Serenades for the Glades
Baritone John Boehr, a Santa Fe Opera alum, performs an “environmental oratorio” on Thursday, Feb. 25. The other musicians for Pahayokee: A Plea for Life, presented by Santa Fe New Music in collaboration with the Santa Fe Art Institute, include the singer’s father, pianist David Boehr, and the birds, bugs, and other critters that inhabit the Florida Everglades. The concert benefits the Santa Fe Conservation Trust.
The environmental background music was captured in field recordings by lawyer and conservationist James T. Miller, who conceived the project and wrote the libretto. The music was composed by Jack Tamul. “It’s written so ingeniously, and it’s improvisational, but it’s also about the technology,” John Boehr said in a conversation from New York. “I have this little box with letters and numbers that I press to cue different sounds. The piece is written very minimalistic. Jim Miller wanted it to be just like the Glades. The way he described it to me was as a very peaceful place, but then there are explosions of sound, like an alligator popping out to grab something.
“I took a trip there, and it’s very beautiful, but it’s also very calm. The way the wind hits the grass looks like waves. So the way this is written, some things I can say over and over again, and I can sing them in different ways, then I have the box. If I press A1, let’s say, it might be the sound of an alligator or an ibis.” There are five principal songs in the Pahayokee cycle. In between those songs, Boehr has opportunities to improvise vocally and to cue particular sounds from the field recordings or recorded segments of his father’s piano.
Boehr said that Pahayokee is his first new music/electronic music experience. He has performed with opera companies in Austin, Fairbanks, Palm Beach, Pittsburgh, and Santa Fe. He sang with the SFO as a member of its apprentice-artist program in 2006 and 2007. In 2007, he was cast as Carlo in the premiere of Trinity by Santa Fe New Music’s John Kennedy, commissioned by the SFO. Boehr recently completed work with the Austin Lyric Opera, performing the role of Tapioca in a production of Emmanuel Chabrier’s opéra bouffe L’Étoile. In April, he begins work with the New York City Opera on Handel’s Partenope.
David Boehr, who has been a member of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra since 2004, frequently does concerts with his son. The two made a recording of Pahayokee: A Plea for Life in 2007. Tamul was music director for JTM Studios in Florida from 1976 to 2003, during which time he created music and sound for museum exhibits and the mass media.
Miller, whose writings include an article about the extinction of a Florida native, the dusky seaside sparrow, for the journal Snowy Egret, was raised near the Everglades. During the last several decades he has journeyed hundreds of times into pahayokee, which is the Seminole word for “grassy waters.” The sawgrass marshes are a chief feature of the Everglades National Park.
The Everglades, which Miller says is actually a slow-flowing river, has been under threat for many years, long before climate change was even talked about. “In south Florida, there are thousands of miles of canals and dams and levees constructed to allow development, and more than half of the Glades has been drained,” he told Pasatiempo. The idea of Pahayokee is to use art to raise consciousness about the plight of the Everglades. “We love art for art’s sake and we know that some people are against using art with a message, but we really believe in this.”
Despite devastating bird losses from the 19th-century trade in the feather plumes of herons, egrets, and other birds and from habitat
alterations, the national park (established in 1947) is a destination for bird-watchers from around the world. More than 360 avian species have been recorded in the park. Among them are the mangrove cuckoo and the nearly (or possibly) extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, the greater flamingo, the huge American white pelican, and the slightly cartoonish brown booby.
The Everglades is also home to the endangeredWest Indian manatee as well as Florida panthers, otters, the Everglades mink, five species of bats, salamanders that can grow more than 3 feet long, and the American alligator and American crocodile, both of which can grow to 15 feet and weigh more than 1,000 pounds.
Many of the important animal species in the Everglades are dependent on local pine lands and on theWestern Hemisphere’s largest contiguous stand of protected mangrove forest. Both habitats are in danger of obliteration through inundation from warming sea water and melting glaciers, according to a National Park Service study called “Climate Change and South Florida’s National Parks.”
Miller’s ambient recordings of the Everglades were labors of love, but the process wasn’t exactly a breeze. “I recorded this mostly at night,” he said. “What’s so amazing is that it takes hours and hours to record something that ends up being useable for just a few minutes. And there’s so much human sound. Even though I was deep in the Everglades, and I’d go out at 4 in the morning, there would be a damn jumbo jet going over.”
Miller said he that has been frustrated with the slow pace of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which Congress approved in 2000. “Nothing ever gets done, and the Everglades are slowly dying.”
“The Pahayokee piece is very passionate,” Boehr said. “When we did it in Philadelphia at the Electro-Music Conference, I was very surprised how much it took out of me to do it for 45 or 50 minutes. It is very intense. Jim’s passion for the Everglades, and the toll it takes on him seeing it kind of dwindle away, really comes out in this piece and especially in his libretto. Jim wanted the music to be in a place where people could see the simplicity but with this undercurrent of desperation.”
Panthers and cuckoos and Boehrs: baritone John Boehr is joined by his father, pianist David Boehr, in a performance of Pahayokee: A Plea for Life.
Flamingos in flight over the southern end of Everglades National Park; AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman
Imperiled paradise: the Everglades