National Park Centennial Brings Music to Mammoth Cave

Jun 9, 2016

Imagine hearing music reverberating through caves or echoing across mountains.  This summer, an ensemble of musicians from the Eastman School of Music in New York will be visiting national parks throughout the country and performing in the natural venues.   It's part of the national park service's 100th anniversary.

The first stop on the tour is Mammoth Cave National Park in south central Kentucky.  Emlyn Johnson is directing the project called Music in the American Wild.  She visited the park in December to scout out the venue and test the acoustics.

"I don’t think I had ever been in a cave before.  I was just amazed," Johnson told WKU Public Radio.  "I got to play my flute in some of the big caverns and it was like playing in a glorious concert hall.”

Johnson said one of the challenges will be moving the instruments and other equipment into the cave.

"One of the other challenges,  I think, is that it’s a little cooler in the cave and a little more damp that what we’re used to playing in an enclosed concert hall, so we’re bringing along some different instruments that will be more adaptable to that environment," she explained.

While descending the steps at the mouth of the cave, park spokeswoman Vickie Carson said the cave offers an unparalleled backdrop.

"The cave is such a sensory experience because of the cool air which you can start to feel outside on a summer day, but then the darkness, and the sound," remarked Carson.  "Other than where the water is dripping, there is no sound inside the cave.”

An eighth-of-a-mile into the cave, we reach The Rotunda where some additional lighting was being installed.

Ranger Leslie Price installs lights inside The Rotunda at Mammoth Cave National Park.
Credit Lisa Autry

"We have a few extra lights stashed here and there just to add a little light to the walls.  The walls reflect light very well, but or this, we need to have light on the performers so the people coming and going can see the performers, and also light on their music," Carson explained.  "We've been tweaking it all and making the cave look beautiful."

This won’t be the first time music has reverberated from the walls of Mammoth Cave. 

"The idea of music in the cave goes way back in our history like the Luther Ewing String Band which performed in here in the early 1900s.  It was before this was a national park, but just privately owned and operated," stated Carson.  "Even in the 1800s, the owners of Mammoth Cave would bring instruments down to entertain people in the cave.”

Flutist Emlyn Johnson and six other musicians from the Eastman School of Music will perform Saturday in The Rotunda of the cave during tours from 10:00 a.m-2:00 p.m.  At 7:30 p.m., a free concert will be held at the park’s amphitheater. 

The ensemble will play newly composed music for the national park tour.  Johnson said some of the pieces are inspired by the sound of the cave and the feeling of a mysterious underground world.

"One that we’re excited to highlight in Kentucky is a piece called ‘Louda For the High and Low Places’ and that’s by a composer David Clay Mettens who was born and raised in Kentucky, so we’re excited to have that local flavor," she added.

Mammoth Cave Park Ranger Leslie Price thinks music is a fitting tribute to the national park service’s centennial.

"The sound of a place is a part of its magic and a part of what I think the national parks strive to protect because it is a lost value, the ability to be still, listen, and absorb where they are," Price commented.  "Whenever anyone comes in here, the first thing they want to do is hum, sing, or talk, and play with the acoustics.  We’re kind of playing with that in a much more professional way because these are going to be master musicians and we’re very excited about what they’re going to compose for us.”

After Kentucky, the tour will set out for other majestic sites, including the Great Smoky Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park.