Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Symphony for Wood, Wind, and Phantom Bells: Abbey Aresty's "Paths II: The Music of Trees" in the University of Washington Arboretum

The Washington Park Arboretum is, besides a place to see the beauty of trees and other plants, a place of unexpected soundscapes. Twice before I’ve run across auditory surprises (more on those at the end of this posting) – this time, however, the sounds were expected but surprising nonetheless.

I say “expected” because I’d gone there specifically to experience these sounds (“It’s experiential music,” said another listener, punning on “experimental”). I’d been at the Arboretum a couple of days previously on a guided tour, and heard about it then – and a friend had e-mailed me the next day about it. Always intrigued by the intersection of art and nature (which is God’s art), I went.

“The Music of Trees” is a doctoral dissertation in composition by Abby Aresty. It consists of seven installations (or one very large-scale one); sounds repeated in a loop from speakers hidden in trees at various “stations” around the north end of the Arboretum. Sometimes there are additional visual or sound-producing elements as well.

When you listen in a space long enough, you begin to cross thresholds. Your perspective shifts. In a quiet environment you can hear softer and softer sounds as your focus gradually intensifies. And if you listen carefully for a long enough period of time, you are bound to experience countless instances of natural musicality. Sometimes you will stumble into them unexpectedly.” – from Ms. Aresty’s notes for the project. I couldn’t have explained it any better, even for my own projects…

The first station is in two weird Camperdown elms (a cross-section of one of them is the logo for the project.). The twisted and writhing branches of these trees bend in such a way as to give the entire tree the shape of a giant canned straw mushroom, or perhaps the nose-cone of an antique fighter plane (recalling Harry Partch’s “cone gongs” – perfect for a sound installation). Camperdown elms assume other, equally bizzare shapes. These trees do not occur in nature; they are made by hybrid grafting of mutant (really!) branches – and Ms. Aresty has added another artificial element. On close inspection, there are several clear plastic tubes laced around and through the branches. Until one hears the sounds, this would appear to be a comment on the origin of these “Franken-trees” – the tubes bear a resemblance to medical catheters – but there is no sense of disquiet or discomfort here, due to the sounds that are present. The trees are filled with delicate, whispered chords, almost imperceptible against the background of wind. This music (which has a decidedly metallic timbre) is based on processed recordings of wind made at this very location, and it gives the impression both of more wind, and of twisting auditory “branches” to match the living branches of the trees.

Like me, Ms. Aresty seems to find that music made from metallic sounds (gongs, piano with the pedal down) is the most evocative of natural sound. In my case, it is the long, lingering reverberations that die away into silence, that suggest both wide and open spaces and the surrounding echoes that one hears in a forest as any distant sound bounces off the myriad tree trunks. The second station is based on a similar idea. Water sounds – sounding from high in a cedar tree next to a little pond – are transformed suddenly into quite different water sounds, and then into a metallic drone; into a different metallic drone, and then back to water sounds. The entire “cycle” lasts about six minutes, then it all repeats. Again, the sounds were made from processed recordings of the same location – though I couldn’t hear the pond making any particular sound, so this could be regarded as an amplification of what is otherwise inaudible.

The third station (which was hard to find) brought back the idea of artificiality –the plastic tubes were present again in the branches fringing a seemingly hollowed out part of another cedar tree, and the sounds were based on (besides rain, again) a lawnmower. Again, the sounds were processed and not really recognizable from their sources, and this time I became aware of the meaning of the tubes. The sounds were coming out of their open ends. They were obviously attached to speakers at the other end, hidden somewhere in the tree…

The fourth station was based on rain in the forest, and provided a shimmering pointillism of rustling and distant gongs, echoing spaciously from several trees. Quite lovely.

If the third station recalled the first, the fifth recalled the second. Here again were otherwise inaudible sound (in this case, flies walking across a contact microphone) processed to give it the timbre of a cymbal or tam-tam, sounding from a speaker high in a tree. There were also strange creaturely rustling and chuckling noises. To me it gave the impression of a gigantic set of wind-chimes, large enough so that the wind could only give them the faintest of nudges (this is an imperfect metaphor, since there were scraped-gong sounds as well) – yet somehow it all sounded as if it were part of the ambient soundscape.

