On Nature’s Stage

December 5th, 2011 by Charles Siebert

Miranda Loud uses the arts to raise awareness of environmental issues.

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The next time you’re strolling through your city neighborhood park, don’t be alarmed if a lovely woman with wavy brunette hair approaches with a hand-held camera, hands you a microphone and asks you to talk about your dreams. Not the ones that you have when you close our eyes at night – she’ll want to know about your waking dreams, what you envision for the betterment of humanity and the world. You might think it a hoax at first and start away, but your interrogator will not be easily dissuaded. Miranda Loud is one serious dreamer.

“This current project of mine is called Park Dreams,” she explained one afternoon in a Brooklyn coffee shop. “I’ve been recording people in different city parks sharing their visions – how to improve education in your neighborhood, how to foster empathy for each other and for other species, the role of the arts in society. Everyone’s dream matters, you know.”

Loud, who lives in Boston, is a classically trained organist (she earned a masters degree from the prestigious Eastman School of Music) and a professional mezzo-soprano. For years, she was content to express herself solely through her music, and to let her creations work their subliminal effects on listeners’ psyches. Increasingly, she engages her audience in ways that induce them to channel their own passions and effect real change in the world. A pivotal moment came in 2005; while driving home from the Montreal Jazz Festival, she followed the signs to a roadside safari park in the Canadian countryside. She soon found herself standing before a lone elephant that had been penned off by himself until the fences he kept pulling up in escape attempts could be repaired.          

“Several other elephants had gathered around him, swaying manically back and forth,” Loud recalls. “They all seemed to me so sad, like their souls had been taken. And it occurred to right then that this deep compassion I’d felt since I was a child for animals and the environment could be most powerfully expressed through a combination of live performance and film.”

Loud promptly taught herself filmmaking and founded a non-profit organization, NatureStage, through which (as artistic director) she has produced a series of multi-media works on environmental themes. The Boston Globe recently hailed her efforts as “the invention of a whole new genre.” One early piece was “The Soul of the Night,” which interweaved readings from Chet Raymo’s book of essays, “The Soul of the Night,” with projections from the Hubble Telescope and music for mezzo-soprano and baritone by Debussy, Schumann, Brahms and other composers. It was first performed in New York City before an audience of over 200, and then in Harvard Square. For a project called “Reaching for the Light: Music and Images of Flowers, Plants and Spring,” former poet laureate Louise Gluck wrote a series of six poems that Loud set to music and premiered. In the “Buccaneers of Buzz: Celebrating the Honeybee,” music for voice, marimba and dance accompanied experimental video and a series of interviews with beekeepers from around the U.S. The latter won an award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which called it “a work of innovation and excellence in the arts, humanities and interpretive sciences, and which fosters community engagement.”

One recent NatureStage initiative brought Loud right back to the source of her original inspiration. In March of 2011, she traveled with a cinematographer to Thailand to document the plight of the endangered Asian elephant and highlight our many similarities with the elephant species. With the footage and interviews from her trip, she created a series of films to serve as a prototype for high school and college curriculums. She uses the plight of elephants and our long history with them to foster discussions among students about larger issues, such as our relationship with other species and the essence of human nature.

“The arts are really important for training the next generation of environmental stewards,” Loud says. “I want this project to inspire compassion and interconnection. Species like elephants are priceless. If we lose them, we lose the knowledge we gain from them. It’s most important that we make children aware not just of human destructiveness, but also of the richness, complexity, and beauty of which we’re capable.”

Loud’s compassion and concern are impressive, as is the ardor with which she dares to apply and share them. She talked about how dance, music, poetry, drama and the visual arts can foster the kind of imaginative thinking we need to save ourselves and other species. She spoke of the honeybee’s delicate sense of smell; of how to create quieter oceans; of the need to darken skyscrapers at night, in order to save the millions of birds each year that are drawn to the lights and crash into them.

Her Park Dreams project was sparked back in May during a walk in Boston’s Public Garden. She fell into conversation with a homeless man who twice refused the money she’d offered him; instead, he spontaneously expounded on his dream to create a country free of cigarette butts. As it turned out, he and a group of his friends had been patrolling the public gardens each night, gathering up cigarette butts free of charge; he asked Loud if she’d be interested in helping them.

“It really inspired me,” Loud recalled. “It got me thinking about what other visions people might have, and so I started going around and asking them.”

So far, Loud has interviewed pedestrians in the parks of Boston, Brooklyn and Chicago; she is editing them into a series of short stories for public radio. She wants Park Dreams eventually to become a multimedia theater piece that includes snippets of the conversations she’s had with people. Meanwhile, she is preparing for the 2014 premier of “Elephantasia,” a multimedia concert featuring Stephen Tharp, a world-renowned organist, and Loud as vocalist, that explores the relationship between elephants and humans.

How, in the midst of all her cause-driven projects, does she still manage to find any time for just playing music? Loud smiled wistfully, then suddenly looked down at her wristwatch and jumped up from her seat.

“Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed, and hurriedly packed up her things. “I’ve gotta go! I’m performing at a wedding this evening in Boston!”

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”