Earlier this summer I taught a Creative Writing Honors class, through the Center for Teaching Development's Spectrum program at Northwestern University. One day I led the students on a soundwalk -- on the Northwestern University campus, and into Lawson Park.
Here are some pedagogical underpinnings that pertained to the soundwalk, and the soundwalk poems that students created after the soundwalk. We talked about ways by which writers can empower their writing, and how their writing can be suffused with vivid imagery and bright language to captivate readers. One way to do that is to consider how images that pertain to each of the five senses can be woven into the fabric of the short stories, poems, and other literary works they are crafting. Mindful that we live in a visual media-obsessed society, focusing on the sense of sound can help us to imbue our writing with scintillating details that engage readers.
We also talked about connections between writing and walking, such as how the flâneur figures into the oeuvres of writers such as Charles Baudelaire. Walking can be marvelous way for a writer to mull over ideas, get inspired by stimuli that one encounters along a walk, step away from work -- and of course there are excellent cardiovascular benefits of walking!
With those things in mind -- and because the weather was so nice -- we went on a soundwalk this morning. We headed north on Sheridan Rd., and passed the Grosse Point Lighthouse and Evanston Art Center. Then we walked into Lawson Park -- along a woodsy trail along a low-lying wall of rocks. Then we stopped at the edge of the beach, and students wrote notes on what they were experiencing.
We walked up to the clearing, and students wrote in the field and playground. Students were invited to pick one or more items from the natural environment (as long as it doesn't involve plucking potted flowers or other aspects of a garden) -- such as a stick, leaf, or small stone.
Then we started to head back to campus. On the way we detoured into the Grosse Point Lighthouse property, along a gravel road by a Jens Jensen-designed waterfall by the Evanston Art Center, and then stopped for a minute behind the lighthouse as an EAC painting class was working on paintings.
We headed southbound on Sheridan, with ambient traffic din and the sounds of red-winged blackbirds and other birds. After lunch students started to write soundwalk poems, gleaning specific words and phrases from what they wrote while on the soundwalk.
Then students created soundwalk poems. Those soundwalk poems included visual elements: paint and typographically arranged lines that moved in straight or curvilinear ways across the page. Students put paint on paper with objects they had gathered (as paintbrushes): tallgrass, flowers, sticks, stones as they combined text with image. Some of the soundwalk poems had calligrammatic qualities, whereas others were akin to concrete poems or vispo.
Here are some good soundwalk-related links:
Here are several examples of students' soundwalk poems --
Polar by Sarah Ritch, for Anaphora members Aurelien Pederzoli, Maria
Ritzenthaler & and Cory Tiffin --
Stephen Rush & Jeremy Edwards --
Microcosmic Sound Orchestra at Elastic --
DG: What were some other early memories of your music education?
RI: When my family moved to Minnesota, I auditioned for the band on piano and the band director stuck me in the percussion section, I think not knowing what to do with me. I was always playing the bass drum and could not figure out what the repeat sign meant so I just played the first down beat and sat there. The funny thing was, he never corrected me! When we moved to a new school district we had a slightly more involved instructor and she told me the big secret I had missed until then. After that, drumming just seemed to come naturally. I basically told my parents I was going to quit music at each milestone of my adolescence (junior high, high school). They wouldn't hear of it. I kept getting into the top bands and picked up drum set, bass guitar, guitar, because I thought it was cool.
DG: Who are some of your musical influences?
RI: Early on I was really influenced by a mixed bag of pop electronic music (Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails) and then on the other hand, a slew of film composers (John Williams, Woicech Kilar, Jerry Goldsmith), and then I wanted to become a film composer. Then I wanted to make musicals but not ones that were dumb, until I realized that that was almost a paradox. Then I discovered George Crumb and decided I wanted to be just like him. After that, I think I really took a little bit from everything I was exposed to and was really drawn to the Polish composers of the 20th century.
DG: Which Polish composers were you particularly drawn to?
RI: Especially Penderecki, but also Kilar and Gorecki. I would say that the music coming out of Poland from about 1950 on was really what had the biggest impact on me and I actually went to Krakow to study for a couple of years. I think that in hindsight that Lutoslawski was really the big influence on me because he is kind of the father of that school, and I kind of fell in with both sides having had lessons with Penderecki as well as composers in the "opposing" camp of the Krakow Conservatory. I would say now a days I actually identify much more with the opposing camp that sprung from the rift between Penderecki and Boguslaw Sheffer. My main teacher and really mentor while I was there was Marek Choloniewski, who was a student of Sheffer. At the same time I was studying orchestration and composition with one of Penderecki's closest colleagues and friends Zbignew Bujarski. From these two, I would say I was set on the path toward finding my voice as a composer and sound artist. I think Cage is really starting to have more and more profound of an influence on my work as well but that kind of goes with the territory of talking about the Polish school who were also quite impacted by Cage's work.
DG: What's an early memory you have of composing music?
RI: Somewhere around my senior year I wrote my first composition for concert band. I really loved the process and I guess I felt it was a bit of an ego trip for me at the time to be able to sit in a public space and write notes down on paper and make people think I was much more gifted than I actually was. After all, orchestrating for high school band is mostly just writing the same notes in different voices so once you have the basic model it is pretty easy to do away from the keyboard. Anyways, it impressed girls in a nerdy sort of way. From then, I guess I was pretty much hooked.
DG: How did your interest in music composition develop when you went to college?
