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9 October 2017

From the Murray to the Yukon

Jesse Budel recording at Tatler Creek Image: Jesse Budel recording at Tatler Creek  

South Australian composer and sound artist Jesse Budel writes about participating in the 2017 Composing in the Wilderness program, together with colleagues from all parts of the US. The applications for the 2018 instalment of this program are currently open, closing on 1 November - see website for all details.

To put your hands in a river is to feel the chords that bind the earth together (Barry Lopez)

As a South Australian living near the Murray River at Murray Bridge, this quote spoken to me half the world away resonated deeply.

Writing this, I'm over two-thirds the way through an extensive professional development trip around the US and Canada, where I've been spending time with many colleagues and participating in various workshops, residencies and symposia, all associated with environmental music and sound art.

A key part of my travels so far has been Composing In the Wilderness, a composition field workshop instigated in 2012 by adventure-composer Steven Lias in association with the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The formula is simple: 1) spend three days hiking in the backcountry wilderness of Denali National Park, supported by National Park Service and Alaska Geographic scientists and staff, 2) fly via bush plane to Coal Creek, an old gold mining camp in Yukon-Charley Rivers Preserve and compose a piece in response to your experiences in the wilderness; and 3) have your piece rehearsed and performed by contemporary music experts at Denali and then again in Fairbanks.

I'd heard about the course a few years ago, and with a now strong tradition of Australian composers making the journey over the Pacific to participate (last year, Adelaide's own David John Lang), it was time to forge my own connections.

Composing in the Wilderness 2017 participants, Denali National Park.

Flying into Fairbanks from Seattle, I spent a night in a lodge-style hotel (kindly provided by fellow CITW composer Brent Lawrence), before meeting the rest of the gang at the Fairbanks Airport baggage claim. Like myself, most had come a decent way, with three from Oregon (Brent, Jennifer Wright and Christina Rusnak), and one each from Washington (Dawn Sonntag), California (Christian Dubeau), Texas (Cristina Hogan), Michigan (Libby Larsen) and Southern Alaska (Aaron Keyt). Very quickly, we bonded in the tight van ride to the park, discovering one another's artistic interests and personal motivations for giving up the creature comforts of built society. Following an induction at the Park Visitor Centre (particularly on the importance of bear safety), we made our way out to field camp on the Teklanika, or Tek, River and settled in amidst the rustic yurt and cabins. A key part of the night was the lucky dip selection of our instrumental ensemble setup, myself ending up with violin, cello and percussion.

The following days brought forth a wonderful variety of knowledge, perspectives and insights of the land. A hike up Tatler Creek, with NPS soundscape specialist Davyd Betchkal, saw us use both contemporary technology and musical training to consider current scientific research into the park's acoustic environments. Later, amidst the remnants of a former glacial valley and stunningly preserved hadrosaur footprints (about 65-70 million years old), we dwelled on the impressive geological forces at play. I made recordings in the creek's streams with my hydrophone, with one particular channel of water conjuring up a ferociously, pitched wind-like tone.

The following day, a bush bash with botanist/non-vascuous plant specialist Sarah Stehn, across dense tundra to a rocky outcrop above Tek River, brought our attention to the ground and the ornate, tapestry-like fabric of mosses, lichens and fungi that decorated the floor. As we arrived at the outcrop's summit for lunch, we looked down across the river valley, noticing its braided quality, with threaded streams interweaving as the rapid waters charted their course downstream. Again, I made recordings, this time of spruce needles singing in the wind, and later down by Tek River.

On the third and final day, we travelled to Eilson Visitor Centre, which features interpretative exhibits and artworks by previous artists in residence. It is possible to see Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, from here, but she is notably shy, and we weren't able to see her through the summer mists. Instead, we made a hike out in Polychrome Pass tundra, crossing rivers and coming across fresh animal tracks, amongst them wolf, moose and caribou. Upon our return to Camp, we were visited by the NASA scientist Peter Griffith who talked to us about the research being done into permafrost melt in the area, and the dangerous climatic and microbiological epidemic possibilities that may come through its disappearance.

