Justin Ralls at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest


No, I’m not dead yet and I haven’t disappeared. First I was tied up with the Wordcrafters writing conference, which ran last weekend for an intense three days at the Hilton. And then I spent the better part of the past week at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest outside Blue River, finishing off an art photography project I began with a residency there a year ago, sponsored by the Long-Term Ecological Reflections project for writers and artists.

The Andrews Forest, little-known to most people even in Eugene, has the odd distinction of being the place that old-growth was discovered — scientifically speaking, anyway. Research done here in the 1960s and 70s convinced the US Forest Service that old-growth timber was not trash, to be cleared and discarded as quickly as possible for plantations of Doug fir, but biologically valuable for the health of the forest on the whole.

When I was the HJA for a week last April, I was the only artist in residence. So I was pleasantly surprised this past week to discover that Justin Ralls, a congenial 27-year-old PhD student in composition at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, was ensconced at the other apartment in the Greenhouse. That’s the new, comfortable residence hall where the Andrews people put the LTER artistic types.

Ralls was at HJA recording natural sounds — especially birdsong — and composing music. Despite his youth, he has had his work performed at the Oregon Bach Festival, by the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra and by Portland’s Third Angle New Music ensemble.

Check out his music on his website – one of my favorites is Afield, which weaves together birdsong and a chorus of Pacific tree frogs.

Ralls has become a noted player in a classical music movement linking music and nature, and whose best known composer, Alaska’s John Luther Adams, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music with his orchestral work Become Ocean. (The New Yorker’s Alex Ross called it “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.”)

Born in Seattle, Ralls is the son of two entrepreneurial parents whose most important legacy might be encouraging him to strike out on his own, whatever he did. “I grew up in an environment where my parents were self-made people,” he said. “They were not beholden to anyone else’s schedules. Though they are not musicians, they are artistic people in what they do, and I know that’s rubbed off on me – in my reluctance to ever have a steady job.”

Ralls wasn’t even very musical as a child. He hated piano lessons. It wasn’t until middle school, when he was encouraged to join the school band, that he discovered an aptitude for music — in this case, the drums. There were other early signs. “My grandmother says I conducted The Nutcracker in her lap when I was three years old, and I was spot on,” he says. “I don’t remember that.”

But in middle school and high school he played drums, read books about music, joined a youth symphony and, as a freshman in high school, began to get obsessed with music. “I just couldn’t get enough of it.”

When he was in that first school band, the director asked all the students what they listened to for fun. “I didn’t know what to say. I never listened to anything,” he said. So he made up an answer: the Beatles.

That night he went home and told his mother what he had done, and she went out and bought a copy of Yellow Submarine. “That was my first experience of actually listening to music.” Soon, other albums entered the mix. The soundtrack to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. He joined his school’s jazz band because he wanted to be like Ringo Starr.

Ralls wound up studying composition at the Boston Conservatory. Around that time, he happened to see director Ken Burns’ television documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and began to think about incorporating nature into his music. “That documentary really hit me, and put into perspective my experiences in nature,” he said. “Learning about John Muir was inspiring. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the seed that would draw my work as a composer back into the natural world.”

Ralls has even written an opera. Two Yosemites: An Environmental Chamber Opera got its premiere performance last year on the roof of the San Francsico Conservatory of Music. The story is, well, operatic.

“I interpret this story as a mythological quest,” he writes on his website. “Roosevelt, the hero, departs for the wilderness, choosing John Muir as his ‘shaman’ or spiritual guide….”