Listening to the Ice With Cheryl Leonard

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Cheryl Leonard has quickly become an artist in ‘must hear’ territory. Her sonic landscapes are intricate and engaging, inviting listeners into strange, often delicate spaces, where the unfamiliar is simultaneously challenging to our perceptions and comforting. Her latest work, Antarctica: Music from the Ice, is essential. Borne from recordings captured during 2009 when Leonard lived and worked at Palmer Research Station for five weeks as part of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, it’s unlike anything else I’ve heard. It’s as musically interesting as its stories, processes, and meanings. It’s hard to understate just how special it is.

Cheryl Leonard can be found via her website and BandcampAntarctica: Music From the Ice is out now on Other Minds

Additionally, I am excited to premiere the video for this performance of “Latitudes” via Other Minds, which can be found below.

Composer and instrument-builder Cheryl Leonard joins Latitudes curator Blaine Todd Other in the Marin Headlands near San Francisco in January 2021 for an interview and performances of her works “Unstable Material” and “Schism.” The Latitudes video series features artists from the San Francisco Bay in conversation about their work and in site-specific musical performances.

Before we talk about the Antarctica project, I would love to know what some of your earliest memories are related to sound. Are there any particular environmental or day-to-day sounds you remember from when you were younger? Maybe something that caught your attention and stuck with you…

I grew up in rural Western Wisconsin. My family didn’t live on a farm, but our house sat on two acres of land surrounded by dairy farms, and my childhood was filled with local adventures during which I rambled all over our neighbors’ cow pastures. There was great hiking and sledding to be had in those pastures, plus intriguing “finds” for young explorers, including fossilized shells (embedded in limestone) and old, wrecked cars. Most of the sounds I remember from my early childhood relate to spending time outdoors in this landscape of low, rolling hills that had been ground down by glaciers long ago: cows mooing, crickets on humid summer nights, the squeak and crunch of boots on snow and ice in really cold temperatures (like -20° F!). Those frigid snow and ice sounds remain super vivid. On weekdays in the winter, my brothers and I had to walk out to the end of our driveway and wait for the school bus in the half-light of early morning. That part of Wisconsin used to be colder and receive much more snow than it does now, so sometimes we stood out in blizzards. After I moved to San Francisco, I really missed snow and proper winters. Perhaps my childhood pre-disposed me to have an affinity for the polar regions.

How did these experiences relate to first discovering and listening to music?

During my elementary school years, I took piano lessons and sang in church choirs. I later played flute in junior and senior high school and played guitar in a cover band. I don’t remember specifically connecting natural sounds with music in my younger years. That simply wasn’t on my radar yet. Although I received solid foundational music training as a child, I wasn’t exposed to experimental music until I reached college. Even then, the most out-there stuff I heard was better-known 20th-century classical (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez, etc.) and electronic/electroacoustic music (Babbitt, Stockhausen, Varese, etc.), and indie rock. I did start composing my own piano music somewhere around 3rd grade. I often didn’t like the pieces I was asked to learn for my lessons, so in lieu of practicing, I improvised and wrote down my own music. I think in the back of a closet somewhere, I still have the score to an early composition titled “Flight of the Dragon.”

What eventually led you to create your own pieces with various objects and explore natural sounds in your work?

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco and then (in the mid-90s) simultaneously fell in with the noise music scene and went to graduate school at Mills College that the definition of music really expanded for me. I learned about extended techniques for playing normal instruments, and that found objects (anything!!!) could become instruments. I was introduced to Merzbow and Borbetomagus on the one hand and Cage and Scelsi on the other. I started playing with contact microphones and recorded with others in both bedroom and professional studios. 

We used to have “Neighborhood Clean Up” nights in San Francisco when people placed their unwanted junk out on the sidewalk, and in the morning, the city hauled it away. These were festive, much-anticipated events for my noise-music friends and I. Each time one came along, we merrily scurried out after dark to sift through the piles in search of new “instruments.” For a while, I was into playing a boxspring mattress I acquired one of these evenings. All the fabric had been removed, and only the metal frame and springs were left. It had fabulous built-in reverb! 

As playing and improvising on random manmade objects, often amplified via contact microphones and cheap guitar amps, became part of my musical practice, I simultaneously rediscovered my love of camping, hiking, and generally exploring natural environments. I took up backpacking and then mountaineering and rock climbing so that I could access wilder and more remote locales. On these adventures, I frolicked through along beaches, through forests, and up mountains. I also listened. The carabiners on my climbing harness jangled accompaniments to my movements, crampons crunched satisfactorily in névé (snow), an ice tool striking trust-worthy ice sounded completely different from one hitting rotten ice. Sometimes I would kick a rock accidentally and notice it rang with a lovely pitch, making me want to throw it in my pack and bring it home. 

