The redwoods of northern California have planted the seed of a musician’s last attempt.
Elsa Nilsson, internationally acclaimed flautist and composer originally from Gothenburg, Sweden and now based in New York, recently released an instrumental album, “Coast Redwoods 41°32’09.8″N 124°04’35.5″W” (ears&eyes Records ) . We also find on the album Jon Cowherd, piano, and Chris Morrissey, bass.
“Coast Redwoods” – the first in Nilsson’s new Atlas of Sound series – was inspired by the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, history and future of redwood forests, the musician said.
“I’ve always had a special connection to the redwoods because of my family history,” Nilsson noted, “and they gave me the idea for a series of albums which I titled ‘Atlas Of Sound’. “. Each of these albums will have coordinates in the title that mark where the source melodies were played.
“I wanted to start in the redwoods because I wanted to explore the sense of belonging I feel there, even though I’ve never lived in California,” she said.
Currently, Nilsson is a faculty member at the New School College of Performing Arts in Manhattan, where she teaches rhythm analysis. She also plays frequently at 55 Bar, Bar Bayeux and other New York jazz venues.
Nilsson’s connection to the redwoods began early when she and her family traveled from Sweden to visit family in Northern California.
“When I was a kid…I used to get up early and sneak outside to sit in the redwoods watching the fog,” Nilsson recalls. “The slow motion of the mist was comforting and the cold made me feel alive. The silence held me back, and when the sun broke through, it greeted me like an old friend.
She added: “My Jewish grandmother, who fled World War II to California, loved these trees. One grew in his backyard (in Palo Alto) and we would often sit outside in the morning and watch it together. I felt a kinship between her and the tree, as if it had welcomed her and her refugee family to California. Its comforting solidity was the assurance that we belonged. I strongly feel his presence in these forests.
Nilsson started playing the piano at the age of 5 and composing at the age of 6. At age 13, as she and her brothers were about to attend Camp Unalayee, a wilderness survival camp in the Trinidad Alps, Nilsson discovered the flute.
“I wanted to take a small instrument with me, so I took the flute,” she said. “I fell in love with the freedom and versatility I found there. There was an instant connection for me with the instrument. It felt like home, in a way.
When Nilsson returned to Sweden, she began attending Hvitfeldska Gymnasiet, a conservatory-style high school program in Gothenburg, where she studied contemporary classical flute with Anna Svensdotter.
“We also put on operas and Broadway shows every year, so I had a very broad view of music and what I liked,” said Nilsson, who moved to Seattle, Washington, at age 18. to study jazz at the Cornish College of Arts.
“I played a lot of Brazilian music alongside jazz and original music that I was exploring,” she said. “In 2010 I moved to New York to immerse myself in the jazz scene here.”
In the summer of 2019, Nilsson traveled west to visit two redwood sites in Northern California – LandPaths’ Grove of Old Trees outside of Occidental and, locally, Redwood National and State Parks. , where she spent a few nights at Flint Ridge Backcountry Camp in Klamath. During this trip, his new “Coast Redwoods” began to come to fruition.
The 10-movement suite featured on the album emerged from improvised material that Nilsson recorded at two sets of coordinates in these redwoods.
“The morning before we left, I recorded the seeds that became this sequel,” Nilsson said.
“…At the time, it was an entirely spontaneous process. I sat in silence and listened until I started to hear melodies that seemed to come from those trees. I played these melodies in my phone and then forgot about them for months.
“When I picked them up during quarantine (COVID-19) in my Brooklyn apartment thousands of miles away,” she said, “it struck me that the melodies tasted like air in the redwoods. That’s when the translations started. I started by writing down every note I had played. Then I started listening to what part of the ecosystem he was describing. It was like listening to specific inflections in the language to hear emotional content. Fast ideas have become epicormic growth, big leaps have become distances between roots and branches. Unexpected connections emerged in the melodies that became the roots and the specific ways the redwood roots connect to each other.
