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The water, the music, the mountains, and the clear, warm air came together for music in a landscape.

by Diana Coogle

Pianist Hunter Noack founded “In a Landscape” as a way, his promotional material says, “to bring together the two things he loves most: classical music and the great outdoors.” Ah. Two of my favorite things, too.

 I received my headphones at the top of the lawn that sloped down to the Applegate Lake. A piano sat on a platform at the lake’s edge, with the snowy peaks of the Red Buttes above it. I set my camp chair for a good view of piano, lake, and mountains and waited for the music.

 This was not a concert hall. “Wander around as you listen,” Hunter Noack said. “Wade in the lake. Go out on your paddle board.”

  With Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” in my ears, I walked into the lake. Careless of my dress, I waded thigh-deep.

At first, hearing the music through the earphones bothered me. I might as well have been listening to recorded music. It was only when I looked at the pianist and let the motions of his hands and the bend of his back sync with what I was hearing that I knew I was at a live concert. Then the water, the music, the mountains, and the clear, warm air came together for music in a landscape.

Introducing Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata, Noack talked about the great composer’s deafness, reminding us that he had cut down the legs of his piano so the vibrations of the music would resonate through his body. “I invite you to come to the platform and lie under the piano as you listen,” he told us, “so you can experience the vibrations that Beethoven felt.”

What an opportunity! I waited my turn, then scooted under the piano. Now my whole body was receiving the music. I could have finished the rest of the concert there except that other people wanted to lie there, and, besides, I was missing the landscape while I lay under the piano.

Later in the program Noack played John Cage’s famous piece “4 minutes, 33 seconds,” for which the pianist is instructed simply to sit at the piano and play nothing. Ambient noises would be the music. This was a marvelous idea for a concert in a wild landscape. In the silence of the piano, I heard children’s voices from the lake, a bit of talk here and there, and I was just beginning to find the distant birdsong when Noack ended the piece by starting to play again. It is true that Cage didn’t hold the pianist to four minutes, thirty-three seconds, but I was disappointed not to have had more time to listen to this remarkable composition. Noack might have underestimated his audience’s attention span.

 The last piece, by vote of the audience (“Liszt or Chopin?”), was a polonaise by Chopin. The sun was now slanting across the lake. Waves rippled in its light. My eyes blurred. The waves seemed to come onto the keyboard of the piano itself.

In his poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” Wallace Stevens, describes hearing a woman sing by the sea, distinguishing between her song and the landscape:

            It may be that in all her phrases stirred

            The grinding water and gasping wind;

            But it was she, and not the sea, we heard.

Here, though, was the opposite experience. I was seeing Hunter Noack’s fingers on the sun-sparkled waves. The lake was his instrument; from it came Chopin. It was the lake, and not the piano, I heard, and what an exquisitely beautiful music it has within it.