San Francisco composer Cheryl Leonard was recording sounds of the Antarctic in the austral summer of 2008 when she stuck her hydrophone into a wall of melting glacial ice and heard something sublime.
“It was the most amazing sound, like a gamelan trapped in the ice,” recalls Leonard, whose music in recent years has mixed her field recordings from Antarctica and the Arctic Circle with sounds created by the graceful instruments she makes with penguin bones, shells, rocks and other objects from those cold white locales.
Leonard’s recording of the glacial gamelan didn’t come out very well, but the memory of it remained so vivid that she wrote a piece to summon the feeling. “Meltwater” is scored for live dripping icicles; handmade, amplified instruments of Antarctic origin; and a crescendo of calving glaciers and other recorded polar-region sounds. Leonard and multi-instrumentalist Phillip Greenlief will play that evocative number and four kindred, video-accompanied works May 11 at the Brower Center in Berkeley to cap the exhibition “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art 1775-2012.”
The “Polar Soundscapes” are co-presented by the new-music mavens at Other Minds, whose artistic director, Charles Amirkhanian, will interview Leonard after the performance.
The program begins with the sound of a single icicle dripping onto an amplified glass beaker. The sound increases as the musicians ritualistically hang 15 or so more frozen spikes, one at a time, that set other beakers singing.
“It’s a subtle, beautiful kind of dripping, meditative sound,” says Leonard, who makes the icicles in the freezer of her Richmond District Edwardian flat. “They drip at the speed that they melt, which depends on how warm it is in the performance space. As the piece progresses, we add the other instruments, and it ends with field recordings of calving glaciers and sounds I recorded inside the glacier — a lot of ice melting all at once.”
A rock climber with a graduate degree in composition from Mills College’s famously experimental music department, Leonard began working with natural soundscapes and materials a decade ago. She got a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to spend a month on the ice-covered southern continent, and a similar residency brought her to the Arctic Circle in 2011.
She was on the Antarctic Peninsula during the brief summer window when “all the wildlife can reproduce.”
“I was surprised by how noisy it was,” says Leonard, standing in her studio among a multitude of delicate sculpture-like instruments she crafts with bone and driftwood and sun-baked kelp. “There were animals everywhere … penguins, cormorants, a lot of seals. I have a great recording of elephant seals sleeping on the beach, snoring. Yeah, it’s a snore, but very, very resonant, because they have huge bodies.”
Leonard had a permit to remove the bones and other items from which the instruments are made and whose innate qualities inform the music. She plays her shells and bones with a violin bow or feather stick, and often notates the music on graphic scores (a squiggly line means a wobbling rock that stops).
“You find the object and you play with it like a mad scientist to find out what kind of voices it has, and you make something out of how out it speaks naturally,” she says.
The music comes out of the field recordings, building on sounds that intrigue Leonard and carry a musical kernel — maybe the repeated rhythm of flowing water — ripe for development.
“It’s the same thing with the instrumental voices — what do they do naturally?” she says, adding that she aims to “craft them into a musical composition that still holds true to the original sound.”
For more information, go to www.browercenter.org.
Jesse Hamlin is a Bay Area journalist and former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.