Valuable Natural Resources was initially inspired by the following statement from American anarchist, activist and folk singer U. Utah Phillips:
"You're about to be told one more time that you're America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear-cut in a forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource! They're gonna strip mine your soul! They're gonna clear-cut your best thoughts for the sake of profit, unless you learn to resist, ‘cause the profit system follows the path of least resistance, and following the path of least resistance is what makes the river crooked!" —Utah Phillips, Natural Resources
As with most of my works recently, an initial inspiration will lead to an exploration or political, spiritual or historical ideas. In this case, Utah’s quote altered the meaning of a postcard I purchased years earlier, which featured a photo by Lewis W. Hine. The photo depicted young boys, perhaps between the age of 9 and 12 – who were leaving the coalmines of Pennsylvania after a day of work. Having lived in Pennsylvania for four years very near the coalmining region (I have a friend whose father still drives a coal truck in the area), I felt that this was an issue with which I had some connection on a personal level and also an interest in historically. The combination of these elements led me to explore the history of child labor in coalmines during the early 1900’s in America. This historical exploration is the basis of Valuable Natural Resources.
The work follows a dramatic path through history. In four connected movements, Valuable Natural Resources begins with a long descent in the strings, followed by the song of canaries. The canary was used to detect oxygen levels below ground, and the song of this bird plays an important dramatic role in the work. The second movement, Song in Darkness, is a cold lament for the workers. The third (Blacklung’s Polluted Aire) and fourth movements, begin a build that results in a set of variations (here referred to as variants). Entitled Variants for Mother Jones – the variations lead to a coda depicting solidarity and revolution. The inclusion of Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones – 1830-1930), who was equally known as the "Miner’s Angel" to the workers and "the most dangerous woman in America" to the White House, is important for her involvement in the abolition of Child Labor in the United States, which included a 1903 protest march of child textile workers from Philadelphia to New York City.
Valuable Natural Resources was commissioned by Ensemble Courage with funds from the Nature and Environment Foundation of Saxony and the Saxonian Academy of the Arts for their "Music and Nature" symposium. Lasting approximately 15 minutes, Valuable Natural Resources was premiered by Ensemble Courage, Titus Engel, conductor, and Benjamin Schweitzer, director, on September 25th, 2004 in Dresden, Germany. It is dedicated to Utah Philips, and to Titus, with thanks.
David T. Little, 7.21.04