With the sixth station, I entered the world of interactive music. A number of short trees, leafless at the human level, were hung with a web of cording, from which were suspended ten or so seed-pods (probably from the same trees) and an equal number of half-dollar sized metal finger-cymbals. This appeared at first to be merely an added visual element to the installation, but the finger-cymbals invited playing. I picked up a stick from the ground and struck the nearest one. The sound rang out, a surprisingly loud (but very tiny) ping! in the forest – and it blended perfectly with the prerecorded sound. I tried the others; all rang out similarly. The seed-pods made no audible sound. What of the prerecorded sound? Again, it was highly amplified bell-like shimmering, processed from (otherwise inaudible) dropping dried flower petals, probably onto a contact mike. “All the bells quiver in the light; light and therefore life.” – Olivier Messiaen. In this case, the bells quivered in the half-light of the tree-shade, and the sounds, of flowers, indicated the brevity of individual life of earth, and the continuity of life in a collective sense.

Finally, the seventh and last station was on the edge of what Ms. Aresty called the “outside world”; the world of traffic and other human-sound outside of the arboretum. The prerecorded sounds (from birdsong and a bicycle going by) were abstracted, unrecognizable – but they were not as continuous or ambient as those of the previous stations. They blended with the intermittent rumbles and roars of cars going by. I sat on the bench and listened to this and (at Ms. Aresty’s suggestion in the accompanying flier) the voices of people walking by on the footpath – and found myself drawn back into the everyday world, away from this oasis of tranquility.

After seeing an installation such as this, one is tempted to search for meanings. The flier provided some, certainly: the interaction of natural and man-made sound, the many layers of the arboretum's soundscape, an “exercise in silent reflection” which was both for the observer and the composer making the recordings that formed the basis for the whole composition. I would add some others, akin to those of my own “StormSound” music (though I don’t know if any of these were intended in this case). 1. The interaction of man and the environment (not just the sounds) – the tubes in the Camperdown Elms were a potent symbols of how we’ve messed with nature in not always benevolent ways. (There is, of course, the Biblical mandate to “subdue the earth”, but I think this is to make it bloom, not to obliterate it with pesticides, pollution and resultant global warming, and millions of miles of concrete). …And one could note, of course, that the arboretum itself is actually an artificial environment, no matter how “natural” it appears on the surface. 2. (Suggested by the occasional seeming discord) the hint that nature doesn't seem quite "right" anyway – something on planet earth seems to have “gone off” somehow (I won’t go into “evolution vs. creation” here – that's the silliest debate that's ever been voiced). Predators, parasites, viruses, and ghastly diseases exist, and are certainly not artificial; and we all know that vague sense of unease we can sometimes (though not always) experience in a natural place, regardless of the surrounding beauty. 3. Despite all of this, there is simply the aesthetic sense that trees, bark, leaves, flowers, and the sounds that they make as the wind blows through them, are often spellbindingly beautiful.

Paths II: The Music of Trees will run in the Washington Park Arboretum in October, Wednesdays from 3:00 to 6:00 PM, and weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) from 10:30 AM to 1:30 PM.

Other surprising soundscapes at the arboretum:

A couple of years ago, on a very hot day in August, I happened by the grove of walnut trees. They were filled with a continuous (and strangely musical) crackling and popping, like a simultaneous sound-infusion of irregular drumming, leaves crunching underfoot, and a monumental kettle of popcorn. I immediately stopped and looked for the source, which seemed to be from every direction – and found a bunch (herd? flock?) of squirrels – at least ten in each tree. Apparently the walnuts crack open in the heat, and the squirrels have a feast.

Now this one caught me completely off-guard. About a month ago there was a recreational tree-climbing tournament in several tall deciduous trees at the north end of the arboretum. (I didn’t even know such a sport existed until I happened upon it!) Of course I asked if I could give it a try, which they let me, but I couldn’t get more than a foot off the ground using the ropes they’d provided. Anyway (and more fitting to this blog, which is about sound), one of the games was to climb to certain places in a big-leaf maple and ring bells that had been hung there. When I returned later in the day, three people were high in the tree, taking the bells down – and their “pastoral” ringing (like the cowbells in the bucolic moments of the Mahler Sixth and Seventh) against the swish of wind in the leaves and the echo of distant resounding Euro-beat techno music from a wedding party in the nearby reception hall produced an unforgettable aleatory ambient composition. I only wish I’d had my little digital recorder with me.

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