Thursday, July 15, 2010

Back in the cities.

I returned to the twin cities last night and am now just trying to catch up on some rest and generally reflecting on my experience at Banning. I did not really realize it until I got back here, but the day to day activities in the state park over the course of 5 days has me thoroughly exhausted. Strangely, I did not really feel it while I was in the process. I guess it is kind of like 5 days of keeping up a similar level of concentration as playing a piece of symphonic music for extended periods of time as well as intense hiking that does it. You never feel it while you are in the midst of it, but once it is over and then euphoria wears off, you crash. None the less, it is day now and despite an attempt to take a nap, I am awake so thought I would just share a few things about the experience so far.

I am really pleased with how the week went. I think I came in with a different expectation and memory of what the park looked and sounded like and it took me a couple of days to try to erase my pre-conceptions from my psyche as well as wind down from my usual level of conscious activity in order to really hear what was in front of me. I now realize that the park has even more of a musical shape than I first encountered and that very little has to be added or should I say brought out of the park with human interaction. I actually expected to want to impose more on the park or insert more sound into the natural sound environment but then realized that the park was so active as it was that such an imposition was hardly necessary. I think the balance I have struck should create a profound experience. At least it does seem to for me. I really think the hike takes me into a sort of dream like state that takes me a few hours to come out of and after 5 days of hiking the trail a few times a day I feel it will take me a few days to get out of it completely. I did however feel that the week had a sort of musical arc of its own. day 1-2 just getting settled in and in tune with listening, day 2-3 really working out details and digging in. Day 3-4 fine tuning my listening and getting various perspectives as well as getting out into the community a bit more, and day 5 wrapping up and making final conclusions (as well as getting back to civilization a bit earlier than expected due to rain).

I have to quickly switch gears for Whitewater and am now joined by my friends Nina and Hans Gyorg from Germany who are visiting the states for a month and have graciously agreed to accompany me for a couple of days. It will be nice to have some assistance as whitewater is a much more expansive park and the sound world I need to stimulate is much larger and involves greater distances. I am going to pick up a walkie talkie or two (I guess you need at least two, right?) and do a lot of long distance improvising with them hitting drums for me. Fun!

Now I must shift gears.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The last full day at Banning.


After four days of amazingly good weather and a few near misses, mother nature finally had had enough and dumped a mass amount of rain and unleashed a good deal of thunder and lightning as well. I awoke to the sound of thunder and though I had had a fairly wrestles evening as it was, I decided to get up and pack my things as I was planning to leave at the end of they day anyway. After grabbing a quick breakfast in town, I returned to the park to meet Randy Gordon, the park ranger and naturalist, in order to do a quick tour of the songpath for his final approval but by the time I arrived, the full fury of the storm had broken loose. This pretty much put the kaibosh on our little trip as well as on a preview tour I had planned with a group of school kids at East Central Community Ed. It did give me a chance to go across the street to East Central Community Ed (which is right across HWY 23 from Banning, and meet some of the folks I had been corresponding with leading up to my visit.

After the rain died down a bit, I did what will be the final hike I will take until I return to Banning in August. The rain persisted now and again and added a whole different dimension to the tour. The sound of the rain itself changed in unexpected ways along the path and as it became stronger and weaker, covered and then revealed subtle sounds the were present in the background. This also made the moments where the river was near much more dramatic. It also added to the existing water features and provided a few that had not been present on earlier hikes.

In a conversation I had with Randy earlier in the day while waiting for the rain to die out, we discussed a few issues that they thought of in reflecting on previous descriptions of what I planned to do. First, there are a few places on the trail they were concerned older hikers might have a problem with. I agreed that that could be an issue and we worked out a couple alternate routes that seem to work well. We also discussed the issue of rocks. There are parts of the trail covered in a multitude of loose sandstone and I had originally thought it might be a nice touch to use some of it to make noise but the more they thought about it they thought it might give hikers the impression that it was OK to remove and even throw rocks. We compromised on liming the use of these rocks to one specific location and using them in a way that merely moved them a bit farther down the quarry (not to give too much away) into the shallows of the river. I am lucky to be working with folks that know their parks so well and are enthusiastic about the idea. It would be easy enough for them to just say not to some of my ideas just to err on the safe side but they have been very generous with their time in helping me find solutions that work for artistic purposes while maintaining the integrity of the park itself.

