The Mother Trees

Katherine Pukinskis (2023)

The Mother Trees is a research project by Katherine Pukinskis (CMU School of Music) using new choral music as the connective tissue between scientific research on old growth forests and Latvian folk song tradition. The new work for treble-voice choir creates a mosaic of text–selected from Latvian dainas (traditional folk poems), scientific research, and narrative writing about trees–that explores the rhizomatic root systems of old growth forests alongside the similarly interactive cultural systems of storytelling and song in Latvia. The Mother Trees acknowledges place as an integral part of creative production; by composing the piece to be performed in arboretums and outdoor spaces, the performance upends the normative practice of premiering new music in a concert hall.

This early stage of The Mother Trees which was supported by the Frank-Ratchye Further Fund has been focused on learning how voices travel outdoors, particularly in forested areas. Latvia has a strong tradition of performing choral music outdoors, particularly in the forests. The nation also has deeply rooted and long-standing folk and choral music traditions–most notably the Latvian Song and Dance Festival (Latviešu Dziesmu un Deju svētki)–that document the connection between Latvian people and the land on which they have cultivated, defended, and celebrated their culture. In Summer 2023 Pukinskis traveled to Latvia to attend the 150th anniversary of the Song Festival, attending concerts in multiple locations throughout Rīga in a variety of unique performance spaces. The trip had two complementary aims; to understand better the unique acoustic parameters of outdoor performance and the kinds of interventions (and structures) used in the Song Festival to better contain or amplify the sound of voices, and to explore the ways in which Latvian choral music–traditional folk, composed choral, and new commissions–invoke and engage elements of nature and the natural world in the music itself.

With field-notes, photographs, recordings, and interviews collected, this time in Latvia has helped center sustainability–in the creation of new music, in Latvian culture, and in natural, wooded environments–as the driving force behind The Mother Trees.

This project was made possible by the Frank-Ratchye Further Fund Grant #2023-031. Additional images are available here.