One day I was doing some free improv with my friend John Blue up in a forested bit of the Berkeley Hills. He was playing cello, and I had my viola. From normal tones to extended techniques, we wandered around musically until, in one of those magical eureka moments, one of us (I don’t remember who) started bowing random bits of the forest. Bark, sticks, lichen, moss, leaves, and so on – we tried everything we could, giggling all the while. Most of it didn’t sound particularly good, but we had tremendous fun, and, well, a seed was planted (haha!). Shortly after that (circa 2002), I wrote a concert proposal in which I proffered a new composition for string quartet and tree materials. My proposal was accepted and, together with three friends, I began developing Instruments in Trees. The tree materials were so fun to play and full of varied and intriguing voices that the piece ended up being mostly sounds from pinecones, branches, leaves, etc., and very few sounds from the stringed instruments. After that project, I felt like there was more to explore with natural-object instruments, so I kept working with them. Twenty years later, I’m still not bored.

This is probably a little obvious, but one thing I’m always taken with when it comes to your work is how transformative it is. So how did the Antarctica project start, and how did you find yourself at Palmer Research Station? How did your interest in traveling to Antarctica first start?

Antarctica was a kind of holy grail of wilderness to me. As an explorer of wild places, of course I wanted to go there! But for a long time, the continent was financially and logistically out of reach for me. Around the time I graduated from Mills College (with an MA in music composition), I heard about the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which sent a handful of artists down to the continent each year to make work about Antarctica and the science happening there. I read through the application guidelines, and it was immediately clear to me that there was no way I would be selected, as, fresh out of school, I had very little experience or prestige. I did my best to forget about Antarctica and got on with my life.

Close to a decade later, guitarist and improviser Henry Kaiser went to Antarctica via the AAW Program, and I started to hear people in my local scene talk about his trip. A mutual friend, Larry Ochs (of ROVA Saxophone Quartet), was familiar with my natural-object music and suggested that I apply. I took another look at those daunting application guidelines. This time around, I had amassed enough experience to have a shot at getting the award, so I went for it. Henry suggested I apply to go to Palmer Research Station because of the abundance of wildlife on the Peninsula, the smaller size of the station (McMurdo Station is like a small city), and the opportunity to have more freedom to move around independently there. I labored on that application for nearly a year, and after it was submitted, I felt like I had written another Master’s thesis. Happily, my application was successful, and in the fall of 2008, I packed my bags for Antarctica. 

I can only imagine how many hours of field recordings you returned with. How did you approach sifting through all the material so that you could start to compose and compile the Antarctica: Music from the Ice album? 

Very methodically, I listened back to all of my Antarctic field recordings and entered them into a written log. For each recording, I listed out duration, location, microphones used, and sounds included. Then I made comments on specific sections that were interesting to me or unusable. As I went through, I starred my favorites: ones with inherently musical elements like bits of melody or striking rhythmic patterns or just felt unique and compelling. Some of these were begging to be developed into compositions, and others I eventually included in my Antarctic field recording album, Chattermarks.

Did you have a framework in mind after the trip, or was this something that began to form as you listened to the recordings and investigated the tonal qualities of the objects you brought back?

I did not have a plan for the formal structure of the album as a whole other than the sound source (field recordings + Antarctic natural-object instruments) and thematic (environments and ecosystems, climate change, and scientific research) parameters I laid out in my original proposal. Instead, I let each composition develop via whatever process felt most appropriate for that individual work.

There were certain climate change stories I knew I wanted to embed in the music, such as the localized extinction of Adélie penguins, changes to water circulation patterns in the Southern Ocean, and the retreat of tidewater glaciers on the Peninsula. These themes, together with specific instrumental sounds, were jumping-off points for Oceanus Meridiem, Greater than 20 Knots, White on White, and Fluxes. Other compositions grew organically out of specific field recordings that really stood out as gems to me. Lullaby for E Seals, Ablation Zone, and Point Eight Ice began this way, and the instrumental parts emerged from, and then dialogued with, the field recordings. The spark for Meltwater, which is both the longest track on the album and the one with the greatest dynamic range, came from a sound I thought I heard but was unable to capture in a field recording: water dripping in layers of melodic and rhythmic patterns inside a wall of melting glacial ice. In an effort to re-create this probably-half-imagined sound, I went so far as to acquire a large collection of scientific glassware and figure out how to fabricate icicles in my freezer. 

I absolutely love the booklet that comes with the album, especially the photos. I have stared at that photo of the instruments you fashioned from the stones, bones, etc., and would love to hear a little more about how you figured out what objects to use to construct specific instruments/shapes to get certain tonal qualities.

To start, I had to discover what kinds of sounds each object could emit. I put on my mad-scientist hat, tried to summon a musical beginner’s mind, and experimented with ways to produce sounds using the raw objects: penguin bones, limpet shells, small rock slabs, and a handful of penguin nesting stones. As my palette of sonic raw materials was quite limited, I tried out a wide range of techniques while I searched for sounds I might like to use: tapping, bowing, brushing, wobbling, blowing through, pulling string across, and so forth. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of feeling free to try things that seem silly, stupid, or unlikely to work. Often these attempts fail (by producing horrible sounds or simply no sound at all), but once in a while, they yield incredible results! 

