Monday, July 12, 2010

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.

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