October 1, 2012
UW composer fills arboretum byways with her ‘Music of Trees’
A symphony of sounds from the Washington Park Arboretum – streams gurgling, flies dancing on a microphone, squirrels rustling through the underbrush – has been transformed.
Using a computer to alter pitch, add reverb and rhythmic layers and manipulate other variables, University of Washington composer Abby Aresty created music that’s part natural, part imagined.
Rain becomes a chiming melody. A lawnmower turns discordant, followed by a horn-like herald. The tempo of falling leaves is intensified.
To complete the cycle, seven of Aresty’s compositions are now being broadcast from speakers hung in the arboretum where she originally recorded sounds. From now until the end of October, they’ll play continuously each Wednesday from 3-6 p.m., and Saturday and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. She’ll give four guided tours, at 10:30 and noon, Oct. 13 and 14, starting from the arboretum’s Graham Visitor center.
One way to listen is simply to wander the trails above Azalea Way. Or there’s a map of the sound installations, with paper copies available at the visitor center.
One of the most satisfying things, as the installations began playing one by one during the last couple weeks, was “observing people who’ve found it by themselves, who stop and explore the space, listening to the music,” said Aresty, who is earning a doctorate in music composition.
At one site, the music plays softly enough that people crunching by on the gravel path miss it.
“I watched a woman stop while walking her dog, still, she didn’t seem to hear anything. But the dog’s ears perked up and it started looking all around,” Aresty said.
“Initially I planned to make the wind the focus of the piece,” Aresty writes. “But one day when I came to record I was treated to a fascinating, isolated sound: in a far corner I heard what I suspected (but never actually saw) was a bunch of leaves or dried flowers falling to the ground. This piece explores the rhythmic possibilities of this mysterious sound.”
The arboretum venue where this piece plays also has art by UW alumna Kate Clark, who created sculptures to accompany some of the sound installations. This particular sculpture is woven into the branches and includes finger cymbals that are like coins one tosses into wishing wells. That’s because the music for that site made Clark think of wishing wells.
Aresty writes, “When I began working on this site I was excited to explore sounds of new life around this gigantic fallen limb . . . On a few occasions I brought a homemade contact microphone to this site. (Like its name suggests, it picks up sounds by touch rather than through the air.) Though I was outwitted by many an ant – they refused to climb over it – the flies loved it. When they landed on the small disk I was able to capture the normally inaudible rhythmic patterns the flies create as they dance about.”
If you visit that site, walk to the far side of the maple tree to see the solar panel that powers the setup. Much of the hardware for the installations – speakers, wiring and such– are out of sight. They were installed by UW Botanic Gardens arborist Chris Watson, who as part of his work climbs trees in the arboretum from time to time. The most complicated installation involved scaling both an 80-foot Douglas fir and a towering cedar to install solar panels, battery boxes with electronics yards of wires and six speakers, all with Aresty’s help on the ground.
Funding for the project came from the Arboretum Foundation, Puffin Foundation headquartered in New Jersey, UW School of Music and Kickstarter, which connects artists needing funds with potential donors, where she raised $8,000.
The arboretum is a city park, with the plant collections owned and managed by the UW Botanic Gardens. In 2011 the director of the botanic gardens, Sarah Reichard, alerted the chairs of UW departments of visual and performing arts that ideas for collaborative projects were welcome. Aresty was already considering composing a piece to be installed in a tree and her advisor Richard Karpen, director of the UW School of Music, suggested she consider a project in the arboretum.
“After meeting with Abby the first time I knew that her project was something we wanted to facilitate,” Reichard said. “Abby is incredibly creative and also technologically curious – as her ideas evolved they just got better. This is exactly the sort of project I wanted to encourage.”
Reichard and Aresty conferred with experts and got a wildlife permit to ensure animals in the arboretum wouldn’t be hurt by the project.
“I keep telling Abby she is the only music composition student in history whose work required a wildlife handling permit,” Reichard said.