After I had a sense of the range of voices each object could produce, I identified specific sounds I wanted to use in my compositions – ones that could blend nicely with, or stand in contrast to, my favorite field recordings. Then I considered what I could do to improve the quality of these sounds and how I could make the objects easier to play. Often what worked best was to suspend, clamp, or otherwise mount objects. I used local (Californian) driftwood as mounting material because it was easy to work with, readily available, and weathered into bone-like shapes that appealed to me visually.

For instruments comprised of sets of objects, I sometimes selected and physically arranged the bones and shells based on their sonic qualities. For example, the shells in the Limpet Shell Spine form a pitched scale. In other instances, instrument assembly was guided more by the visual size and shape of the objects. In the Coracoids instrument, mitten/hand-shaped bones reach up from the driftwood base. I only had five of these particularly-shaped bones to work with, so I used them all. I wasn’t able to properly play these bones until they were mounted (I wanted to bow them), so I had to build this instrument first and then later uncover its voices and decide which ones to use in my music.

I should also mention that microphone selection – exactly how I amplify the quiet acoustic sounds these instruments produce – is another key part of shaping the timbre of each instrumental sound. For both recording and performing, I use a range of contact mics, hydrophones, and small-diaphragm condenser mics, and these mics color the sounds they amplify in different ways. 

It’s mentioned that once you had built these instruments, you used a notational system to map the timbres and resonances of these objects. Can you tell me more about the system you created for that? I kept hoping there was a picture of one of the pieces in the booklet!

As an aid to composing, and in order to rehearse and perform my compositions live, these pieces are scored out using graphic notation and text instructions. Once in a while, a smattering of traditional music notation is thrown into the mix. Because these compositions each use vastly different instruments and field recordings, I essentially had to come up with a new notation solution for each work. 

Scores for all the pieces share a basic timeline-style layout, with instrumental and field recording parts in rows that are stacked vertically and time in minutes and seconds proceeding horizontally across the page. The score for Greater than 20 Knots, a work with a fair amount of improvisation built into each performer’s part, is largely text-based. Words describe playing techniques and how each player should shape their musical gestures. Occasionally graphic shapes appear to clarify cues so that players can keep track of where they are without having to stare at a stopwatch. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Ablation Zone requires tight synchronization between the solo instrumentalist and field recordings so that score is almost entirely graphic symbols. I created a different symbol for each type of instrumental and recorded sound. Tones are drawn as shapes or symbols with graphic characteristics that suggest timbre and indicate details about timing, pitch, volume, and, in the instrumental part, where to bow. It was a lot of fun coming up with these symbols! For example, I decided that fizzy icebergs should be a mix of chaotic zigzags (representing the acoustical qualities of the sound) and tiny circles (representing the tiny air pockets that create the sound as they are released from the melting ice).

Once you completed Music from the Ice, what surprised you most about the finished album?

When I listen back to the entire album, with all the tracks in order, by the time I reach the end of “Lullaby for E Seals” I feel like I have completed an epic journey. Of course, these pieces invoke myriad sights, smells, sounds, and sensations from my personal experiences on the Peninsula. Still, I hope some of that expeditionary feeling manifests in others as well. 

And looking back, what are some of your biggest or most significant takeaways from this entire project?

First, as I learned more and more about Antarctica and the science happening there, I began to understand how central the continent is to life on Earth as a whole. What happens in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean profoundly influences global climate, sea level, nutrient cycles, and biological productivity. At the same time, no matter where we live on this planet, our actions have real impacts on Antarctica. We are all inexorably connected to this remote, magical place. This entwinement is both a source of wonder and a great responsibility. 

Secondly, the project helped me understand that an important component of my artistic work is documenting changing soundscapes and ecosystems: both literally, as a field recordist, and more abstractly, when I transpose my experiences into music. Over the years that I’ve worked on Antarctica: Music from the Ice, the effects of climate change have become increasingly blatant and devastating, especially in the wild places that I so love. It has been harrowing to realize, again and again, that in my archives, I have recordings of soundscapes that are now obliterated or forever altered. I began to grasp this while working with my Antarctic materials, but it has been amplified by fire seasons in recent years in both California and Australia. So many locations that are special to me and that I have recorded in have burned. Now every opportunity for field recording feels precious and important. I have a chronic case of field recording FOMO (fear of missing out). At issue is not that I, personally, might miss out on experiencing/capturing some special sound. It’s the bigger picture that – in a flash – unique voices and complex webs of relationships that took eons to evolve are being lost forever. 

What are some of your favorite sounds in the world?

Perhaps it’s no surprise that several of my favorite sounds are from Antarctica: little clinking melodies played by the feet of Adélie penguins as they walk across resonant stone shards en route from their nests to the ocean; the otherworldly howling of southern elephant seals as they spar in shallow waters; and the analog synthesizer-Esque whistles and glissandi of underwater Weddell seals (I wasn’t able to capture these, but check out Weddell seal recordings from Douglas Quin and Henry Kaiser). 

No matter where I am, I enjoy the presence of wind and water sounds. The voices of these elemental forces are ever-changing, ever-fascinating, and they have the power to spark the auditory imagination – like when you listen to a mountain stream, and in the water sounds, you hear the voices of people or animals. I love spending time in that nether realm between real and imagined.

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