Polar Explorations: An Exclusive Interview with Cheryl Leonard

Cheryl Leonard Portrait

Cheryl Leonard plays one of her hand-made custom instruments from objects she gathered during her month-long residency in Antarctica.

Cheryl Leonard is a composer and instrument maker whose work features live performances with natural and constructed objects and field recordings. Most recently she spent a month as an artist in residence at Palmer Station in Antarctica, already yielding material for an album of field recordings and a still-evolving series of composed recordings and live performances. Sounds from this residency, and blog entries chronicling her experiences, can be found at Music From the Ice.

Sonic Terrain spent a rainy autumn evening in her San Francisco studio talking about her work, the frozen lands of the furthest South, and the sonic surprises that surround us in the natural world.

Sonic Terrain: You clearly  spend a lot of time outdoors, with stated interests in mountaineering, climbing, and skiing. What captures your composer’s ear when you are in a certain environment?

Cheryl Leonard: It depends on the context in which I’m outdoors. If I’m climbing a mountain I will notice the sounds, but I’m not going to stop to compose, because it’ll be likely to be an avalanche or something! [laughs] When I’m outdoors in a more relaxed context, like an extra day at basecamp, or we’re already down from the mountain and we’re just hanging out, [is] where I actually have the time to look for objects that would be good to use [for instruments and sound].

But it’s hard to not notice sounds, especially when you’re climbing. The ice axe is making a certain sound, and the crampons, or you get the good ice sound, or the bad ice sound, ice falls down and hits the other ice…it all sounds very musical. In the context of ice climbing, you’re listening for what is solid so you won’t fall off! But in a musical context, when ice is falling, it has different pitches, depending on the size and density of the ice, or what it’s hitting.

ST: To what degree do you rely on serendipity in finding natural materials that are sonically rich? Do you pre-auralize or predict what sounds that found objects or materials will make, or do you collect first and explore when you’re back from the field?

Leonard makes custom instruments for use in live performance, mixed with field recordings. These instruments are made of driftwood, penguin vertebrae and bones, and limpet shells.

CL: I think that it’s a combination of the two. First you have to find what might be interesting. As you walk on talus, you might think it’s really kind of neat. Then you can go and pick out specific pieces of rock you like, or sets of shells that will sound good in a set, so then you have a set of pitches from your objects. Sometimes it totally is serendipity: You’re just walking along and you kick something, and it’s great!

I’ve got to admit that sometimes I pick stuff up because it looks cool, visually. I’ll take it back to the studio, and maybe it’ll make a cool sound. You can find something [sonically] interesting in almost any object if you just figure out the right way to play it, or the right way to amplify it.

ST: Do the themes in your work evolve from the spaces you explore, or do you head out into the field to collect sounds and artifacts with a theme initially in mind?

CL: I can work both ways. Sometimes I just find sounds that are interesting and the piece develops organically from the sound, like a windy sound just evolves into a certain kind of piece based on the nature of that sound, and then at the end, you realize, “Oh, ok, that was kind of a piece about flying,” but I didn’t start with that. It just ended up that way. I’ve also done a set of pieces based on Chinese wilderness poetry from the Tang Dynasty, and so I had a very specific theme for each piece, based on a specific poem. So then I’d say, “OK, this poem is about rocks and wind, so I’m going to find and play rocks and make windy sounds with them.”

ST: It sounds like you embrace constraints as you work.

CL: You have to. One of the fun things about being a composer right now [is that] you have so many options. You could use any kind of material, you could use all this of processing, you could use any kind of theme, you can draw on music from all kinds of different cultures…it’s almost too many options to deal with. I have to give myself constraints just so I don’t drive myself crazy.

It’s a really exciting time to work with sound, because you have seemingly infinite options, and then it’s up to us to define the constraints that we want to work within for a specific project or piece. That said, I think you do need to keep yourself open to finding something that you weren’t planning to do originally, and maybe that’s going to take you into a different direction. You have to be fluid and go with that sometimes.

An elderly woman I knew about ten years ago gave me this great piece of advice: When you’re having that moment when you’re looking at the blank canvas and you’re not sure what to do, it doesn’t really matter what you do…just do something. Don’t be the deer in the headlights. Just pick anything and try it, and that’s a way through that problem.

