#105-The Trouble With Wilderness with Ben Cosgrove


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By Matthew Kristoff. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

How does music impact your life? Does it make you happy or sad, giddy, or intense? Does it make you relax or reflect on life? Does it change the way you think about and relate to reality? It does all those things for me. So, I wanted to explore the intersection between art and science and how one can make us think differently about the other. Ben Cosgrove’s art is inspired by nature and our relationship with it, so who better to speak to.

Your Forest Podcast by Matthew Kristoff

The Trouble With Wilderness with Ben Cosgrove

Episode highlight

Ben Cosgrove is a travelling composer-performer whose music explores themes of landscape, place, and environment. He has held artist residencies and fellowships with institutions including the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, Harvard University, Middlebury College, the Schmidt Ocean Institute, and the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology.

His nonfiction has appeared in Orion, Taproot, Northern Woodlands, Appalachia, and other publications. Ben’s fourth studio album, The Trouble With Wilderness, was released on April 23rd, 2021. In this episode, he talks about his relationship with nature and the role art plays in helping us relate to nature and the way it affects our decision-making in environmental management.


Ben’s website: https://www.bencosgrove.com/

Northern Woodlands Magazine: https://northernwoodlands.org/


West Fraser: https://www.westfraser.com/

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23.21 - 23.43: “If by hearing me sit on stage every night and... tell stories about... how these different landscapes and environments and places have influenced and affected me, then I might... inspire somebody else to wonder about how the places that they inhabit and move through and care for affect them.”

28.34 - 28.47: “The trees outside your office... they all kind of rhyme with each other and just because it’s in a city and … surrounded by concrete doesn’t mean it's not also nature.”

30.03 - 30.16: “Just because there is wilderness out there doesn’t mean that you don’t also have a responsibility to... treat the nature in your own life with... respect and awe and interest and reverence.”

44.57 - 45.17: “When I write... I have to imagine that if my work or if that of any other environmental artist is influencing the thinking or eventually the work of a scientist, it’s by appealing to them as a person first and a scientist second”.

1.05.17 - 1.05.29: “I am of the opinion that... a lot of our broader environmental problems and issues are... not the result of... malevolence but of neglect.”


Playing about the world (6.50)

As a pianist, Ben identifies as a folk songwriter more than a classical composer, whose music is inspired by the environment, landscape and place. As a child, his piano teacher encouraged him to use music to understand his place in the world and he now expresses his feelings through music about geography.

Greater than the sum of its sounds (11.24)

Ben has moved from an objective data-driven musical portrait of an environment to a more emotionally resonant use of data to inspire his music. He talks about a piece he created based on a study on two species of megafauna, where their interactions, both pleasant and conflicting, were depicted using a cello and a viola.

Soundscapes and conversation (16.41)

Ben’s music is an interpretation of his interest in “topography and what it feels like to be a person-sized person in differently shaped landscapes”. His travels feed his nuanced understanding of being in a place and compel him to pay attention to how qualitatively different each place is.

What does your soul feel like? (19.55)

Ben’s natural interests and abilities in discovering the nature of the self combine with his interest in scientific understandings of different landscapes and places. Though he does not make music with the intention of advocacy, he hopes that his joyful self-expression helps others rediscover their connection with even mundane and lesser-noticed landscapes like sidewalk weeds.

Inspiration begins at home (27.45)

Ben’s new album, The Trouble With Wildnerness, is named after “an argument against conflating wilderness and nature or even wilderness and wildness”. He admits that it took being stuck at home during the pandemic for him to discover the beauty of nature at his doorstep. His new music evokes the smaller features of ecosystems instead of the sweep of landscapes.

Connecting through interpretations (35.36)

Ben considers landscape painters and nature essayists as more his role models than musicians. He finds value in others unexpectedly emotionally resonating with his musical interpretation of nature. “The best thing art can do… [is] providing a point of connection that might otherwise be hard to articulate”, he claims.

“Half of the work of the song is letting it be interpreted by somebody else” (38.50)

Ben is mindful that “there is a lot… that art can do to frame public understanding of what a place is and what it means”, whether positive or negative and could present a narrow or reductive definition of a place too without the artist intending to. However, he appreciates how being interpreted lends his music new meaning and allows him to be a part of his audience’s lives.

“I write for people and scientists are people” (44.29)

Ben has done a few residencies where he has created music in response to scientific research, using art to communicate his feelings to others, who may find value in his illustration of science. Though he is unaware of any research inspired by his music, he is confident that his music can “do a bit to show the public what science can do”.

“Getting those conversations started makes the world run better” (1.02.47)

Ben believes that the ways in which people act as stewards of one environment or landscape over another have a lot to do with the art they consume about it that has helped frame those places in their minds. He hopes his music compels people to discover and think critically about how they feel about a place, even if it is in disagreement with how he expresses his feelings.

Stay in touch! (1.16.48)

To learn more about Ben and his work, visit his website and listen to his new album, read his essays and dive deep into his philosophy surrounding nature!

106 episodes