Cheryl Leonard followed a long winding path from the Berkeley Hills to the polar regions, but her ability to make arresting music using the sounds of melting glaciers flows directly from an epiphany she experienced hiking near Tilden.
Leonard has spent a good deal of time over the past eight years in the Arctic and Antarctic, making field recordings and collecting materials that she transforms into musical instruments. She performs “Polar Soundscapes” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Brower Center on the closing night of the multi-media exhibition “Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art 1775-2012,” which examines some two centuries of artists inspired by frozen landscapes. The event is the first on an ongoing collaboration between the Brower Center and the new music organization Other Minds.
“One of the first times I played natural objects was in the Berkeley Hills,” Leonard says. “A friend and I were hiking and I was improvising on viola he was playing cello. We started bowing all these things around us, sticks, moss, pine cones. We got mixed results. Some things created really cool sounds, but if you bow lichen it’s pretty horrible. It was this moment of discovery, a eureka moment. I wanted to develop this more.”
Leonard’s instrumental arsenal has evolved far beyond lichen. Joined by Oakland improviser Phillip Greenlief, she’ll be playing pieces that employ penguin bones, dried seaweed, ice, and seashells to create music that evokes the threatened environments from where she gleaned the objects. Several pieces include video by Oona Stern.
“My piece ‘Meltwater’ uses icicles dripping into scientific glassware, beakers, petri dishes, that make different tones like a gamelan,” she says. “On top of that we play other things — rocks from Antarctica and penguin vertebrae — so it builds up. It’s about glaciers melting, particularly the Tidewater glaciers.”
Leonard made her first trip to Antarctica at the end of 2008 with a National Science Foundation grant from the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. But she grew up intimately acquainted with snow and ice in Wisconsin, and started playing found objects in noise bands after moving to San Francisco in 1991. She earned a masters in composition at Mills College in the mid-90s, studying with Alvin Curran, Maggie Payne and Chris Brown. Drawn to extreme landscapes, she felt a polar pull.
“I miss the snow to some extent,” Leonard says. “I love the winter, building snow forts. You can’t do that here. I’m also really into outdoor things, backpacking, mountaineering. I like to go to wild places away from other people. And I find glaciers fascinating. They seem like they’re alive. Add all those things together and the polar regions seemed like the ultimate place to go.”
Her first trip to Antarctica got her serious about field recording. She had some experience, but working in a hostile gear-demolishing environment with steady wind made her extremely resourceful. The sounds and objects she’s gathered have shaped her compositional sensibility, creating an evocative but austere body of pieces that seem to flow directly from the landscape.
“It’s kind of a distilled palette,” she says. “The ecosystem is very simple and the objects speak from that place. I guess I feel like trying to find what they want to do and encourage it. I try to make the pieces develop from what the materials are, rather than having a preconceived notion and have them fit into that. Ultimately I am really interested in finding new sounds. It’s super fun to be a mad scientist.”