Cook, Minn. – Above the lake, within the woods, beneath the call of ravens, a violinist sways with her notes in the breeze beside her music stand. Along the shoreline, waves break against a boathouse where a chamber quartet rehearses Beethoven inside. Nearby, a squirrel lobs a pine cone at the improv fiddlers on the dining hall deck below.
It's nature and music in tune — and inescapably integral to the Northern Lights Chamber Music Institute, an educational arm of the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota. Based in St. Paul, the society was founded 20 years ago to present top-level musical events and to educate. For 17 years, select musicians have participated in the 10-day Northern Lights Chamber Music camp. This year 28 participated in August at Camp Vermilion outside of Cook.
Young-Nam Kim is the camp's founder and maestro. He is the executive and artistic director of the chamber music society and a violin teacher at the University of Minnesota. One of his requirements was the camp be located beside a lake, but not for a backdrop.
As part of the intense 12-hour-plus daily schedule for campers, Kim structures mandatory time for them to do traditional camp activities: canoe, swim, hike or do whatever they'd like in nature. And there's a purpose. Kim said "nature's oxygen" is good for the spirit — and making great music.
"Feeling how the water moves and how you navigate water while you're swimming is the same kind of thing you should visualize when you're practicing [music]," he said.
Kim also emphasized the emotional depths of nature and music. He said the two elements move him to realize there is a God. However, it's not necessarily the image depicted as an old man with a long beard.
"When I see beauty, sometimes my emotions get all choked up. The same as with music, I get all choked up, too," he said. "It makes me realize there's a force way beyond. … In that sense, the emotional impact that you get from playing great music or great beauty of nature is identical at times."
Camp participants are talented high school, college and graduate musicians, and must submit an audition video to be selected. They study and perform with internationally recognized faculty from the institute while at camp.
Violinist Ariana Kim, now 35, is a teacher at the camp and a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She's also the daughter of Young-Nam and wife, Ellen Kim. Her mother started her on violin at age 3.
Her performance résumé includes extensive time in Manhattan. Her Carnegie Hall solo recital debut took place during her graduate studies at the Juilliard School. She is a violinist in the Aizuri Quartet, which won the prestigious International M. Prize Chamber Arts Competition at the University of Michigan.
Ariana Kim said her favorite element in nature is water, a bug she got from her dad and the reason the camp is beside a lake. She's especially attracted to Robert H. Treman State Park, a relatively untouched natural area in Ithaca famous for its gorges. Treman's hiking trails lead her up to, around and back down from a glorious waterfall.
"I hike Treman Park, then I jump in a swimming hole at the end," she said.
She also described how nature makes musicians more creative. Many composers were influenced by nature and rehearsal discussions are steeped with metaphors from the natural world. They talk of tempos in regard to waves; sounds in their bows compared to wind in the trees; and grounding their sound like tree roots in soil.
Violinist Adam Dorn, 23, of St. Paul, started playing when he was 5 and attended camp at 15. He noted a rehearsal moment during a segment of Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence." It's written to be played extremely softly whereby the tip of the violin bow is used as lightly as possible. Then the music swells.
"We were using the lake and the ebb and flow of the waves to describe that," he said.
At 17, cellist Dylan Kinneavy of Minneapolis is a three-year camp veteran. When he was 4, he determined that the violin was too squeaky and shifted to cello. He said nature imagery is helpful in trying to play certain techniques. "You can only try to imitate what you've heard in your own life. So, maybe if people haven't been exposed to that, then they might up here."
Eli Bissonett, 38, of Duluth, is a senior participant at camp. He picked up the violin/fiddle at 8. He explained the difference between violin and fiddle depends on the music played. Violins also have "strings." Fiddles have "strangs." He performs gypsy jazz with the Hot Club of Duluth and is a music teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
He and his parents, Barry and Milli from Ely, were instrumental in helping Young-Nam Kim found the camp in 2002. It resided at Camp du Nord on Burntside Lake in Ely for 15 years before moving to Lake Vermilion.
Bissonett grew up hunting, fishing and camping around Ely. He said his family home was a simple dwelling and he used an outhouse until he was 4. Of Finnish heritage, his mother played him a lot of Nordic folk music rooted in nature. He said it was a big influence on his ideas about music and how to be an expressive musician. When he spends time in the woods, it helps him relax into the music.
"There's this intangible thing for me where I'm not just being in nature, but being observant, really absorbing everything that's happening," he said.
When she was 5, cellist Rachel Bottner, 28, started playing the violin. But at 6, she switched to cello because she decided it was a superior instrument. She said whenever she has the chance to practice outdoors, that's where she'll be.
"Normally, I'm just alone in a room where it's dead silent. It's never very enjoyable for me. I love having the ambient [nature] sounds accompanying me," said Bottner, of Madison, Wis. "After this camp, I always have a new sense of clarity and happiness. You toil around in your everyday life, then get this serenity in this time to come back to fundamentals."
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.