The Hills Are Alive…: “Wild Fruits” Creative Soundscapes Project
Institutional Associate Professor, University of Guelph
As a composer, I have long been sensitive to the natural world. Growing up in British Columbia, within easy range of the Rocky Mountains, the sense of awe I have felt while hiking in the wilderness there and elsewhere underlies the creative energy that fuels my compositional aesthetic and identity. A full realization of this connection, however, took some years to coalesce, and along the way, I struggled to find ways to give musical shape to this sensibility. The fullest manifestation of it to date has been the Wild Fruits project, a series of multi-channel electroacoustic compositions that take as their primary material environmental recordings from a variety of natural locations.
One of the first compositional manifestations of “soundscape,” connecting musical intent to natural sound, was A Walk in the Park, a partially improvised electronic work presented during my undergraduate studies at Western Washington University in the early 1980s. A complex “patch” on an E-Mu modular synthesizer produced a sound resembling the burbling of a creek. Various filters, oscillators, amplifiers, and random voltage generators were able to be adjusted in real-time to vary the sonic result, and this was enhanced by live improvisation using various wooden flutes and other instruments to evoke birds and other sounds of nature.
The opportunity to experiment with the synthesizers and other equipment in the electronic music studio was extremely valuable for developing a sensibility for the various parameters of sound. This experience would have a direct impact on my creative aesthetic when I then embarked on compositional activity in a more focused way.
In 1982, I moved to London, UK, to pursue advanced study in composition at the Royal Academy of Music. I had no access to electronic music equipment there, so I turned my attention to acoustic composition. There, I came across a book that would resonate deeply with me: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. This is a journal of a yearlong cycle of living in nature; her ability to articulate, among other reflections, the awe-full-ness of the natural world strongly connected with the environmental wellspring of my own creative expression. I often thought of setting Dillard’s text to music, but somehow, I couldn’t get past the sense that turning her words into melodies would diffuse rather than intensify their impact.
At a certain point in my compositional development, in the mid-1980s in London, I began working on a music project I called Memories of a Landscape. The initial idea was to “translate” into music some images of the lake, hills, mountains of the Okanagan/Monashee area where I had grown up. With no access to appropriate technology, I wasn’t thinking of electroacoustic composition at that point, so the sketches were aimed at music for instruments. One of the main processes that I ended up working with was to adapt the layered contours of the landscape as one might view looking down a valley into layered musical contours — a form of counterpoint. My first attempt at this was a draft for five orchestras, the separated ensembles intended to make the contours more distinct, timbrally and spatially; this was eventually transmuted into Memories of a Landscape II (1988) for string ensemble (first performed by Thirteen Strings in Ottawa). A related work was Kekula (Memories of a Landscape III) for orchestra, composed in 1992 (premiered by the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra).
Gradually, my concerns shifted from “translating” landscape into sound toward a more abstract approach. The connection to nature remained, but it took the form of applying mathematical algorithms that model the chaotic or nonlinear behavior of natural phenomena to music (Harley 1995). Titles of works composed using such methods continued to reference nature: Windprints (1989) for orchestra, Night-flowering… not even sand (1990) for bassoon and electronics, Daring the Wilderness (1991) for percussion ensemble, Old Rock (1996) for orchestra, etc.
Access to computer music technology in the 1990s opened up the possibility for creating and processing sound again, as I had done earlier with analog technology. The first work in which I used actual recorded sound (rather than synthesized material) was Spangled (1996), a short piece primarily built upon looped samples of Jimi Hendrix playing Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. To frame the sonic intensity of the electric guitar sound, I included some birdsong recording from a natural setting, cross-synthesized with the guitar sound to provide a transition from the one to the other (and back again at the end). I went further with Jardinages (2000), which is built upon several layers of rain-forest sounds, highly processed, along with short samples from music by Toru Takemitsu and Olivier Messiaen (both strongly influenced by nature), and a synthesized version of the chorale from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. On Frogs (2000) was an experimental work combining manipulated loops of frog sounds with a processed voice part performed live.
3. Wild Fruits
In 2001, I came across the final manuscript of Henry David Thoreau, recently discovered and published for the first time. Wild Fruits is a journal of observations of the natural environment Thoreau lived in, organized as a series of dated entries on the wild fruits (and other edibles, including nuts and roots) he observed in his daily perambulations. The entries were added over several years, somewhat haphazardly, but organized into chapters that each focus on a particular fruit. The writing is quirky, sometimes digressive, but mostly factual, based on acute readings of evolving conditions as he found them. As with Dillard’s book, this publication is highly representative of Thoreau’s identity as a North American writer, strongly rooted in the natural world surrounding him (and her). It occurred to me that with soundscape recordings to evoke the vivid and detailed images of nature that both writers conjure, I could find a way to draw upon both Dillard’s and Thoreau’s texts within the context of musical composition.
In 2002, with the support of a Composer Fellowship grant from the McKnight Foundation in Minnesota (where I was teaching at the time), I was able to outfit myself with portable recording equipment and embark on a parallel process to that of Dillard and Thoreau, making recorded “observations” of sounds in nature as I found them in various places I visited. These recordings ranged from the pre-dawn mating calls of Prairie Chickens to waves lapping the pebbled shore of a wilderness lake to the creaking of an old tree in a windstorm. The creative work I embarked upon was to set spoken fragments of text drawn from these two authors into composed soundscapes sculpted from the audio recordings I gathered.
