sense of wonder, a curiosity that needs to be fed by experience to be longlived. ” 6
1 Eduardo Kohn. University of California Press (2013). How Forests Think.
2 Hiroaki T. Ishii, Robert Van Pelt, Geoffrey G. Parker, Nalini M. Nadkarni. Elsevier Press (2004). Age-Related Development of Canopy Structure and Its Ecological Functions. Forest Canopies, Second Edition
3 Michel Serres. The University of Michigan Press (1995). Genesis
4 Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, Robin Abell, Tom M. Brooks, John. L. Gittleman, Lucas N. Joppa, Peter. H.Raven, Callum M. Roberts, and Joe O. Sexton. Science (2014). The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection.
5 Timothy Morton. Harvard University Press (2010). The Ecological Thought.
6 Margaret D. Lowman, H. Bruce Rinker. Elsevier Press (2004). Introduction. Forest Canopies, Second Edition.