Returning to Fairbanks the following day, we flew by bush plane to Coal Creek, an old Gold Mining camp now run by the NPS in Yukon-Charley River Preserve. We knuckled down into work on our pieces, armed with notation paper, laptops, midi keyboards, numerous music theory books, and in my case, the audio software Ableton Live.

Early on in the Denali field work, Davyd had mentioned that a noted plant ecologist, Frederick Clements, had developed a concept of ecological succession from his observation of plant growth cycles, and that Denali had been a significant space where this had been demonstrated. Succession, in this context, refers to the process of change in the species structure of an ecological community over time. Through constant changes in environmental conditions, various species vie for predominance in the landscape. In particular, large-scale events, such as earthquakes, eruptions, landslides, fires and floods, can significantly alter the course of succession in an ecosystem. I questioned, Davyd and Sarah about this idea almost incessantly, sensing that it would form the basis for whatever I was going to write.

Living in South Australia, which is the driest state on the driest continent, we're often faced with the prospect of drought, making for tough living conditions in our regional and remote areas. Alaska, by stark contrast, has highly dynamic precipitation, evident in the plentiful glaciers, rivers and vegetation in the summer, and thick snow of winter. Yet, within the past few decades, the impact of climate change has already taken its toll, with significant retreat in prominent glaciers, and disturbance in the underlying layers of permafrost that have lead to debilitating landslides. If this is happening so intensively already, where does this lead, successionally? With Alaska suffering drought, increasing its already pronounced wildfire risk? With significant loss or even extinction of unique fauna and flora due to uninhabitable climate? And what would be the impact on the soundscape, with the voices of its interconnected ecosystem silenced?

I felt an urge to communicate this through framing successive ecological changes in Alaska's landscape with shifts in its soundscape. Though my postgraduate research is focused on using ecologically oriented data and environmental sound as the main materials and formal resources for site-specific compositions, I realised early on that a heavy-information analysis and processing approach was a recipe for disaster (pun intended), so I opted for a simpler, more metaphorical approach.

Firstly, I developed the electronic track, using the various field recordings taken in different environments to transition between different ecosystems, from the basic howling tones of mountain wind (rendered through filtering the stream recording made at Tatler Creek), to glacier, river and tundral forest. In turn, a devastating forest fire decimates the landscape, leaving it silent, save for a solitary plane engine above and return of the winds as the piece finishes.

Needing to pack lightly across my North American travels, I used both my Zoom H6 as my main recorder, and an Aquarian Audio H1-A as my hydrophone, allowing me to record both terrestrial and aquatic soundscapes. From the raw audio, I used izoTope RX 5, a powerful spectral analysis and editing software, to isolate and cleanup the audio from each ecosystem's soundscape. These were then assembled in Ableton Live 9, undergoing further effects processing and mixing.

As for the instrumentation, I wanted to capture the sense of progression to which succession lends itself. Interested in open modular scoring organised around time cues, I came up with a series of harmonic transitions for the strings, correlated with the soundscape transitions. These arpeggiated chords use techniques including chord thickening and intervallic expansion as processes to imply succession, drawing inspiration from the string music of Kaija Saariaho (particularly the second movement of her solo cello piece, Sept Papillons) and John Luther Adams's The Wind In High Places (where every note in the piece is played with opens strings or natural harmonics).

Also, not knowing what percussion would be available for the final performance, I decided it'd be best to keep the part reasonably flexible, only specifying the particular timbres, volume and rhythmic density for each section. Like a lot of my recent scores that seek to connect performance outcomes with the natural world's uncontrollable realities, the end result is very much unique to each performance, manifested through the intuitive decisions that the performers make in the moment.

After four intense but fulfilling days, we flew back to Fairbanks, basing ourselves in the University of Fairbanks student accommodation (mostly empty throughout the summer), and having our pieces rehearsed with Corvus, the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival New Music Ensemble. Given the tight timeline the ensemble was on (with only a couple days until performance), each composer got a 45 minutes' rehearsal with their players. In my own session, discussion around the concept, open scoring and sound result made for a productive session, and I left quite satisfied that everything would come together.

