University of Minnesota
Photo Credit:
Patrick O'Leary

A musical environment

A unique collaboration celebrates the earth as an instrument, expressing a new understanding.

February 25, 2014

The iconic musician Tom Waits huffs and hammers his way through the earth’s underground in the song of the same name, singing, “there's a world going on … marching around down under your boots.”

The natural world, above and below ground, is one many of us may not have a chance to think much about. Business and busyness is pressing and unrelenting. There’s just no time to stop and take a walk in the forest these days with a saxophone, a siter, a viola, a classical guitar, and various found percussive instruments.

Imagine encountering that—a dozen people in the woods improvising on the spot as they’re inspired by what they hear from the forest, or from the savanna, as the wind combs through tall native grasses and whispers inspiration.

Sounds and Visions of Cedar Creek is just such an experience—a unique collaboration, one in which the very earth we walk on is recognized and celebrated as an instrument, and where the research of scientists percolates in the minds of artists and comes out as a new understanding.

The performance, which will take place Feb. 27 in St. Paul, evolved from the experience of a dozen U of M students and faculty from the School of Music and Department of Art who spent two days talking with research scientists and otherwise exploring the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, an ecological research site of the University of Minnesota. It will feature sound installations, improvised music, and visual art. And should you attend, expect a nontraditional audience experience as well. You may at times be on the move, or lying on the ground, where the recorded sounds of the performers’ footsteps at Cedar Creek will transport you.

Listen to a brief audio segment of the performance from a Feb. 20 rehearsal.

A diversity of ideas
Cedar Creek, of course, is one of the most famous ecological research sites in the nation. Scientists from all over the world come to see natural habitats of incomparable biological diversity, representing the entire state of Minnesota. But it is something much more rare to see and hear such diversity represented not as scientific evidence and fact, but as an abstract expression of experience.

School of Music lecturer Scott Currie, who conceived of the initiative with classical guitar instructor Maja Radovanlija and others, wants to be clear on that—the work is not a literal translation of science, nor does he believe it should be.

“Scientists will admit, no set of data tells the whole story, so we’re kind of speaking for the scientist in a way that you’re speaking for a composer when you play a piece. What I thought we could do more effectively as artists is reflect on the different stories … to create a mosaic of different perspectives on the same issue—and represent them simultaneously in all their contradictions.” says Currie.

Currie says that the experience for students who participated was one they’re unlikely ever to get in the classroom. Even for the instructors, it was novel. 

“I don’t know what the takeaway will be … but I do know that this has transformed the way I’m approaching things, and the students have been very clear that it’s certainly transforming the way they look at things,” says Currie.

Viola player and doctor of musical arts student Maria Ritzenhaler describes the experience as a stark contrast to her daily routine.

“The most memorable part of this for me was taking me out of my comfort zone—I’m a classical musician, I sit in my practice room for six hours a day, and I play the same thing over and over again,” she says.

She explains how an ongoing scientific experiment at Cedar Creek, the effect of fire frequency on grasslands, influenced her.

“They had four plots of land. They burned one every three years, another every ten years… Listening to them talk about their work … how much they knew … it was great.”

Currie says if there is a deeper lesson to be learned, it is that bringing the unfamiliar together can open minds in different directions.

“The lines between music, and visual, the scientific, and everything else—these things can be challenged. I think [students] learned that they don’t just have to collaborate with people from their own specific field … they can be something else.”


If you go…

Sounds and Visions of Cedar Creek. Free and open to the public.

February 27, 5:30 p.m., atrium of the Learning and Environmental Sciences building, Buford Avenue, St. Paul.


Sounds and Visions of Cedar Creek was supported by an Institute on the Environment mini grant (Up to $3,000) to spur innovative, interdisciplinary collaborations that address sustainability challenges. 2014 grants are available. Apply by March 16.

Twin Cities Campus: