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Composer Heitzeg’s ‘Wild Mercy’ setting to be performed at Terry Tempest Williams reading

Steve Heitzeg
Steve Heitzeg

Long before humans came on the scene, there was music everywhere. St. Paul composer Steve Heitzeg listens to nature to bring the sweep and sound of oceans, prairies, skies and woods into his orchestral works, and often he’ll bring in natural music makers — stones, bones, wild ricing sticks, recorded animal sounds — to sing quietly alongside the more typical orchestral players.

“I can never write better music than nature,” he says, but he comes close, with breathtaking compositions that capture the mood and energy of wild places, and imbue them with human hope and emotion. His Emmy-award-winning music has honored peacemakers, given voice to endangered places and beings, and taken poetry to new audiences. So when he read Terry Tempest Williams’ work, he found a kindred spirit.

“I read a lot of poetry, and I’m an environmentalist and great lover of the land and nature. I stumbled upon her poem ‘Wild Mercy’ in the back of a book [“Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land”] and immediately wanted to write music for it,” said Heitzeg. That music became the third movement in his “Wild Songs” for soprano and percussion, commissioned by the Schubert Club in honor of its 125th anniversary. The percussion parts are played on a Yupik frame drum and two beluga whale jawbones. (Heitzeg has also composed a piece for another Williams poem, “I Pray to the Birds.”)

“Her poetry is music in itself — it doesn’t need to be enhanced at all — but this is a further spinout reaching different and more people.”

This weekend, when Williams comes to the Twin Cities to read from her latest book, “When Women Were Birds,” she will hear Heitzeg’s “Wild Mercy” performed live for the first time at the event. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me to be able to look him straight in the eyes and thank him,” says Williams.

Terry Tempest Williams
Photo by Debra Anderson
Terry Tempest Williams

Williams’ work, like Heitzeg’s, centers on the loss of wild places and the spiritual and physical impact this has on humans. In “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” she explores the legacy of cancer nuclear testing left on her family in Utah. In “Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on the Behalf of Utah Wilderness,” she gathered 20 writers to make a plea to preserve wild Utah, and it worked; when President Bill Clinton signed the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument into being, he credited the book’s influence.

In her life, Williams has been silent and regretted it, so she has learned in her work to speak up when something matters.

“The power of the arts is that art bypasses the brain to meet the heart. I think we’re in an extremely creative time right now, because we are realizing that there is so much at stake in this time of climate change,” she says. “I was recently at the British Museum and saw an exhibit of Ice Age art that included some of the first known portraits carved in stone. Their climate was changing, human beings were stressed. When communities are stressed, art flourishes. Art is a way to express that.”

In “When Women Were Birds,” Williams writes about the necessity of speaking up on behalf of the wilderness, though she has “no stomach for Washington politics.” (Even so, she has been present not just in writing but in person at many recent D.C. protests on behalf of the environment.) Staying silent isn’t an option, although silence is sometimes a protest in itself. Williams inherited her mother’s journals after her early death from cancer. Inside all those lined books she found not family stories, but silence: The pages were blank.

“Mormon women are expected to keep journals, acting as family scribes. I think her journals are an act of defiance. She was saying, ‘You will not tell me what to do. You will never know my thoughts.’ Still, it is heartbreaking to think about what kept her buying them year after year. I will never know why. But was a conscious choice on her part.”

Williams keeps a journal, although she is no longer an orthodox Mormon. Instead, it is the first step in her writing process. “For Mormons, journaling is ‘women’s work,’ like housework. When people ask me, do you write every day? I say no, because I am a binge writer. But I do write in my journal every day. It is my sketchbook, my filed notes, the seedbed for every other writing I do. I find my way to the truth through the page.”

Friends have widely speculated if Williams’ mother used lemon juice to write in “invisible ink” in her journals, but she has never tested them to see. Instead, she is embracing the mystery of the empty pages — which Heitzeg sees as akin to avant garde composer John Cage’s piece, “4’33,” which presents four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a musician or ensemble not playing for that duration of time. The music comes from the environmental sounds occurring when the instruments are not being played, so pay close attention. Infuriating, a bit? Sure. But there’s no denying the power and possibility of those blank pages and quiet places.


Reading by Terry Tempest Williams; performance of Steve Heitzeg’s “Wild Mercy” by soprano Polly Butler Cornelius and percussionists Heather Barringer and Erik Barsness. March 11, 7 p.m. Weyerhaeuser Chapel, Macalester College, St. Paul. (This is a Common Good Books event.)

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