We also discussed the idea of doing a "Serenade to the Quarry" one of they days when I have multiple musicians helping. I should explain. During the Song Path dates. I have a number of musicians who are available at varying lengths of time and there are certain overlaps (tbd still) so at certain times I might have 3 or more musicians joining me. Of course, they don't all need to be on the song path at once as I am striving to keep the path itself quite minimal in its utilization of man made sound (although the park itself was really made by man so in a way, it is all man made sound~~~). Last night at around 6, one of the musicians whom I have mentioned before, Chris Chelgren, came with me on the path and was, as I was at first, really obsessed with seeing how every nook and cranny, pit and valley sounded. What we found was that close up, these features sometimes made disappointing sounds in relation to their visual grandeur. I realized that this was mostly due to the sandstone itself being somewhat porous an therefor, it absorbs sound. We did realize however, that from certain vantage points sound could probably be heard throughout the park, just not when obstructed by the sandstone formations and piles in the park. So we thought it would be great to do an impromptu serenade in the park in which we all just played our respective instruments (flute, violin, viola, and percussion) but at great distances. I have a sort of call and response piece that should work for just such an occasion and once I figure out when we are going to do them I will post it here and other places. This is kind of a fun idea that I think will work easily after a day of song path tours at around 6 or so. Then dinner and drinks around the campfire.

But now, I have to talk a little about last night when I decided I was a little sick of my campfire fare and I went into Sandstone for dinner and drinks at The Gaslight Bar and Cocktail Lounge. I have found that just going in to the most popular looking drinking establishment in any small town is usually immensely fun and fruitful in terms of meeting people. I went in to the bar and thought perhaps that this would be the exception as there was nobody there but me and the bartender and a couple playing pull tabs. But there were some good beers so I sat down and had a Schells Schmaltz Alt, a kind of creamy dark porter from New Ulm Minnesota. Started up a conversation with the bar tender and then a woman of about 55 years walked in and ordered a red wine. As I explained to the bartender what I was doing in the park, she became more curious and eventually asked me if I had visited South East Minnesota. I told her I was doing the project in Whitewater as well to which she responded "I used to work there!". So I asked if she knew Dave Palmquist (the naturalist who I have been working with) and she responded "He was my boss!". Turns out that had she been working there still she would have been the one handling reservations and promotion for the project. She now worked in Indian Mound as a prison psychologist and had some very interesting stories. This conversation eventually involved the whole bar which by this time had grown to around 6 people at its height. They all seemed interested and vowed to spread the word about it. Hopefully I converted a few folks and I know I enjoyed good conversation and good beer. The feeling I had in my head when the thunder woke me up this morning confirmed that perhaps I had one too many (two).

Tonight I return to the twin cities and get some rest until the 16th when I head down to Whitewater State Park early morning to check in with Dave Palmquist and his crew and start this whole process over in a new space. I have to finish my notes and then clear my head. And sleep lots!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Banning, Day 4.

Fourth Day here at Banning State Park.

I am now sitting in the Sandstone Public Library after taking a tour of the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone. The Audubon Center has lots going on including caring for rehabilitated birds including ravens and raptors that have been injured, mostly by being hit by cars believe it or not. On beautiful and quite Grindstone lake, they not only have camp facilities for kids k-12 and meeting and conference centers, they are also an active natural farm and garden, an alternative energy site, and a bird tagging facility in which kids and adults get hands on learning in conservation and other related fields. Kind of a place to go to generally find out how all these things, conservation of forests and habitat as well as energy are all completely connected and our encroachment on animal habitats have real and visible consequences. I saw a few of the animals they cared for and was simultaneously struck at how incredible it was to see a bald eagle up close but how sad also that this bird would not be able to live again in the wild due to its injuries.