“The secret,” she said, “is in the tempo, how slowly they move. For me to hear them, I have to slow down, stand still, and really, really listen. When I do, I finds music in every movement, there is a melody in the rustling of the leaves as the wind blows through them and they loosen and float to the ground, a groove in the sound of real or imagined footsteps.
Nilsson explains that some melodies “told him right away what they were”, and some were more fluid.
“They needed time to show off,” said Nilsson, who while writing the moves also read tree books and “devoured all the information I could” about redwoods.
“I read every word on the Save The Redwoods League website and the more I learned about the trees, the more I fell in love. Also, she said, the more I understood the music I had heard among them. .
Nilsson says the process of studying the sound of these redwoods took a lot longer than the visit where she made the first recordings.
“Part of the process is literal, such as considering what it feels like when the wind hits the branches. How do I create this sound on a flute? How do I capture the movement and tempo of the air moving among the trees? Things like that,” Nilsson said.
“But a lot of it is about deeper, more internal listening,” she said. “Who do I become when I sit with the trees? How do the people around me change in relation to the space provided by the trees? Where does sound take us? These are the types of questions that arise at the beginning. As I sit and listen, the questions slowly dissolve and are replaced by melodies. These are melodies that seem not to come from me. They feel like an answer, in conversation with where I am.
“For me, I don’t write my songs, but rather transcribe the songs that come from the redwoods, listening to the voice of the forest and translating it for human ears,” Nilsson said. “This sequel depicts our relationship with redwoods and their relationship to each other on a societal, scientific and personal level, telling stories of how trees communicate through mycorrhizal connections between their roots, how they draw water from the fog allowing them to grow, the reactions of trees to fire and how it triggers new growth, Indigenous relationships with trees and more.It’s a story of interdependence that spans our history and our future.
There are 10 moves in the “Coast Redwoods” suite. Each depicts aspects of the Coast Redwoods. For example, “Sunshift Haze” reflects the morning hours “when fog blooms over the redwoods before the sun breaks through.”
“The flute represents the sun, the bass and the piano the fog, and together we pave the way for the day to begin,” Nilsson said.
In “Catching Droplets,” the bass mirrors the roots enjoying their gift of water from the fog, she said. “The flute and piano represent the droplets falling from the canopy and flowing down the bark, creating little rivers from the rains created by the redwood,” she said.
“Epicormic” explores fire as a natural part of the redwood life cycle. “I wrote this (movement) in the middle of lockdown when I felt my world collapsing around me in myriad ways,” Nilsson said. “Even when the world around us burns, there are seeds for something new to come.”
The movement titled “Molted Steps” explores the sensation of walking along fallen needles, she said. “Suddenly you can’t hear your own feet anymore,” Nilsson said. “You feel the movement of it – you feel things are moving – but it doesn’t feel like that.”
Each of the series of location-specific musical suites in Nilsson’s Atlas of Sound series (including “Coast Redwoods” and other upcoming works) aims to invite listeners into the expanse of Nilsson’s imagination and to offer them the opportunity to gain a different perspective on his music and artistic expression.
“Because of the abstraction of instrumental music, what I put out into the world is no longer mine,” Nilsson said. “It is up to the listener. It doesn’t mean that all the thinking and all the processing and all the growing, everything that goes into creating art, is gone. It just means he takes his own life.
The “Coast Redwoods 41°32’09.8″N 124°04’35.5″W” album – along with a terrain atlas and a T-shirt – is available for purchase at https://elsanilsson.bandcamp. com/album/atlas-de-sound-coast-redwoods-41-32098n-124-04355w.
Proceeds from t-shirt sales will go to the Save the Redwoods League. The field atlas includes many notes describing the ecosystem and all its magic, Nilsson said, as well as poetry, photos and original artwork by Eureka artist Dano-Koo Hoaglen.
An “accompanying video” is also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wjnsns2gg1I.
For more information about Nilsson and his work, visit www.elsanilssonmusic.com.