ST: Let’s talk about your residency at Palmer Station in the Antarctic. What enticed you to the far south in the first place? How did it capture your imagination without having been there before?

CL: Doesn’t everybody want to go to Antarctica? [laughs] I’ve always liked remote places. I started hiking and I was like, “Where can we go where there aren’t other people?” And then I started climbing, and I could get to even more places that normal people don’t go to. That’s always been interesting to me throughout my entire life, so it’s like the Holy Grail to go to Antarctica, unless you go into space, maybe.

There are very few places on the earth anymore that haven’t been pretty well explored; even Antarctica has, although it’s one of the least explored. I’ve always liked icy, snowy, cold places, so The Land of Ice is just inherently exciting to me.

ST: “Chattermarks,” your album of field recordings from the Antarctic, captures a sonic richness that that many listeners don’t expect from such a remote place. What were the biggest surprises for you in the Antarctic, aesthetically, and how did they influence your later compositions?

Penguins and ice are among many of the voices that Leonard recorded in Antarctica. Photographs by Cheryl Leonard.

CL: I was there in the middle of summer, and that is the most lively time in Antarctica. [The animals are] like, “Whoo! We’ve got to breed and reproduce before the snow comes…in a month!” I found that part of Antarctica in that time period to be be very full of life. It wasn’t desolate. There were not a lot of colors, but there was some green, and the lichens would be vivid oranges and yellows. It wasn’t just this land of ice where everything was gray and black and white. There were these brilliant splashes in color. There were a lot of birds, seals, and whales.

I tried to not have really concrete expectations, although I did a lot of research. There were things that surprised me, but they weren’t that dramatic. I was mostly surprised about how bad things smelled than what they sounded like. [laughs] I was surprised that I did not hear an interesting sound from glaciers calving [when recorded] underwater. It’s a sound that you hear in the air, maybe it just clunks a bunch when it hits the water. The brash ice was always different [sounding]; I was amazed by the spectrum of sounds they would create. Some icebergs have a lot of air in the ice, so it sounded like amplified Rice Krispies even to the open ear. You’d be a hundred feet away and hear snapping and crackling. In some icebergs you wouldn’t hear that at all; you’d get up close and you’d just hear the water sloshing into cavities and things.

ST: Did you require special permission to bring back Antarctic artifacts for use in the construction of instruments?

CL: Yes, absolutely. You need two permits, actually: you need one permit for removing things from Antarctica, and you also need a permit to bring things into the United States. The continent of Antarctica is protected through the Antarctic Treaty. I had a long conversation with the head of permits at the National Science Foundation about this; it’s interesting what you do, and don’t, need a permit for. I don’t think tourists should be allowed to take home rocks and stuff, but technically you don’t need a permit to bring back rocks from Antarctica. You do need a permit for animal parts of any kind. You don’t need a permit for fossils, shockingly. You do need a permit for meteorites. You can’t take any land based plants.

[My permits] listed all the objects that I was going to bring back: Rocks, limpet shells, and penguin bones. You have to apply for the permits four or six months before you go there. I did some research to figure out what I would maybe want to bring back before I went there…there are not that many materials there to bring back, really, if you think about it. [laughs]

ST: In such a cold and remote environment, what equipment did you use to record with in the field? Did you have any weather-related issues or problems?

CL: I used the Sound Devices 702 field recorder, and I had a MS setup which was the Sennheiser MKH 40 and 30, which I had in a Sennheiser windshield and dead cat…which pretty much depleted my life’s savings. [laughs] I also used hydrophones from Aquarian Audio. [Leonard also uses these hydrophones as contact microphones to amplify her hand-made instruments. -Ed.] I also had some other microphones and backup field recorders, but I mostly didn’t use them. I had a parabolic dish and it was pretty cool, but [it] just wasn’t that interesting to me. If it had been in stereo, I would have liked it more. So I didn’t wind up using it that much.

I also had a little Edirol R-09HR as a pocket recorder. When I went down inside a crevasse, I’d use that, because the first time I went down I took the Sennheisers and they kind of got wet, and I was a little freaked out about that, so I was like, “Screw it, I’m taking the Edirol and keeping it inside my GoreTex jacket.”