I am reading now on the history of Sandstone and the quarry mine that was built here as well as at Banning state park. Banning was an active quarry mine until about 1915 and sandstone until the mid 40's. It is really interesting to see pictures of what the area looked like before and after the quarry both from a geological standpoint and from a social standpoint. Sandstone was once a thriving city which was once predicted to be the largest city between Duluth and Minneapolis. The sandstone that came from the mines built many of the oldest standing buildings in Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as other buildings across Minnesota and the Nation. A vast railroad network exists here and freight trains pass through during the night at quite high frequency. It is interesting that the sound of the freight trains is not so present from the Quarry Loop Trail Itself. It is also interesting that the very material the rails were designed to transport out of here is the reason the quarry loop trail exists in the first place. While I have been designing the song path at the Quarry Loop, the concept of the whole space being half forged by nature (the river), and half forged by man (miners)has been in the back of my mind. I have mostly decided to let the park speak for itself as it seems the most interesting details are those that are subtly revealed when you get really close to them and away from the ever present river. However, it seems to make sense to have a human interaction near the stone cutting building and the powerhouse which are clear symbols of the way in which the whole space was created. But in the end, the trail ends where it begins. With the river, the wind, and the birds. Just like it was before the quarry was mined.

I meet again with my good friend Chris Chelgren this evening to experiment with drums and rocks in the powerhouse and along the banks of the river. More human interaction. Which will be welcome even though I have greatly enjoyed the solitude of the last 4 days. Just what a composer is always looking for.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July 12th 2010. Banning Prep Day 3

After a brief meeting with Randy Gordon and Staff yesterday, I tried and re-tried a few things along the path. There were some concerns over starting the trail near the boat landing as the parking lot tends to get rather full and though I thought I had found the magic spot to start the hike and do the meditation between there and the beginning of the loop, Randy suggested an alternate route which would start the hike near the picnic area a bit farther away from the river. To my surprise, on doing the hike two more times, once from each starting point, I was entirely wrong about the magic spot. In fact, there is no magic spot. I was entranced with a particular mix of bird activity, wind, and river noise. Today, I found that in fact, the birds seem of course do not stay stationary over the course of a day and especially not from day to day so the "sweet spot" in which all sounds will be well balanced enough to guide the audience through listening to all the sounds will change from hike to hike. But in general, I think Randy had the better idea regarding people finding the trail head. Park Ranger 1, composer 0! We will meet again Sir.

I also had a visit from my longest supporters as a composer, that is, my parents, this afternoon and they volunteered to be guinea pigs for the hike. It was great to try the hike with actual live people to get a chance to run through the meditation out loud as well as to practice dealing with chance encounters such as how to stay a reasonable distance from other hikers without seeming rude, and dealing with hikers who are, how to put this........mature in body.....through the park trails. I think I can confidently say that Banning's Quarrty Loop will definitely be a hike that most adults will be able to handle, even in advanced years.

In doing a few hikes, it has become clear that using musicians in any spot but the last part of the loop will be completely unnecessary as the first part of the loop, especially the south west section where the river becomes almost completely inaudible, requires subtle listening rather than any man made stimulation, to create a convincing musical arc. I did discover one surprise spot on the east side of the loop by the river where a clear picture of the river can be heard by bring the group slightly off trail. Between this and the power house/ stone crusher area, I think there will be plentiful opportunities for human interaction. After all, these are the structures where the workers toiled to shape the quarry area into what it is today by cutting out stones one block at a time for decades in the late 1800's which basically made the park what it is today and left us with such unique sonic features. But more on that later. For now, I am pooped and need to take some pictures yet this evening.

To take a closer look at what I am talking about, check out the PDF map of the park here