RI: When I found out that at my undergrad I could actually get a Bachelors of Music in Composition and not have to take a bunch of the core academic classes, it was over -- I was determined to be a composer. But seriously, I really just fell in love with the process of developing musical structures and seeing them through to completion and performance. I guess it really just became an obsession.
DG: What are some things that you like about the music scene in Chicago?
RI: It is growing. It has lots of potential. And it is a place where I think things have room to grow. It used to be that people would start out here, then leave and never return. Now people start out here, leave, but then come back and maintain important relationships and ties here.
DG: What kinds of work do you do with Eighth Blackbird?
RI: I am their touring sound engineer and once in a while am billed as a sound designer when I have a slightly more creative role in developing a program. But in general, I support collaborations they are doing with other composers. I have learned quite a bit working with them both as a composer and as a sound engineer. I do the same in Chicago for International Contemporary Ensemble.
DG: I thought your performance during the 2009 Chicago Calling Arts Festival was fantastic. Would you describe what you did? How did that collaboration come together?
RI: I was asked to do a collaboration to provide music for a gallery opening of Swiss Photographer Ester Vomplon at the Post Family by my friend Erica Dicker. Ester had done some field recordings related to the photo exhibit of Croatian Children dancing and singing and talking. I loved the way they sounded and used them as part of the collaboration. For the Chicago Calling festival, I decided to use the field recordings Esther gave me to do a sort of remote collaboration between her sounds, my processes, and the church.
DG: The festival in the Jennifer Norback Gallery was interesting. How did you get involved with that?
RI: That was a mix of having talked with Sarah Ritch of Anaphora whose festival that in fact was and having discussed the idea of a sound installation with JNFA. It just so happened the Anaphora was planning to do part of their festival there and it just seemed to make sense.
DG: WIn 2010 you were an artist-in-residence Minnesota's Banning State Park. What did you do during that residency?
RI: I was listening to the park intensely, and trying to make some kind of musical structure out of a hike during which I tried to guide my audience to listen to the sounds present in the park as well as using musicians to stimulate hidden sonic features such as reverb and strange echo effects that exist because of particular features of the park. The project was called Songpath, for the past 12 years or so I'd been developing that project, especially when hiking.
Songpath was a kind of like a real in depth analysis of the park itself. I spent a lot of time planning and listening, which culminated in performances which took place in summer 2010 -- in Banning and Whitewater, Minnesota. I kept a blog about all of this at songpath.blogspot.com. But to summarize, Songpath was a compositionally guided sound walk where a mix of natural and manmade sounds were used to make a musical arc out of a hike. I spent a lot of time noticing how one's position in a sonic space can be use as a kind of two-dimensional mixing board in that just moving a few feet can really change the perspective or "mix" of all the sounds you hear.
DG: In 2010 you participated in World Listening Day. What did you do on WLD?
RI: I did a preview tour of Songpath at Whitewater, which Marc Sanchez from Minnesota Public Radio recorded and my friend Jason Schumacher shot a short video document of the project. A few of my friends from Germany who happened to be in town were there, as well as a few others. It was exciting to add the recording to the annals of all the listening and field recording happening on that day. It was great to listen to what was going on around the world on World Listening Day, and other others' experiences compared with the ones I've developed. It is always really interesting to see what others are drawn to and what the focus on in a sound environment.
DG: Also in 2010 you developed Train Time. What was involved with that project?
RI: For Train Time I collaborated with composers Shawn Decker and Olivia Block. It was curated, edited and mixed by Lou Mallozzi, and it took place at the J. Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park.
DG: I heard about your project Reparametrization. What went into that?
RI: Reparametrization was a series of pieces for single instruments and real-time electronic manipulation -- a composition for trombone which I wrote for Steve Parker. Parker later performed that at the International Trombone Festival in Austin.
joyce-textorized by Max Froumentin. This image is being used
with permission from the artist.
The Borderbend Arts Collective is inviting individuals and organizations to contribute to “Bloomsday 2012 & Ulysses’ 90th,” an international project that celebrates Bloomsday 2012 and the 90th anniversary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce. Please send an email to Ulysses90th@gmail.com with Bloomsday 2012 in the subject line if you are interested in contributing to “Bloomsday 2012 & Ulysses’ 90th” -- such as visual or literary responses to Ulysses, sound art inspired by Ulysses, or other kinds of contributions and collaborations. Updates regarding the Bloomsday 2012 project will be posted on bloomsday2012.org and other TBA websites and blogs.
Thelonious Monk is one of my favorite jazz artists. There's an amazing interview with Charlie Rouse in Straight, No Chaser about his relationship with Monk. In the interview Rouse says, "We’d start out and we’d do a take, and usually we’d take the first take. Sometimes we’d take the second, but never the third, because once you play it the first time, that’s the way the feeling and everything is, and after that it starts going downhill. So it’s more like a challenge when you do it that way. You know that you got to play it correctly the first or second time, or that’s it. He would take it anyhow. If you mess up, well, that’s it, you know. That’s your problem. You would have to hear that the rest of your life."
I love how Rouse's statement captures the immediacy and importance of being mindful in music -- such as how improvisation fits into the context of jazz. Here's "Take," a splice poem I wrote which uses part of that interview with Rouse (originally published in Edgz magazine) --
The third annual World Listening Day happens on July 18th. Here's an article I wrote about last year's WLD, which appears on the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology website.