New York-based Australian soprano Jane Sheldon posts about Nature, her latest album, recorded with pianist Nicole Panizza and featuring several works by Australian composers. Nature has been nominated for Best Independent Classical Album of 2014 in the AIR Awards.

..although at first they did no more than sing the music they had sung at home, they increasingly came to sing it in ways that were changed by the wilderness.
(Wilfrid Mellers: Music in a New Found Land)

The Australian landscape is known for its harshness, its inhospitable aridity, its extremes. But one thing about the climate in much of the country that’s really very gentle is the turning of the seasons from one into another. Mother Nature’s hand is very sure on the dial, the sweltering summer heat just ebbs away, and then one day it’s 3 or 4 degrees cooler and we all recognise we’re being ushered into autumn.

I’m writing this from New York, where I now live, and where I cannot seem to get used to the shock of seasonal change. Here, it’s as if at some point in September, when the air conditioners are groaning away, and the idea of eating anything but watermelon for dinner is unthinkable, something distracts Nature and her hand slips, and the world jerks clumsily and suddenly the temperature has dropped not by 3 or 4 degrees but by more like 10. A few short weeks later her hand slips again, and it’s 10 degrees cooler still, then in early December Nature loses her hold on things once more, and suddenly there’s snow on the ground and I’m trying to control my iphone screen with my tongue because taking off my gloves is too horrible to contemplate. And I think, how could this have been the place where so recently the convention of wearing clothes seemed like a frustrating imposition?

My new album, Nature, recorded with pianist Nicole Panizza, is about getting acquainted with new landscapes. When we were putting the program together, we were thinking, like many before us, about how a culture becomes acquainted with a new setting, and how the experience is rendered in the work of its poets and its composers. Specifically we were thinking about what Western musical culture made of the American and Australian landscapes it was brought to. Nature features the music of Ross Edwards, Nigel Butterley, Aaron Copland, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Judith Wright, Wallace Stevens, and Walt Whitman.

The Edwards work is The Lost Man, which sets poetry by Wright. Edwards has spoken of the way the sounds of the Australian landscape made their mark on his music, bringing him out of writer’s block: During this time my only serious listening was done sitting in the bush, listening more carefully than most of us get a chance to do to the natural sounds . . . It helped me come to terms with the fact that all of the world’s music must have originated in some way from the sounds of nature . . . . And later, when I started writing again, it was especially the insect patterns and rhythms I’d heard that helped me3

While for Edwards the landscape furnished him with a language, for me, as an immigrant to the US, nature was translator: it provided me with a way into works of music and poetry that I had previously not understood at all. I’m thinking of the piece that opens the album, Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. When I first heard these pieces, long before visiting the US, I could only hear a sort of wash of all the late 20C film scores in Copland’s debt. A dull bias against Dickinson for her irritating seclusion meant that she was unlikely to help me. But when I first performed these pieces it was in a beautiful, grand old hall in Massachusetts, in spring, after a bitter winter. We were surrounded by lush green lawns and birdsong was streaming in through the windows. At a certain point I realised I was hearing the same birdsong echoed in Copland’s piano writing, and that the intensity of the seasons described in Dickinson’s poetry was rushing through the open windows. Up to that point I’d thought that the piano’s birdsong in these pieces was twee and cloying. But I was given the luxury of learning that New England birds really do sound a lot like what Copland put into the piano.