I didn’t have any problems from the wet and cold. We did have precipitation, but it wasn’t that steady, or it was raining and the winds were blowing at forty knots, you really weren’t going to be making a recording anyway. Once I got used to the idea that I could carry five thousand dollars of equipment in a boat every day, jumping in and out to land on islands – I was like, “Don’t fall into the ocean, the salt water will destroy everything!” – aside from that, wind was really the problem.

I had to learn some techniques the hard way to deal with the wind. Learning to use the topography, you could duck down behind rocks to block the wind but not block what you were recording. Learning to understand what was happening with the weather was a really big thing. You could be like, “OK, so the barometric pressure is changing, so if I leave in the boat now, maybe the wind will drop in an hour.” Even if you duck out of the wind, though, there’s still a lot of background noise, because we’d be on boats and on small islands. It’s really hard to get away from that. In a month there were only a few days where the waves and wind were calm.

ST: Your Antarctic journey seems to have brought you closer to exotic animals than many of your previous excursions, from elephant seals to many kinds of penguins. What lessons did you take away from these wildlife encounters?

Leonard plays penguin bones, amplified with a hydrophone, with a feather.

CL: Stay away from birds’ nests! The penguins don’t really care; they’re not used to having predators on land, so they’re just kind of curious about you. They’ll squawk at you, but they’re not really going attack you. But the other birds…

The skuas could be very territorial. If you were even vaguely close to their nests, they would divebomb at your head. It was really scary. They’d make this call, and you’d be like, “Oh, crap.” The station manager had been hit a few times and almost knocked over. It is really terrifying. It made me really think about how birds and dinosaurs are supposedly related. [laughs] There are parts of islands that are blocked off during the breeding season, so at first you’re like, “That’s to protect the birds.” But it’s also to protect you. If you go there, they will attack you.

The elephant seals were pretty docile, which is not true of the northern elephant seals. if you’re up here in Northern California, you should not approach an elephant seal. If you’re in Antarctica, they don’t really care. But the leopard seals were kind of scary; beautiful, beautiful animals, but so big! They’d be as long as the Zodiac, and they’re the top predator in the ecosystem there. We saw leopard seals almost every day, which is really great until the seal would slide off their ice platforms and get into the water and start coming for your boat. Anytime you’re that close to an animal that strong and powerful, you have to be really humble. They didn’t make any sounds when they’re on land. Doug Quinn has some underwater recordings of them, though.

ST: Are you planning to integrate your field recordings into live performances?

CL: I’m working on a series of compositions that use the instruments made form Antarctic objects together with field recordings from Antarctica. I am planning to release those in less than a year from now. I have one piece that uses recordings of sleeping elephant seals with kelp flutes. I think of it as a lullaby; I call it for “Lullaby for E. Seals.” I have other pieces that use penguin sounds, sounds from underwater ice… I’ve been fabricating icicles that I have have onstage that can drip, that can simulate what it’s like to be in a crevasse in antarctica. There was a recording I made in a melting glacial face, which didn’t end up being a good recording, but what I heard in the recording was that the ice almost sounded like a gamelan. There are these repeating cycles and a little bit of rhythmic variation. The recording was useful for inspiration for a piece. Sometimes it’s nice to know that even your failed field recordings a can be useful in some other way.

ST: You’ve journeyed into your own local environment, and one of the very ends of the planet. What will you be exploring next?

CL: Well, if you’ve really gone really far south, where would you go next?

ST: Oh, gee, I don’t know, maybe really far north?

CL: [laughs] My next really big project is a collaboration with the visual artist that I was in Antarctica with, Oona Stern. We were doing separate projects, but we shared a boat, and we were roommates, and we got along really well. Later on we decided that we should do a collaboration sometime. So we have conspired to go to the Arctic together and do some collaborative works mixing visuals and sound in site-specific installations. Our idea is to do daily projects outside to emphasize some essence of each location. We’re going to be going on the Arctic Circle, a residency expedition for artists on a schooner around the island of Spitsbergen, which is north of of Norway, where you make daily landings on the island. [Oona] was like, “Wow, we’ll be bi-polar!” [laughs]