Last night in the Capp Street Concert Hall of the Community Music Center (CMC), Outsound Presents offered the first of the four new music concerts that constitute the “main events” of the annual Outsound New Music Summit. The title for the evening was Quiet Noise: the art of sculpting sound from metal, wood, and earth. The opening set was by Cheryl Leonard (also cited as “Cheryl E. Leonard” on this site, among others), who had been “previewed” as one of the artists profiled in Tim Perkis’ documentary Noisy People, which was screened at the last of the Summit’s “Outspoken Events” this past Monday evening.
Perkis’ profile showed Leonard collecting natural objects that she would use in her performances. Last night the most prominent of these were a set of cowry shells, each mounted at the tip of a short stick and played by Leonard with a violin bow. During the Q&A before the concert, Leonard made it a point to note that she did not “tune” her objects by filing them down to change the fundamental frequency. Rather, she treated her array as a “natural gamut” (my phrase, not hers) and played it accordingly. Her other major instrument was a set of Japanese bowl gongs, also performed with a bow.
Beyond this array of instruments, the performance included field recordings made in the Arctic. In addition, each of Leonard’s three compositions was performed in conjunction with a video projection, each made by a different artist. The opening selection was “Frozen Over” with a video by Rebecca Haseltine. This was followed by “Threshold,” performed to a video made by Genevieve Swifte in Upernavik, Greenland. The final selection was “Glugge” (porthole), whose visual accompaniment seems to have been shot through the porthole of a submersible by Oona Stern.
Each of these pieces involved its own characteristic development of “elemental” subject matter. “Frozen Over” was performed against field recordings of an ice thaw in Yosemite National Park. Haseltine responded with her own images of interactions between water and blocks of ice. She enhanced the visibility of those dynamics by injecting dyes of different colors into the streams of water that flowed past the ice blocks, often setting them into motion and bumping against each other. That sort of bumping, on a much larger scale, was one of the sound sources in Leonard’s field recordings.
The video for “Threshold” was shot from a fixed camera looking through a window at a ferociously agitated sea coast during an Arctic winter storm. Beyond the movement of the sea itself, the only “action” in the film emerged from gradual changes in the focal plane. Thus, it began with only suggestions of movement seen on the other side of a window fogged over with condensation. As the focal plane changed, the images of the sea became clearer until the viewer was aware only of the violent clashes of waves against each other. Then, in simple arch form, the focal plane slowly returned to its original setting, marking the end of the piece.
Stern’s video for “Glugge” provided a different view of the sea. It began as a shot of the surface; but the overall structure involved “dives” beneath the surface followed by “coming up for air.” Only after the video had progressed for a bit of time was the viewer aware of the porthole through which the images were being captured. During this final piece, Leonard expanded her bowing work to include cross-blowing long stalks of dried Bull whip kelp.
Most of the sounds accompanying each of these videos involved Leonard’s subtle bow work with her assembly of objects. It was as if her music had been conceived simply to enhance the visual landscape against which it was being performed. If I were to draw upon past music as a point of reference, I would probably suggest “Five Stone Wind,” a collaborative composition by John Cage, David Tudor, and Takehisa Kosugi, created for a dance of the same name choreographed by Merce Cunningham. Instrumentation for this piece included nine clay pots, which were gently tapped, rather than bowed, shifting the focus of attention from tones to rhythmic patterns. Nevertheless, Leonard’s three performances shared an almost serene sense of quietude very much in the spirit of Cunningham’s collaborative team of composers.
While Leonard’s performance was consistently low-key in delivery, it was never anything less than thoroughly absorbing. Each composition was clearly the product of a highly well-conceived multimedia partnership. If the subject matter itself was always minimal in nature, the extent of variation, even if only at a “natural” pace, endowed each execution as a journey of discovery. That journey may have progressed gradually, but it always unfolded in ways that would tweak the expectations of both viewing and listening. This may not have been the rhetoric of “music as we know it;” but it was rhetoric that knew how to seize and hold audience attention.