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Music for Forests: A Curator Q&A

July 28, 2021

How four playlist curators created a unique collection of soundtracks for nature and music enthusiasts.

At Third Bridge, we rarely do the same thing twice. Still, a recent project presented a curveball. Redwoods and Records is a community of nature and music enthusiasts who share the goal of providing soundtracks for redwood trails in Northern California. Ultimately, they hope that this experience will create awareness, foster appreciation, and drive donations to organizations devoted to preserving these fragile ecosystems. They turned to us to help curate these playlists. In order to scale this over a hundred-plus trails, we first created a taxonomy of trail types—old growth, steep inclines, etc.—along with situational variables: morning, sunny-day hikes, and so on. Next, we unleashed our music experts. Below, we chat with project curators Stephanie Garr, Justin Farrar, and Adrian Spinelli about how they approached this most unusual project.

How was this assignment different from a typical curation assignment? Was it more difficult?

SG: I actually thought this would be a breeze. I mean, I love music and I hike a lot. Makes sense. I had a few tracks I knew I had to include, but once I sat down to put it all together, I got stuck. Most curation assignments revolve around a pretty defined theme and audience. This one allowed me too much freedom, so I started obsessing over who exactly I was making these for. Anyone can be a hiker, after all, so what vibe do I want to create? Do I pick obvious tracks? Do people want to hear what they know or do they want to be surprised? Ultimately, I want others to enjoy these playlists as much as I do.

How did you tie your consideration of the setting, and the listener, into the tracks you suggested?

AS: I first imagined the trail I was selecting music for—the way it smells, how it's shaped, how it feels, and how the sun pierces the redwood canopies and hits the trail. I feel like every time I go hiking, I'm looking not only to get some exercise, but also, especially, to be inspired by what nature has to offer in that setting. It felt safe to assume the listener would share that outlook. So the music has to fit into that framework: Something that's going to inspire you to keep going 'til the end, but also to keep opening your mind in different ways from start to finish.

What was your decision-making process around the structure of the playlists?

SG: The ordering of a playlist is as important as the tracks themselves. I want the songs to almost bleed into each other, even if their sound is completely different. There’s no science to it, it’s just about feel. Of course, the first track is everything—that’s your thesis. I picked Caribou’s “Sun” to kick off Songs for Conquering a Difficult Hike, for example. I love the movement of that track. It’s bright and playful and makes you feel like you can conquer the world.

JF: I stuck to a basic wave pattern: a couple songs to increase energy followed by a couple that plateau out, then a couple that let that energy draw down a bit. It’s subtle—modulations. I tend to do the same thing with genre and artist popularity. If I place somewhat obscure experimental folk songs back-to-back, I follow them up with something a little more identifiable. Of course, if you find two songs that feel meant to be played one after another, you have to go for it. I’d zoom out, too: on Shadowy Songs for Tall Tree Canopies, for example, I placed Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” an invocation track, at the beginning, and at the end I added Magical Power Mako’s “Sound, Mother Earth,” which was meant to draw the invocation to a close. I was thinking of the hike as a kind of ritual, and that this would be the ceremonial music for it.

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