On the final two days of the workshop, our pieces were brought to life, first introduced back into the place of their imaginary conception, Denali National Park, and the next day for city audiences back in the Fairbanks Universalist Unitarian Church. These were exciting times, not only being able to share our takes on the Alaskan wilderness with locals, but also with one another - until this point, we'd not heard one another's music. In contrast to my own apocalyptic approach in Silent Succession, other pieces channelled music inspired by the place's creative geological forces, its dynamic water flows, its tapestry-like tundral floor, and the humbling of human perspective in the massive landscape.

Each concert wasn't without its challenges. For myself, the inclusion of the electronic track contributed the most to my trials: in Denali, the carpeted theatre and tiered seating meant the balance between the performers and track had to be delicately managed, and, back in Fairbanks, ghosts in the cabling required an extended interval to figure alternate input methods. In any case, both performers came across well, which is a testament to Corvus's capability and care.

After the shows, I had a number of people from either audience approach me to ask whether the final section - the solitary plane and wind - augured a positive future of rebirth (treating the piece as cyclical), or acted a sombre reminder of irrevocable loss. Admittedly, I don't even know the answer to that question, and I think only time can tell which scenario will play out. (I've uploaded the raw recordings of each performance on my Soundcloud, with something more refined to come out in due course.)

Whilst there's many subtle impacts that my Composing In the Wilderness experiences will reveal to me in time, a number of others have already made themselves well known. For one, it's reinvigorated my interest in the sciences, both as it relates to my research in soundscape ecology (with Davyd's discussion of physical energy exchange correlated with acoustic dynamics in a soundscape), but also in areas where I have little previous training, like geology, biology and chemistry.

The new-found connections with the other CITW composers, NPS staff and Alaskan Arts identities too have left a sense of global community interested in collective stewardship and celebration of the natural world. These relationships continue on through social media and planned future arts engagements.

Most importantly, CITW has provided far greater contexts for me at an existential level, trying to fathom in relation to myself both microcosm, with its intricacies and multitudes of life at the cellular level, and macrocosm, with aeons of geological activity rendering our species' existence a comparative temporal blip. The awe this brings spurs on my want for child-like, wondrous engagement with life and the world around us, but the relative short time we've been around and the destructive tendencies of the past two hundred years make me equally concerned about times to come (note the quick succession of recent Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and multiple wildfires along the West Coast).

Coming back home soon, I wonder what these concerns mean in an Australian context, for me at the personal level as I come back and continue my research, but also at broader scales of ecological science and environmental music and sound art intersection. So too are we faced with herculean efforts to contend with changing climate, whether it be freak cyclones in the country's north or wild storms emanating from the Southern Ocean, widespread droughts and heatwaves across the interior, raging bushfires through dense forests, or blizzards in the Australian Alps. How might this manifest as music or sound art, and how might our music-makers act as advocates for societal recognition of these crises and necessary behavioural change?

A final reflection: when visiting the Yukon whilst at Coal Creek, I descended the steep embankment to put my own hand in the mighty river. As described by Lopez above, I felt the chords that bind the world together, a visceral music carving and refreshing the land constantly. I hope now, returning home to the Murray River, I can feel those same harmonies from afar.

This professional development trip is funded by the South Australian Government through a Carclew Fellowship, as well as a Helpmann Academy Grant, a Rural City of Murray Bridge Small Wins Grant, and many generous private donations.

Further links

Jesse Budel - homepage (jesse-budel.com)

Composing in the Wilderness (www.composinginthewilderness.com)

Composing in the Wilderness 2017 - photo album on Facebook

Jesse Budel is a South Australian composer and sound artist, currently completing a PhD at the University of Adelaide focused on site-specific creative responses to contrasting South Australian ecosystems. In addition to his travel in the US and Canada, he is collaborating with Zephyr Quartet on an urban sound installation as part of a New Music Network mentorship.  For more information, visit www.jesse-budel.com.


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