I chose to produce multi-channel works, in order to better immerse the listener in the audio environments. As well, the layers of complex textures are more clearly streamed for auditory perception when they are separated in space. Along the way, I also thought of adding visual and performative elements—slideshow, actor, musician—to enhance the live experience of listening to this music.
Wild Fruits: Prologue (2004) was originally conceived as six-channel sound, with an optional version that removed the recorded spoken excerpts of the Dillard text to enable them to be performed onstage by an actress. The piece was later remixed to eight channels, and a slideshow added. This work incorporates spoken excerpts from both Thoreau and Dillard (recorded by friends from theatre), and one of the underlying sonic layers includes a Thoreau text fragment granulated and stretched to last 16 minutes, the duration of the work, using granular synthesis. This sonority provides a somewhat stable “centre” to the textures that are otherwise full of wind sounds and birds (primarily Prairie Chickens and Wild Turkeys, recorded near Buffalo River State Park in Minnesota). There are several layers of processed wind sounds that sometimes overlap and sometimes succeed other sounds, to create an evolving texture overall. The bird sounds are discrete and appear intermittently (in an early version of the work, these sounds were triggered live by student performers surrounding the audience).
Wild Fruits 2: Like a ragged flock, like pulverized jade (2006) actually uses no recognizable spoken text from Thoreau or Dillard. There is, as in the Prologue, an underlying layer of Thoreau, granulated and stretched. The title incorporates two fragments from Dillard. This piece, again mixed to eight-channel sound, adds an amplified alto flute to the soundscape sonorities. This flute part is improvised, guided by two elements: 1) a low drone that is heard at the opening (and that is also present at the end of the Prologue, in case the pieces are performed together); 2) four text excerpts from Dillard. These guiding text fragments refer to the movement of birds and the creek, primarily, and these themes are reflected in the soundscape material, being based primarily on water sounds and massed birdsong (the dawn chorus, etc.). The piece divides itself roughly into two parts, the first being built mainly from layers of processed water sounds (running water from creeks, primarily), the second featuring the birds. The texture is rich, but somewhat static, to provide “room” for the live performer to situate herself within the soundscape as it unfolds. (While others have performed this piece, it was conceived for the particular abilities of my friend and colleague at the University of Guelph, Ellen Waterman.)
Wild Fruits 3: Chestnut (2008) is based much more extensively on recorded text, drawn primarily from Thoreau. The soundscape materials, again mixed to eight-channel presentation, incorporate more discrete sounds, including footsteps, evoking Thoreau’s walks through the countryside around his home. There is no live performance element in this work, but the intent is to add a video element, based on looped and processed imagery from primarily forest locations.
The soundscape materials, gathered from a great variety of source locations, have been liberally manipulated in the studio. My aim has been to explore the creative potential of these sounds in a personal way, while retaining a connection to the environments from which they come. I am particularly interested in combining sounds and layering them, to create rich tapestries of sonic imaginings. The texts, for the most part poetic or aphoristic language, are included to expand the frames of reference and to set up resonances for listeners’ imagination as sparks of connection may be drawn and evoke different responses according to one’s background and experience. One hope is that listeners may develop an increased sensitivity to the richness of natural soundscapes, and perhaps an increased awareness of the need to protect the environments that produce these sounds.
Wild Fruits: Installation (2004) is a related project intended for more direct educational use. A number of birdsong (and other) samples were prepared and loaded into a sampler that could be triggered individually or in combination from a MIDI keyboard controller. The keys can be labeled with the names of the birds and other creatures originating the sounds, and students can play the key to hear the assigned sound that goes with the label. As part of the installation, a background soundscape was prepared, to run continuously (based on creek and wind sounds, primarily). This provides an aural environment within which the sampled sounds can be heard as they are triggered. The aim of the project (first implemented for the Minnesota State University Science Center at Buffalo River State Park) is to help to familiarize students with the sounds of various birds common to the region (initially prepared for the Midwest) so that they might be able to identify the birdsong when out for a walk through nature. In addition, users are free to “perform” with the sampled sounds, to combine them and create their own birdsong choirs or other sonic adventures with the given materials.
The first extension to this personal approach to soundscape composition came in 2007 with Ariel Fragments. This work is scored for women’s choir and eight-channel electroacoustic sound. The occasion was the “Shakespeare in Canada Festival,” which took place over six months in Guelph that year. The choir parts use fragments of text from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, all taken from the Ariel character. The voices are subdivided into three groups, to be separated in performance in order that the at-times independent strands of music be heard more distinctly. The music is shaped from modal materials, to set it into the Renaissance context that the text dates from, and also to connect the voices to recorded fragments of music by Ferrabosco (a composer active around the time of Shakespeare) performed on a lyre viol. The soundscape element is otherwise made up of processed material derived from thunderstorm, bonfire, ocean waves, wind, and lakeshore sounds. Much use is made of comb filters to “tune” the natural sounds to match the tonal centres of the notated musical elements.
A second project, in process, involves amplified bass clarinet, performing partially notated and partially improvised music. The clarinetist interacts with a laptop performer, who manipulates the sound from the instrument (including spatialization effects within an eight-channel sound distribution) and triggers soundscape elements produced from materials gathered during a trip to Northern India.
The Wild Fruits project and its ongoing extensions have enabled me to connect in a very direct way my formal musical concerns and my interest in soundscape composition, deriving from a long-held wish to find a way to express in sound my deeply felt aesthetic/spiritual connection to the natural world.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974.
Harley, James. “Generative Processes in Algorithmic Composition: Chaos and Music.” Leonardo 28/3 (1995), pp. 221–224.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1999. Wild Fruits. New York: W. W. Norton.