July 11th 2010 day 2 at Banning

Today I started early with a hike around the Quarry Loop Trail Itself. I began by doing a brief "listening meditation" that I plan on starting the hikes with focusing the ears on particular elements present in the park (wind, water, bird and animal noises). Once I had my ears in the right place, I began the path. I was immediately struck by insistent and repetitive phrasing of the various bird songs and the consistency with which other birds seemed to respond with similar phrases. This kind of stereophonic juxtaposition set the stage for what I heard when focusing on the sound of the wind as often wind seemed to move in two dimensions through the trees above and different speeds of wind wound create different textures in the leaves. I also noticed that even though I was simply standing in one spot, different parts of the river would stick out more at different times also giving the impression of a stereophonic texture and further upstream at times would be more low and bassey sounds and further down was swiftly flowing rapids. Then, when I focused on all elements together, it was like I was listening to a cohesive quadrophonic composition done in a studio but with an infinite number of different recording chambers as each sound I heard seemed to come from a different part of the overall space with different levels of reverb. As I started the hike, I was then able to take this initial picture with me and focus on the sounds I had been hearing and notice how these disparate elements began to change their character slowly as I walked, and especially when I would pass through a very rocky and enclosed space.

Though it was my intention to do a straight walk around the park and time how long it took, I ended up getting distracted by the many side paths that lead away from the main quarry trail and then back again taking you on a detour closer to the sheer rock faces that were cut away over 100 years ago by miners. The empty space that exists there now and allows me to experience that space are mostly now part of many of the old sandstone buildings in Minneapolis and St. Paul and appropriately, the neighboring town where most of these miners lived, is called Sandstone. Now, water slowly trickles down the sides of these rock faces creating pools of water that fill in pits that were created by sandstone being cut out of them and then further shaped by this steady but extremely slow flow of water. Other side paths include several paths on the south east side of the trail which lead to the rivers edge and several that lead to the various abandoned structures that the miners once worked and lived in including the stone cutting facility, the power house, and the stone crushing room. These structures are mostly now just ruined walls but their shape can still be made out and their impact on the sonic environment which they surround is still very present. A quick walk into the powerhouse tells a story and the sound of your boots stomping through the mud and clay reverberate through the entire chamber. Too many idea to count (or possibly do all of them) rushed to my head after spending a few moments in this chamber. Think it will be a challenge to narrow it down into something that will be enlightening for the audience without going overboard and lessening the overall experience of the park, but that is where the technique comes in, right?

Musical Instincts and years of training don't fail me now!

July 10th. Day 1 at Banning

Today was a day of late starts and great surprises. First, a "meeting" on the 9th with some friends went a bit over. That is to say, until 2:00 in the morning. Though 2 is not what we may have referred to as a late night in the old days, 8 am really hurt (those of you reading this who above age 30 will know what I mean). However, After a quick breakfast and gathering a few extra sundries and borrowing a few more things from my brother Mike, I was on the road. Then quite to my surprise, I received a phone call from a friend of mine in Germany (also one I have not really spent much time with since around 2001), Nina G├╝hlstorff, who announced her intention to come to Chicago next week as the beginning of a three week long vacation starting in Chicago and ending in New Orleans. After lengthy negotiations with the Germans, now their plan is to take a quick detour and fly north to Minnesota where they will join me later this week at Whitewater State Park where I will be doing a preview hike for World Listening Day which will be shot by videographer Jason Schumacher (another German I think?). Nina is an old friend of mine who I met in Krakow, Poland while studying there in 1997 and she is also a theater director who is well established in the German theater. Her husband Hans Gyorg is the dramaturge of the Dresden Opera.

So, that was a nice surprise, as was meeting my friend and fellow composer and violist Chris Chelgren here at Banning upon my arrival. Chris has been very gracious in offering to come out to the parks to help out making noise on some of the days the tour is taking place. Banning is filled with interesting soundscapes and old abandoned mining buildings along the Quarry Loop Trail. It was an active quarry mine until about 1915 and the juxtaposition of the natural sounds of the park and the manipulation of that natural space by man made features provides an incredible variety of sonic spaces as well as really interesting visuals.

Today I got settled in to my new surroundings and did a bit of hiking on various trails including the quarry loop as well as doing a little snooping around in the Sandstone and Hinkley areas.

July 8th 2010 A Week of Meetings.

A few meetings this week. One with Craig Carnihan from the American Composers Forum who administer the Mc Knight Foundation Visiting Composer Fellowship, one with Amy Barrett from the Minnesota DNR, and one with fellow composer and head of the Southern Theater's McKnight Program, Mary Ellen Childs. Each of these meetings and some practical motivation but I was pleasantly surprised that each of them yielded some great ideas related to the hike itself including the possibility of posting a recorded hike on the DNR and McKnight foundation Website as well as posting a video taped preview tour that will occur July 18th on the DNR website. I will post it here as well once it is up.

