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Music and nature have long been sympathetic partners. The tradition of music in gardens reaches back to the open-air rites and communal celebrations of indigenous groups worldwide, and continues today at parks, university campuses, public memorials, and botanic gardens. Here we look at several ways the experience of music in gardens is becoming more accessible and participatory as it continues to evolve and nourish the spirit.

Over the last century, the carillon—an instrument housed in the upper chambers of a tower and consisting of at least 23 cast bronze bells— has become a defining symbol of many parks, university campuses, memorials, and botanic gardens in North America.

One of the most well-known and highly regarded North American examples is found at Bok Tower Gardens, a subtropical garden and bird sanctuary in Lake Wales, Florida. The 1929 art deco and neo-Gothic tower designed by architect Milton Medary features sculpted balconies, an arched entranceway, and elaborately carved screens, friezes, tiles, and metalwork. inside the bellchamber are 60 cast bronze bells, weighing more than 63 tons and tuned—at least once every 300 years—to a chromatic scale, so they can play music in any key.

Belgian-American carillonneur Geert D’hollander, who has composed more than 50 published works for carillon, typically performs daily concerts at Bok Gardens from 1:00 and 3:00pm, but this past week has been an exception. From March 20-24, in honor of its 90th anniversary, Bok Tower Gardens hosted the Twenty Fourth International Carillon Festival, drawing carilloneurs from around the world for a week of performances of original and classic compositions.

At the Chicago Botanic Garden, which also has live carillon performances, a digital replica 5-octave practice carillon with touch-sensitive computer sensors is making one the world’s heaviest instrument more accessible to a new generation of performers. Through a public training course, aspiring carillonneurs can practice without the risk of public mistakes.

Denver Botanic Gardens | photo by Scott Dressel-Martin

Open-air concerts
If some botanic gardens are sustaining and enriching a centuries old musical tradition, others are entering new territory. In 1980, the Denver Botanic Garden began hosting folk and jazz musicians for summer performances as an attraction to draw new visitors to the garden, says communications director Erin Bird. When the program started, there was just a small performance area, and acts were recruited locally. Now, with the partnership of local music school and booking agent Swallow Hill Music, several corporate sponsors, and the addition of the UMB Bank Amphitheater, the garden hosts national acts such as Ziggy Marley and the Gipsy Kings.

“Our mission is to connect people to plants. Having live music is a really natural way to bring people—those that have been here or new audiences—to the garden to have a unique music experience, surrounded by beautiful plants and flowers,” Bird says.

This summer, the garden will host 14 jazz and folk performances in a concert series running from June to August. They plan to draw as many as 2,500 visitors for each show. One of the garden’s satellite locations, a 700-acre native plant refuge and historical homestead known as the Denver Botanic Gardens Chattfield Farms, which lies along the banks of Deer Creek, will host louder rock concerts. Several other gardens, including the Idaho Botanical Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden, Memphis Botanic Garden, and Longwood Gardens, offer full summer concert line-ups.

Sound Column by Goric at The Magic House

Interactive musical elements
Situating instruments in gardens and playspaces, where children are free to experiment with rhythms and melodic patterns with little risk of judgment, is a great way to engage their interest and prepare them for more formal practice or training. A 2014 Northwestern study shows that children need to be actively generating and manipulating sounds—not just listening to music at early ages, as the now-debunked Mozart Effect would suggest—to fully reap the social and cognitive benefits that come with early music engagement.

Whether selected at the early stages of a new design, or when refurbishing an existing space, Goric’s line of sensory and sound elements offer children an open invitation to perform. Made of stainless steel and brass, these ground-anchored instruments can be grouped together in a thematic play space or add interactive, kid-friendly embellishments to a more formal landscape plan, such as the Sound Column used in the gardens of The Magic House, a St. Louis children’s museum.

Pop-up music
Of course, the practice of music in the public realm is not just for children. One of the most democratic— and visually surreal—interpretations of garden music making, is on display at the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s twelve-day outdoor music festival, Flower Piano. Now in its fifth year, the event from July 11-22, 2019, is being billed as an attempt to transform the garden into an “alfresco outdoor concert hall,” where all visitors are invited to play and listen. As part of the festival, twelve pianos are placed in unexpected locations throughout the garden.

Marina Smith, writing for the San Francisco magazine 7×7, says the project was originally conceived by Half Moon Bay musician Mauro ffortissimo and San Francisco filmmaker Dean Mermell as an extension of the Sunset Piano project, which placed pianos in unlikely settings. As Smith notes, “The project began when ffortissimo hauled a piano out to the cliffs of Half Moon Bay and played a nightly symphony before sacrificing the grand instrument to the rolling fog (he set the piano on fire once the fog had wreaked too much damage).”

It appears to have been a fruitful artistic experiment. The Flower Piano event boasts 60,000 annual attendees, and has grown to include weekend performances from professional pianists and other musicians.

The Takeaway
The idea that musical instruments can be played and appreciated in gardens—and stand up as architectural works in themselves—is not new. The carillon, for example, dates to the sixteenth century in the European area that comprises Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, where bells were used before clocks to mark time. What appears to be changing, however, is the notion of music in gardens as the province of the deified maestro perched in a tower. The new thinking reflects a more democratic view, in which the garden is a place where music is not an exclusive right, but accessible to all ears and available to all children, who can listen and play freely long before their first recitals.