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The Musical Inspiration of National Parks

by Amir Siraj and Shane O'Neal
Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park - iStock / DougLemke

National parks inspire people in different ways every single day. From the snow-capped grandeur of Glacier National Park to the scorching heat of Death Valley National Park, they speak to each of us in their own unique ways.

For some, the dark night skies and natural sounds of a park seem to create a magical performance all their own.

One person who was inspired musically by the parks is a musician named Amir Siraj, and the following videos, which comprise his project Music For The Parks, feature him performing compositions for piano that were written to match the majesty of our national parks. So put your headphones on, sit back, relax, and prepare to be transported to our nation’s greatest treasures.

I sat down (virtually!) with Amir to discuss his inspiration for the videos, his musical background, and what national parks mean to him. We hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse into our conversation.

At One With Nature // Pinnacles National Park
"At One With Nature" Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, composer Amir Siraj, piano

Tell us a bit about yourself. What inspired this musical project?

I’ve always had dual interests in music and in science, and early on I realized that both music and science are deeply powerful in their own way. One of the special aspects of science is that it can help you ask questions and discover truths about the world, which I find remarkable.

Something that I think is unique to music and to art is that they can move and connect people in a way that might be unachievable otherwise. I was able to witness that when I started bringing more of my music outside the concert hall and into the community, whether with seniors or with children. These experiences helped me understand how universal music is and how it connects people from all walks of life. Music grounds us in shared experience.

Nature has always had a very special place in my heart because it is sort of the embodiment of both science and music. Nature is arguably the most wonderful thing we have. The complexity and beauty of our singular home, the Earth, are really just unimaginable. Science and music allow us to interface with the world and with each other, and they help us appreciate the inspiration that nature gives us. Whenever I need to think, whether it’s about music or about science, I go to the park or further out in nature and try to gain inspiration that way.

One way to communicate and forge connections with people when words fail is through music, so that’s why I pursued this project. Having witnessed music’s ability to speak to people on an emotional level, I saw the Music For The Parks project as a way for people to connect their own experiences with nature and the parks and to foster a shared sense of wonder and importance in a way that connects to the National Park Foundation’s mission and the preservation of nature in general.

So I called up a few of my colleagues who are composers, Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, Alexander “Sasha” Yakub, and Benjamin Bromley Nuzzo, and commissioned these pieces. They were kind enough to donate their time and effort to this worthy cause. And I’m so grateful for From The Top for making this project possible through the Alumni Leadership Grant.

Lacuna // Death Valley National Park
"Lacuna" Alexander "Sasha" Yakub, composer Amir Siraj, piano

How long have you been playing music? Has it been primarily the piano?

I started playing piano when I was four and fell in love with it. It has really just been piano all the way through. In college I joined the Krokodiloes, Harvard’s oldest acapella group, and that was a really wonderful experience.

Singing is very different from piano, especially in a group setting because there’s so much collaboration that’s built in. Afterwards I became the assistant music director and conductor of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which is the oldest theater group in the country, also at Harvard, and that’s been a lot of fun because of the style of music. But all the while piano has been my musical home.

Can you tell us more about how you came to love national parks?

I developed a deep appreciation for the national parks once I learned how the national parks provide an ecology that is valuable for millions of people, access to clean air and water, how they provide habitat for endangered species, and how they preserve sacred lands for many Native American tribes, in addition to all the natural wonders they harbor that continue to inspire generation after generation of Americans.

It’s this incredible combination that serves so many vital purposes, and once I started to understand the importance of those purposes as a whole, that’s when I began to realize the significance of the national parks for our country.

Solitude // Glacier National Park
"Solitude" Benjamin Bromley Nuzzo, composer Amir Siraj, piano

What about parks inspire you?

I think it’s multifaceted, because the wonderful thing about the parks is they’re so rich in diversity and nature. Every time I go into the parks and nature, even my local parks like the Emerald Necklace, I get inspired by something different.

One day it might be a beautiful sort of bird, and another day it might be a particular combination of flowers. Because there is just so much natural and organic richness, I believe that the parks can stimulate unlimited varieties of inspiration and I think that’s why people have found the parks and more generally preserved nature to be one of the greatest gifts in the world.

One of the many important functions of the parks is preserving dark night skies, which is related to my current studies in astrophysics. I think dark skies are really important not only for astronomy and the scientific community and for continuing to make advances in our understandings of the universe, but also for human inspiration and wellbeing, as well as the health of many other species. Entire ecosystems depend on dark skies. It’s all really interconnected in a really magnificent way.

Amir Siraj is currently studying astrophysics at Harvard and piano at the New England Conservatory of Music. He’s pursuing a Bachelor’s and Master’s at Harvard and a Master’s at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Music For The Parks was made possible by From the Top & The From the Top Alumni Leadership Grant and The Howard and Geraldine Polinger Family Foundation.