Other meetings were of a more personal nature and included getting back in touch with many old friends from my Minneapolis days, some of whom I had not seen since around 2001. the last 9 years that I have been a Chicago resident have really flown by, I was pleased to find that even though Minneapolis had changed quite a bit since then, the people I knew had not. That is to say, they are still people from whom I have been able to draw a great deal of inspiration. It was nice to see that even though many of our lives have gone in different directions, the sam enthusiasm for music and life in general that sort of drew us together was still there. On a less tangential note, some of these friends have volunteered to come out to the parks and assist with noise making and various other necessities (like keeping me company) during the run of the actual tours in August and September.

Songpath Begin July 4th 2010.

Riding on the Amtrak from Chicago to Minneapolis and already tuning my brain up for some heavy listening as I watch the landscape gradually change as we cross Wisconsin and then head up the Mississippi river to the twin cities. The train I am on happens to be a part of the "Trails and Rails" initiative. A collaboration between Amtrak and the National Parks. A member of the National Parks Interpretive Program talks in the observation car about the geological and social history of the areas around the Mississippi river and the glacial features that created it. Then, around 9:30 at night, fireworks everywhere! The best place to see a fireworks display is from the observation car of an Amtrak going down the Mississippi. You pretty much see all of them as you go by. Thank goodness no air carriers would let me check all my camping equipment!

My first week will be spent in Minneapolis and then I will head up to Banning to begin intensive listening and planning along the Quarry Loop Trail.

Song Path: What is this?????


First off, you will notice that this post will be immediately followed by a number of posts that are dated before this posting date. That is because due to a mix of lack of internet access and lack of time in the first few days getting ready for my first trip to Banning state park here in Minnesota, I have neglected to post them even though I have been writing down the posts on paper (I know, paper!) as things transpired. This may indeed happen a bit though I will admit, there is really no place on earth (at least in Minnesota) where you are too far from a Wi-Fi connection these days. I am sitting currently in a grocery store cafe in Sandstone MN which is the small town near Banning State Park.

So, I think I need to go into a bit more background about the project in general. Songpath is a project that has been ruminating in my head for about the last 15 or so years. Though I did not realize specifically at first that I was coming up with a concise project idea until sometime in around 2002, I would say that a series of unrelated experiences in the wilderness, as well as a few experiences I had creating various interactive art pieces, really fed in to the final concept. Mostly, I am an avid fan of the out doors and especially hiking in areas where water has somehow cut into and transformed the landscape. My wife Shannon and I take frequent trips in whatever direction seems best weather wise and go for long hikes. We are both attracted to sound (she being a flute player and teacher and me a composer and sound engineer) an of course, we tend to spend long periods of time stopping and listening. I remember a particular experience hiking around Starved Rock State Park in Illinois where we went from one area to the next in which the path led us through rock formations that seemed to form natural reverberation chambers. I thought it would be nice to put musicians in them and perhaps write site specific compositions that highlighted the sonic features of that space and allow the audience to hike from one space to the next. I thought it would be like a multi-movement composition more than a listening walk but thought that the various sounds in the park could be incorporated into the individual compositions in different ways and it could even be a collaborative piece. A quite different idea from the current concept, but still one that informed what I am doing now. Another experience which comes to mind was a time while living in Poland when I traveled to Wielki Wies for a day with some good friends to grill kielbasa, drink Zywiec, and swim in the river. After much of the prior had been done, I spent some time just sitting on the river bank ( more of a stream) throwing rocks into the water and taking note of the sound that each one made as a sort of meditation. I realized that it was not just the sound of the rocks entering the water that impacted the general shape and timbre of each instance, but the space in which all this sound was taking place. Moving down stream into shallow water yielded a very different result and I realized that the sound environment was nearly as important as the rock and the depth and swiftness of the water. In fact, louder sounds would often stimulate a greater range of sound environments and create different kinds of echo than softer ones. Another experience that has attracted me to this project is the general experience of being a sound engineer as well as a composer of electro-acoustic music which I see as inseparable activities. Learning how various rooms have quite different sound reactions and what specific properties exist that create those reactions and how they can be minimized or accentuated has informed everything about my sound art and composition. In fact, most of my current music plays with the idea of manipulating the sound environment in which a performer plays in real time. When I began to listen more deeply on trails I hiked on across the country, I realized that the many static features of each path (wind, running water, bird calls, etc) were constantly being manipulated in the sense that the sound environment in which I was listening was gradually changing as I walked. Sometimes these environments change quite drastically and at other times, extremely gradually over time, but by choosing certain paths and deciding in the moment how fast to walk, when to stop, and what to focus on, I could essentially create my own "musical composition" in my head. The composition had in fact been pre-composed by the natural and man made elements in the park but would change each time depending on what I decided to focus on in each moment and where I chose to walk.

