Voices of Dartmouth’s Lost Forests Heard in New Hop-commissioned Stem Arts Performance

Rebecca Bailey

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Abenaki land on which Dartmouth College stands was a virgin forest of majestic white pine trees. Now only remnants of that forest remain, in a riverside strip of land north of campus called Pine Park.

Those lost trees’ presence—their reality as sensate individuals and as a linked community—will be evoked in Understory, an immersive, interactive work composed by adventurous young composer Carla Kihlstedt and performed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The work premieres on Tuesday, April 16, 5:30 pm, in the Atrium of the Hood Museum of Art. The performance is free and unticketed.

An internationally recognized violinist, singer, improvisor and composer, Kihlstedt is the Hop’s fourth STEM Arts composer, following composers who were in residence in the Dartmouth Departments of Biology and Mathematics and the Thayer School of Engineering. Over the past year, Kihlstedt met with students and faculty in the Environmental Studies Program, developing ideas that then she shaped into Understory. Kihlstedt recently completed a song cycle about challenges to the ocean due to climate change, overfishing, and pollution; the project was guided by input from scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In Understory, members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus will begin the performance scattered around the space, intermingling with the audience before finding their places (flash-mob style) to begin the show. Performing a cappella and without a conductor, the kids will come together in groups of threes throughout the Atrium, with each trio representing a tree. The audience will be encouraged to walk through this “forest” to hear from the individual “trees” while also perceiving the “forest” as a community. Giving the sense of a forest vibrating with energy and sensation, the performers combine make wordless sounds, speak short spoken phrases and sing lyrics, some derived from the poetry by father and son Abenaki poets Joseph and Jesse Bruchac.

Understory relates to numerous ongoing themes in Hop programming. For one, it continues the STEMArts series which, since 2013-14, has paired emerging young composers with scholars in the “STEM” disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to create new musical works that relate to STEM concepts. The project also acknowledges that Dartmouth stands on Native land and furthers the Hop’s interest in programming work that foregrounds Native American experiences and history. In addition, the project aligns with a Dartmouth-wide interest in what’s being called the “environmental humanities”—the idea that the arts and humanities are as essential as science and technology in responding to the challenges like climate change.

Environmental Studies faculty who helped guide Understory through conversations with Kihlstedt include: Environmental Studies Professor Andy Friedland, on the topic of forest life/evolution as waves of energy; writer and Environmental Studies Lecturer Terry Osborne, on the importance of engaging young people in environmental ideas; and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Native American Studies Nick Reo, whose scholarship blends ecological, anthropological and Indigenous methodologies.