A UW doctoral student composes a musical installation now playing at the Washington Park Arboretum, "Paths II: The Music of Trees."
O therworldly sounds ease from bough and branch — sometimes eerie, sometimes transportingly lovely.
It’s a concert outside of four walls at the Washington Park Arboretum, a musical dialogue with nature.
The work of University of Washington School of Music student Abby Aresty, compositions are playing at seven sites within the arboretum. She composed the pieces by recording sounds at the arboretum — birdsong, jingling dog collars, bicycles on gravel, rain and so much more — then interweaving them, transposing them and stacking them into chords.
Playing from speakers cabled into trees and shrubs along pathways in the arboretum, the music she created is broadcast in a continuous loop. The listener hears the interplay of Aresty’s work with the soundscape of the moment in the arboretum, which makes the compositions complete — and ever-changing.
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The installation was turned on over the weekend, and will continue to play on Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., through the month of October.
Whether visitors discover the installation by accident or seek it out, if they find it takes them out of their day-to-day mindset to be present in the moment, stop, wonder what they are hearing, and listen, that, Aresty says, was exactly her intent.
The installation is Aresty’s dissertation for her doctor of musical arts degree. But along the way over the past year, she has had to learn not only her discipline of music composition, but also how to render what she heard in her imagination in the physical world.
It would take, she would discover, asking lots of questions of everyone from Burning Man enthusiasts (they know batteries) to wildlife managers (to avoid bothering the trees’ residents).
On a recent morning, her gear for the last installation was heaped in a trailer: Pieces of garden hose. A car stereo. Plastic peanuts. Plastic tubs. A timer from an automatic pet-feeding dish — just the right thing, she finally figured out, to cover long periods of time, turning the installation on and off. Of course, duct tape. And so much cable.
“I must have gone to every hardware store in the world. When my parents came to visit, we did a lot of errands,” said Aresty, who has no car.
She got the idea for the piece in part from Sarah Reichard, director of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, which includes the Washington Park Arboretum and the Center for Urban Horticulture. At the beginning of the last school year, Reichard urged deans at the university to encourage their students to consider the arboretum for an art project.
Before long, the notion trickled down to Aresty, 29, and an idea was born: Why not a sound installation at the arboretum?
“I had this idea of really wanting to get into the space of the trees, and place it in the arboretum,” Aresty said. “To let people make their own path through the piece. Normally, you sit in a concert hall, and you experience a set piece of music in a set time. But you can walk through this and experience it in your own way in your own time. It is a collaboration with the listener.”
The arboretum’s arborist, Chris Watson, became a crucial piece of the project, doing all the climbing to install the hardware temporarily in the trees.
Reichard said she liked the idea of the installation from the start. “What I think it is going to do is get people to look at their surroundings, and think about nature and the arboretum in a different way,” Reichard said. “I thought, this is exactly the kind of thing we want to have, and I am hoping it is the start of more art in the arboretum.”
Aresty was off and running with funding donated by foundations and through Kickstarter, a website for people seeking donors to help pay for creative projects. She recorded sounds at the arboretum day after day, through every season.
One of the greatest gifts of working on the project, Aresty said, was spending so much time in the arboretum, just listening. To squirrels rustling in dry leaves. To water gurgling, leaves dropping. To birds and so many different kinds of rain. To the roar of lawn mowers, and sounds as tiny as the staccato rhythm of a fly’s feet, recorded on a contact microphone.
She learned to hear the ordinary in a whole new way that revealed beauty hidden. Such as the day she was walking down a pathway and heard a man coming up behind her, walking three dogs.
“I heard the jingling of the dogs’ collars and thought, ‘that is a great sound,’ ” Aresty said, her eyes wide with the jolt of discovery. “It was like bells. And each dog had a different rhythm.” Pretty soon, she was following him, recording intently.
She told all this while sitting on a bench on a recent weekday, as Watson hoisted himself up a 120-foot ponderosa pine, a solar collector slung on his hip, to put in the last installation. Aresty worked the air like clay with her hands as she spoke, her hair clamped away from her face with a bobby pin, and a bit of leaf litter clinging to wisps of spider web stuck to her glasses, the result of hauling a boat battery through the underbrush to the foot of the tree. Watson would tackle it next.
Her path to music composition was indirect. She once thought she would be a professional French horn player, but when applying to conservatories after high school, she received more acceptances as a student in composition. “I thought, well, I could try that, and still take lessons on the French horn.”
As it turns out, composition, and now this project, took her far out of her comfort zone, something Aresty found she likes.
“Each of the steps of doing this felt really huge and big,” said Aresty. “It’s realizing you can do more than you really think at the beginning you can. You don’t realize these things are actually within your reach. But once the first installation went up, it was, ‘Wow, this is actually all happening.’
“It’s been amazing to get here.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.