Not far south of the Michigan border, near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, is a town in northern Indiana called Dune Acres. The town shares its name with the newest piece by composer Kristin Kuster, which premiered just this past week through the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Of course, this is no coincidence. Kuster, the chair of composition at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, spent many summers in Dune Acres as a child, at her grandparents’ house. The new “Dune Acres” piece isn’t the first she’s written inspired by that setting — notably, her 2013 vibraphone solo piece, “Rain Chain,” was inspired by a rain chain there — and it marks a return to natural themes that have long formed important preoccupations in her work.
“I think I’m at my most calm and focused when I’m looking at trees,” Kuster said in a recent interview with The Daily. “Or looking at water, or looking at nature. It’s a real inspiration for me, because there’s so many things that are so beautiful.”
This practice extends to her work at the University, where she says she sometimes gives students assignments to set aside an hour, go to the Arb, and stare at a tree. The goal is to “notice the branches and the leaves and the way it looks, even if it’s winter and it’s got snow and there aren’t any leaves or whatever.”
“I think that it can rewire our brains away from the kind of chaos of the world,” Kuster said. “We get an enormous amount of input as we walk through the day. Even just people on the street, sights and sounds, conversations and things, to-do lists … It works for me, anyway, to just relax. And kind of find stillness in looking at natural beauty around us.”
Kuster has long been accustomed to natural beauty, through her childhood growing up in Boulder, Colo., and her experiences later on living in San Diego and now Michigan. This priority she mentions of escaping from the “input” and stress of the world, she said, was a major element that affected her approach to “Dune Acres.”
“Part of what prompted me to go back to that space is that I’ve been pretty torqued up and upset with what’s happening in the world,” she said. “I wanted to get back to that kind of joyful, childlike wonderment at the world. This is the place where I really started writing music as a little kid, making up sounds, running around the house and running around on the beach. I was so fond of the time that I spent there that I really wanted to tap back into that in this piece, as a way to sort of cope with the state of things.”
Many of Kuster’s goals — as a chair of composition and, it seems, as an active member of the composing community in general — align with this idea of addressing recent political developments in the world. She aims to advocate for underrepresented groups in composition, and believes that this is work that the entire classical music community needs to undertake, particularly in large and well-funded institutions such as orchestra, opera, film music and gaming music.
“All of those institutions have a problem with diversity of representation,” Kuster said. “And yes, it is better than it was five, ten years ago, but we still need these institutions to care, and to do the work. And it really only takes one person in an organization to care, and spend fifteen minutes Googling. It’s really not that much work, but someone has to care about putting forth art that represents composers of color, female composers, composers who identify as female, trans composers, composers with disabilities … We are seeing a little bit of progress, and there are some organizations that are better than others. But until we do that, it’s just going to stagnate.”
Some of the social and environmental problems entrenched in the world are ones that find their way into Kuster’s music itself. When she wrote a different nature-inspired piece, “Devil’s Thumb,” in 2013, she was thinking about the devastation incurred by weeks’ worth of wildfires in Colorado, as well as the 2012 shooting at the Aurora movie theater.
“We had been seeing this pain in Colorado, and yet there’s so much beauty around. So I guess when I approach that musically, you know, I can have sections that are sort of dark and heavy and powerful, with lots of percussion. And then when there are beautiful things, it can be maybe slower and more lyrical, with longer melodies,” Kuster said.
The new piece, “Dune Acres,” also maneuvers through differing melodies and musical sensibilities. The piece is in three movements, segmented by an imagined journey to the eponymous beach.
“The first movement is mostly about my memory of being really excited to go on this trip,” Kuster said. “My two older sisters and I would pile into the back of the old station wagon with no air conditioning, and drive for two days to the northwest part of Indiana, and just excitement and the anticipation, and also just watching the world go by through Nebraska and Iowa and Indiana.”
The second movement she describes as slower and sadder, with a long trumpet solo throughout to denote Kuster’s memory of “fog rolling in over the lake.” This is the movement where Kuster begins to incorporate more environmental preoccupations into the piece, mirroring her fascination with the natural world.
“We’re in danger of destroying these Great Lakes right now,” she said. “And Flint still doesn’t have clean water, and we’re surrounded by all this fresh water. So it’s kind of a lament to the state that we’re in now, and in concern for where we’ll be in the future with these Great Lakes.”
The third and final movement brings the piece to a close on a faster-paced note.
“It’s just this really pulsing, happy, kind of wash of sound. And that is, I think, just reflecting my memory of jumping in a lake. Whether it’s cold or warm, you gotta get in there and splash around when you’re a little kid,” Kuster said.
Her next project will be a piece about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, set to premiere in August at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. It will be performed by mezzo soprano Jamie Barton and Roomful of Teeth (for whom Kuster described the experience of writing as “like writing for a synthesizer”). This piece, titled “When There Are Nine,” incorporates poetry from Kuster’s longtime collaborator, Megan Levad.
“Her poems are really athletic, in that they can jump from one image to another that seem to be unrelated or on the opposite spectrum from one another,” Kuster said. “And then she does this amazing job of bringing those things together and then providing a kind of hook at the end that’s completely unexpected.”
In the meantime, Kuster is excited about “Dune Acres”’s recent premiere with the DSO. The piece was commissioned by the Broadcast Music, Inc. Foundation in honor of Ralph Jackson, the Foundation’s former Executive Director of Classical Music, whom Kuster said is “a person who really helped (her) in (her) career.”
“It’s such a thrill and a privilege to have the opportunity to work with them,” Kuster said of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “They sound amazing.”