It was this realization that finally caught my interest to focus these disparate ideas into a listen walk called Song Path. I have spent the last several years in and amongst other activities trying to generate interest and support in the idea and finally found my answer here in Minnesota. Thanks to the generous support of the McKnight Foundation and hard work of the staff at the American Composers Forum, I am finally here and I could not have asked for a better and more supportive environment to start the project and cut my teeth as a sound walk artist than in the Minnesota State Parks.

In early 2008, I began inquiring with the parks regarding the idea and was almost immediately referred to Bryce Anderson who was at the time the head of Interpretive Programs for the Minnesota DNR. He almost immediately took to the idea and agreed to write a letter of cooperation that could be used for grant writing purposes. As luck (or destiny?) would have it, I was awarded the McKnight Foundations Visiting Composer Fellowship for 2009-2010 and got straight to work by contacting the regional directors and interpretive directors to narrow down my search for a park to do the project in. I decided to take a trip to Minnesota in mid September of 2009 to hike through a short list of parks (which was about 11 parks long over 4 days!!) and eventually decided on Banning and Whitewater. Banning because of the ease of access and relative ease of walking along the Quarry Loop trail as well as its many extremely interesting sonic features and the very obvious musical arc it created. Whitewater I chose mainly because of the grandiose nature of the Inspiration Point Trail as well as the many natural sonic features the park provides.

The concept of a listening walk is of course, not a new idea. I had heard of composers doing listening walks. I have since starting the project learned that there is an international movement of people interested in what is called Acoustic Ecology who's interest range from using listening to gauge wildlife patters and environmental impacts on various physical and sonic phenomena on wildlife habitats, to strict musical listening exercises. Though my idea did not necessarily stem from having reviewed the history of this movement, it has been enlightening for me to realize there is already an existing history with this activity and that I am not alone in the interest in this type of listening as well as to have a chance to draw on previous work in the field. Especially reading about the work of R Murray Schafer who founded the ISAE and is credited with leading the first sound walks has helped me become more confident in the idea that people will, in fact, follow me into the woods and treat the parks as a musical composition.

The hike itself will begin in a specific trail head in each park and after a short listening meditation, the audience will then follow me around the trail where I will often stop in specific spots to take in particularly interesting juxtapositions and give them an opportunity to re-focus their listening. In both Banning and Whitewater, I will enlist the help of musicians (or a musician depending on the overall need) who will perform very subtly improvisations, often using the rocks, sticks, and water features themselves to accentuate certain features in the park. These musicians are not necessarily there to play mini-concerts as was the intention in earlier ideas, but rather to stimulate the space so the audience can fully hear the hidden features intrinsic to the park.

Wow, that was a long one! Sorry to descend briefly into self indulgent rants, but I thought it was important to share my experience with anyone who will read in hopes that those who come on the hike can compare that experience to their own and perhaps reflect against a history of experience much as I have against the prior experiences of Schafer and others. Both Banning and Whitewater are sure to be ear opening experiences and the few hikes I have already taken around Banning have surprised me in their diversity of results and in just how "musical" a feeling I walk away with after doing each one when in the right frame of mind. I hope that those of you who come will have the same experience.