Music and Sounds, Powered by the Sun

Jul 13, 2017

What do you get when you combine a classical pianist, a controversial presidential election and the sun? Solar-powered nature music. WMRA’s Faith Pinho has the story of Jonathan Cook, a musician in Lexington who is taking inspiration from the sound – and energy – of nature.

[Music Intro – Creekflow (just water)]

What you’re listening to is the sound of Woods Creek in Lexington.

[Music Intro – Creekflow (music begins)]

And those are the sounds of Jonathan Cook, a local musician who is making a living by bringing his classical piano training outdoors.

COOK: I constantly spent time in the woods and always wondered why my music and artistic life was separate from this deep love of nature and of environmental issues.

Cook’s background is in classical piano. He earned a masters degree in piano performance from University of Michigan, commissioned a few of his own compositions for the New Jersey Music Teachers’ Association, and he’s served as musical director and organist at several churches.

But a year ago, he decided to explore making music electronically. And then came the presidential election in November, which Cook says was a turning point that motivated him to bring together his love of nature and music.  And it changed his focus.

COOK: What I do with my music has to be with renewable energy, has to be for an environmental cause, was a question I answered after the election. I did a lot of soul-searching and questioning in that period of time.  Knowing that renewable energy had made so much progress over the last eight years and that it was going to roll back at least in terms of government support from the federal government.

His answer? Solar-powered nature music.

It goes like this: First, Cook ventures into nature to collect sound. He has clips of the ocean beating the shore in Oregon…

[Cape Perpetua]

…of feet crunching through dry grass in Michigan…

[Sloptown Road]

…and of birds singing right here in Virginia.

[Birdsong 2]

COOK: Yeah, I’ve recorded a fair amount in my backyard actually. One morning I went out, I just took the trash out in the morning and the birds in the backyard were exquisite.

Once Cook has a good collection of outdoor noise, he then composes pieces of music, incorporating the sounds of nature as though they were just added instrumentation.

COOK: It becomes a layer of the music and what’s really neat about that is being able to interact with that layer of sound with the musical layers I’m creating. So if there’s waves, for instance. You’ll hear a big wave crash and you’ll hear a big wave of musical part. So I can essentially play a duet with nature.

Now, Cook certainly isn’t the first – or only – musician to compose using nature sounds.  But the final step in his process is pretty unusual.  All the hours of gathering sound, composing music and recording -- in one of his three in-home studios – is powered through energy from the sun, which Cook collects via three solar panels in his backyard.

And because everything is run on a solar-powered battery, his keyboard and mixing station are mobile. Cook has performed in a park, on a mountaintop and, most recently, during a Rockbridge Community Yoga class.

SULLIVAN: Yoga to me…I connect that a lot with nature to begin with. The poses, the feeling, the whole experience of yoga, I always visualize being out in nature when I do yoga.

That’s Jessica Sullivan, a 52-year-old early education coordinator at Boxerwood Garden in Lexington. She attended the yoga class at Lylburn Downing Community Center, where Cook performed his nature songs. She says the connection between the music – and yoga teacher Karen Stanley – helped her to focus on her practice.

SULLIVAN: I really felt like the sounds of nature just brought me right back to where I needed to be for the practice. The type of music that he had working in there – no chanting or words – really helped with my breathing. It was…I enjoyed the experience a lot.

Cook’s solar-powered nature music has  become pretty popular in Lexington. Karen Stanley, the yoga teacher, says that attendance at the weekly Rockbridge Community Yoga practice has been dwindling. But on the Saturday in June that Cook performed, 26 yogis showed up – more than double the normal class size.

In addition to giving local performances and playing in yoga classes, Cook is working on putting out an EP entitled “Salute the Sun.” He plans to release it at the end of August.