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Composed: 2021

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd=E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion, strings, and solo organ

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 11, 2022, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting

About this Piece

Breathing Forests is a reflection on the complex relationship between humans, forests, climate change, and fire. The massive sound and architecture of the organ feels something like the grandeur of a forest to me, and its breath reminiscent of the glorious exchange of carbon dioxide to oxygen that forests perform on a massive scale. Because of their role as one of our planet’s biggest carbon sinks, forests are more essential now than ever before. But I can’t think of them without feeling an immense sadness that we are losing more and more of these forests each year.

Growing up in California, I’ve experienced wildfire throughout my life, but never the massive and devastating wildfires that have now become the norm, exacerbated by climate change and increasing levels of drought and heat. At the same time, fire is a vital part of many ecosystems, and decades of fire suppression and policy against prescribed burns is also, in part, responsible for much of the devastation and loss of control of wildfires in recent years. 

Breathing Forests is in three contiguous movements (“Grow,” “Breathe,” “Burn”) that roughly follow the traditional fast–slow–fast concerto form. The piece is a sonic forest, growing, breathing, burning, and regenerating, containing both sadness for the losses we can never get back, and joy—a celebration of forest ecosystems and their vital role in the fight against climate change, a celebration of all those participating in the fight for our future, and an invitation to get to work.

—Gabriella Smith