Jack and the Desert Serenade by Emily Harmon

Emily Harmon, a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in biology at UNC, is one of the recipients of Arts Everywhere’s 2020-2021 Student Arts Innovation Grant. Her project, “Jack and the Desert Serenade,” will premiere as a part of Arts Everywhere Day, our campus-wide celebration of the arts! “Jack and the Desert Serenade” captures the diversity of desert wildlife and brings together music and story. Below is her full post sharing more about herself, her project, and how she and her team of artists transformed her desert research into an animated, musical piece. 


About Emily Harmon

Growing up, some of my earliest exposure to orchestral instruments came from an illustrated book with an accompanying tape cassette of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I always loved listening to the tape and reading the book, which left a lasting impression (I still sometimes dream of a wolf in my backyard). When I began to pick an instrument to play when I was 9, I thought of how instruments were portrayed as different characters in the story. I settled on the oboe – mainly because I’d been told it was one of the most difficult instruments – and have taken on as many opportunities to play and perform as I could ever since. In college, I was thrilled by the opportunity to play the part of the duck for a performance of Peter and the Wolf.

I have always loved bringing story and music together – many of my orchestral favorites are program music, and I absolutely love playing in pit orchestras for musicals. Perhaps that is another reason Peter and the Wolf has always been one of my favorites, and it marries both my love for program music and for animals. Though I decided in high school not to pursue a career as a musician, I’ve continued playing in orchestra, and am currently with the UNC Symphony Orchestra, as I began my studies in biology.

Harmon stands in front of a body of water with a shovel
Harmon doing fieldwork research.

At UNC, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in biology. My research focuses on how the ability of organisms to change their traits in direct response to their environments within a single generation (a phenomenon called phenotypic plasticity) can impact how populations evolve. My advisor is David Pfennig, who has done much work on a fascinating frog, the spadefoot toad. These frogs are unique in that the diet eaten by tadpoles greatly impacts their traits – whether they are a fairly normal tadpole, or whether they become a nearly grotesque, cannibalistic tadpole with big jaws and pointed mouthparts. This unusual natural history is crucial for the spadefoot toads because they live in the desert – a hot and dry habitat that could not be thought of as ideal for an animal that must begin its life in water. In fact, the frogs sleep underground for most of the year, only coming to the surface to breed and stock up on food when monsoon rains come in the summer, filling dry pond basins with flash floods. These ponds can dry in a matter of days to weeks, so it is vital that the tadpoles do all that they can to reach metamorphosis and crawl out of the ponds quickly.

About the Project

In our lab, we do fieldwork over the summers primarily in the southeastern corner of Arizona in the San Simon Valley. We show up and, like the frogs, wait for it to rain, so we can run out to study and collect the spadefoots in their natural environments. It’s fascinating to be exposed to the landscape out there, so different from what we’re used to on the east coast, and to see how the desert is full of wildlife, all with myriad adaptations allowing them to survive in an inhospitable place. Last field season out there, my lab mates and I were chatting in the dining hall of the Southwestern Research Station, and somehow the idea was thrown out there – what if Peter and the Wolf was about spadefoot toads? Surely their calls could be mimicked by brass instruments.

a spadefoot toad sits in a human's gloved hand
A spadefoot toad

At the time, it was a joke, but it stuck with me. When I returned home at the end of the field season, I wrote a story with a cast of animals from the field. I gave each character its instrument – the main character, Jack the jackrabbit, to be played on strings, the foundation of an orchestra. The quail on the birdlike flute, the bassoon, low and sometimes comical, the javelina. The clarinet, bright and capable of playing burbling runs was to be the roadrunner, and the rattlesnake to be played on my instrument, the oboe, which is sometimes associated with snake charming. The timpani represents thunder, and of course, the brass are the spadefoot toads, with big brassy croaks and quacks. 

But after this point, the project was entirely brought to life by local composer Max Ramage, at the time a PhD student at Duke University, whose piece Taiga we had recently performed with the UNC Symphony Orchestra. Max took my idea and ran with it and is to credit for the real soul of this project. 

Another huge contribution, made possible by receipt of the Arts Everywhere Student Arts Innovation Grant, was from graphic artist Jack Park, who illustrated the work. For logistical and safety concerns with the pandemic, we are premiering the work as a video with electronic instruments. We ultimately intend for this piece to be performed live with a narrator and orchestra, potentially as part of a children’s concert. Jack’s illustrations take the main stage in our video, and we hope any future live performances of “Jack and the Desert Serenade” will project the art above the orchestra as the music is performed. Jack took the character that Max musically imbibed the characters with and portrayed it visually. Finally, with help from the grant, we could bring on Jamar Jones from UNC’s PlayMakers. He truly brought the characters’ voices to light, serving as narrator. I am extremely grateful and pleased to have worked with these wonderful artists who took my basic ideas for the project and made it real and so much more than I had imagined.

A jack rabbit and a lightning bolt. Text reads Jack and the Desert Serenade
“Jack and the Desert Serenade” Poster

I’m very excited for us to premiere the video of “Jack and the Desert Serenade” on Arts Everywhere Day this year. The theme “Grounded Growth” is particularly fitting for my experience the last couple of years – the pandemic prevented our lab from really getting out and doing work in the field. I ended up completely redesigning my Ph.D. project starting from the ground up, asking a basic question about biology, and designing a new project and even a new study system best fit to evaluate that question. Though this has mainly taken me away from the spadefoots, part of me will always be a toad rancher at heart, and I can’t wait to share these amazing critters with the public. Ultimately, I hope the audience has fun learning about musical instruments and some of these incredible desert animals.

Watch the premiere of “Jack and the Desert Serenade” on April 8, 2022 at 11 am via Zoom. Register to receive the Zoom link!

Missed the premiere? Watch “Jack and the Desert Serenade” below

or watch the Arts Everywhere Day premiere and Q&A webinar!