Cheryl E. Leonard: Music from the Ice and the Earth

The sound of snow crunching under treading feet has a soothing quality. There’s nothing quite like the rhythm of little ice particles crushed by an eager boot. Concentrate on the sound for a long while, and eventually it becomes a small symphony of pressures, tones and pauses. Cheryl E. Leonard understands this. Recently, the San Francisco-based musician and naturalist received a grant from the National Science Foundation to go to Antarctica and develop musical compositions based on the natural elements and sounds of that cold, vast region.

Musical explorer Cheryl E. Leonard.

Cheryl Leonard is an outdoorsy type who composes intricate, complex music using instruments created by Mother Nature – rocks, twigs, pools of water, dried seedpods and sifting sand. A graduate of Mills College and frequent collaborator with many talented experimental musicians and collectives like 23Five, she’s one of several local noisemakers profiled in the recent documentary Noisy People.

The artistic statement on Leonard’s website is a playful, poetic stringing of thoughts and sensations. Sweet remembrances like “cartwheels & rolling down hills” and “tea & crumpets in a tree” hold as much significance and inspiration as reflections that give you pause: “fully exploiting the confines you are given,” “reinforcement of things you didn’t recognize that you already knew,” and the simple act of “paying attention.”

Instruments from the Tides:Estuary collaboration between Cheryl E. Leonard and visual artist Rebecca Haseltine.

Paying attention to the smallest details is what makes Leonard’s compositions so remarkable. In a video profile on KQED’s series Spark, (a must-see glimpse into the composer’s creative process) she said: “You could just bang on rocks and it could sound like nothing. It’s how you bang on the rocks that makes it musical or not.” Each instrument, foraged by Leonard through her hikes in the wilderness, is chosen with utmost care and affection. A small pine cone is considered a soprano or alto depending on the sound its scales make when plucked and bowed; a dried strip of bark can become a bow or an instrument on its own; rocks of varying sizes and shapes are all given names and taken home to be rubbed against each other slowly and carefully, or to collide together with gentle, percussive force.

Leonard doesn’t process the sounds in her live concerts. The only inorganic element of her performance is the use of microphones for amplification.  She is usually joined onstage by other composers and musicians who shift rocks, pour water carefully into bowls of varying sizes, and slowly loosen suspended scrims filled with sand, letting the grains pour onto carefully arranged mics. Each piece is extensively articulated in a notation system Leonard has created, a detailed timeline pinpointing just how hard a certain pebble should be dropped, and at what precise moment.

Stage left at a live concert of Leonard’s Instruments in Trees project: “a semi-composed/semi-improvised work for arboreal materials and upside-down string quartet… that investigates cycles and processes inherent to trees.”

After all that meticulous thinking and planning, the music turns out to be anything but controlled. It’s shifting and haunting, sensual at times, hypnotic at others. Listeners may want to touch every little bristled cone and smooth pebble themselves to see what songs they might coax out of the objects. Listen for yourself:

Jiku (excerpt) – Wobbling rocks and air bubbles in water.

Mongol Falcon (excerpt) – Feathers, bowed redwood and driftwood.

(More samples here.)

Leonard in Antarctica.

Ms. Leonard just returned to San Francisco after spending two months working at the Palmer Station. While there, she kept a detailed blog with plenty of fantastic photos and descriptions of her activities, from the moment she boarded an icebreaker called the Laurence M. Gould in Punte Arenas, Chile, to her final days at the research station. It’s a great piece of personable travel writing for anyone curious about those far reaches of the world who doesn’t wish to leave the warm comforts of home.  If, for some strange reason, you need further convincing, I’ve got one word for you – PENGUINS.

The fruits of Leonard’s creative labors will be revealed later this year, after she spends time in her studio playing with the limpet shells, rocks and penguin bones found on the island and brought back to San Francisco (lawfully).  In addition to composing pieces with the found materials, Leonard will work with the field recording she made in Antarctica of groaning, icy swells and the footsteps and squawks of Adelie penguins. Expect to be moved by the beauty of the sounds, and possibly overwhelmed by the dawning realization that while the ice may groan, it also drips and melts away with each passing day.

In addition to her musical endeavors, Leonard is a mountaineer, studies aikido and Chinese landscape painting, and collects pine cones with handles.

(All photos via alwaysnorth.)

3 Responses to “Cheryl E. Leonard: Music from the Ice and the Earth”

  1. ashok Says:

    Thank you for sharing this! Your very careful, meticulous description of the care she takes with her music is just one thing that will have me rereading this later.

  2. Mer Says:

    Tanya, thank you so much for this. I’m blown away by Cheryl’s work, and I can’t wait to hear more.

  3. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Can’t wait for the end results! And now to put this in the ever-expanding “READ FURTHER” file.