Is Environmental Activism in the Hands of Experimental Musicians?

LAMag spoke to artists recording everything from the sounds of glaciers to the sounds of houseplants to rouse interest in the natural world

Maddi Baird noticed the houseplants.  

At the onset of the pandemic, unable to turn to the outdoors for some measure of wilderness, the Los Angeles based composer, sound artist, and DJ looked to nature that could thrive indoors. And then, a project came to Baird (who goes by the pronouns they/them). Baird began measuring micro-current fluctuations occurring across the surface of the plants’ leaves. They measured what the plants’ leaves sounded like. Soon, they’d assembled an album: holobiont; an album in which the plants, they claim, are responsible for the music. “Thank you in part to: dracaena fragrans,” they write on the album credits, “pilea peperomia, epipremnum aureum.” Where some might credit co-writers or instrumentalists, Baird credits the corn plant, Devil’s Ivy, and the Chinese money plant.

Given this project, it’s not a huge leap to consider some of Baird’s other endeavors. They’ve created a sonic map of how fog moves through the Bay Area Peninsula. They’ve built sound sculptures utilizing endangered sounds, moisture data, soil data, storm data. “What does that even mean for something to be endangered?” Baird tells LAMag. “And what does that even mean to be extinct?”

There are the sounds of certain birds of course, of those disappearing sonic monuments we associate with the natural world. But then Baird’s also drawn to the intensely human. “I have a baby brother who’s probably never heard the sound of a cassette tape,” they say. For them, pinning these sounds down is an effort to archive, document, provide some permanence to that which is vanishing. In California, negotiating with wildfires, mudslides, and peculiar atmospheric rivers, it stands to reason that so much of Baird’s work has become natural. “There’s always soil beneath us,” Baird says. In other words: Eco-informed music is a kind of great unifier.Baird’s pull to this genre signifies some initiation into a robust and growing artistic community traditionally rooted in the West; a community using field recordings and sound work as a means of triggering environmental discourse by bridging the boundary between music, biology, anthropology, and conservation. 

Where climate activist Phoebe Plummer tossed tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or two members of the German environmental group Letzte Generation flung mashed potatoes on a Monet, the desperation to draw attention to a wilting planet in artistic spaces is becoming increasingly irrefutable. But is there something to be said for the more quiet work being done to resist or indict environmental changes on a sonic level, sans flying perishables? What if the desert was a soundstage, the forest a studio, the fox squirrel an instrument? 

French artist Carmen Bouyer found herself similarly considering the nexus of art and activism when she developed her own performance art piece, Music for Land, in 2018 and 2019. While participating in some beach clean up on a day off from the studio, inspiration struck her. “I remember there was a man who was just rehearsing the saxophone at the beach,” she says. “And I thought ‘wow’. It felt like such a gift to us and to the space.”  

The idea behind Music for Land came on the heels of this brainstorming. In theory, Bouyer would gather musicians in collaboration with shorekeepers, playing music while they cleaned up rivers, beaches, estuaries. And though her Music for Land group was only able to host a few gatherings before Bouyer had to return to France, she has hopes of hosting a new performance whenever she returns to the United States. “I really think every type of job can shift their practice to answer this call for a new culture,” she says. 

As a self-termed “ecological artist,” she notes the difference between ecological art or even ecomusicology; the academic term for a study of the overlap between music, art, and nature with environmental art. “It’s basically about connecting between people and ecosystems, creating and co-creating,” she says. Even more, however, “ecological artists are stepping more into regenerative projects. So, working to actually regenerate landscapes.” In other words, art becomes not just a celebration of beauty. But a testament to the utility of beauty. Art is a tool, Bouyer insists. The urgency for it, she goes on, should not be underestimated. Bringing attention to the environment as the result of art can be a kind of activism, according to Bouyer. 

Ethan Primason, one of the musicians who participated in Music for Land, remembers the project as a deeply communal experience that was also something of a catalyst for his resulting work that used sound as a way of exploring the environment. “During those beach cleanups, I am pretty sure I led a few deep listening exercises to get everyone attuned to the environment before even making music,” he says. “The purpose being to shift attention and the hierarchy of senses away from the visual—which is a lot of how I think our world is constructed.” 

With his partner, Primason began participating in a number of artist residencies scattered across the country, anchored in his desire to pursue listening and sound work as a means of eliciting a devotion to land. In Marfa, Texas, he and his partner did an auditory census of the city, mapping it through sound. While teaching a workshop to Armenian students via Zoom during the pandemic, they sent students out to conduct their own field recordings, later playing these on Primason’s radio station in the California desert. And now, in Joshua Tree, California, Primason has been making homemade instruments as a way of registering and adapting to the fierce wind storms, the sprawling vastness of a desert he is both trying to document and trying to preserve. 

“We did some recordings in an abandoned mine in Joshua Tree National Park,” Primason says. “We recorded the wind kind of filling this empty space.” The result, he says, is equal parts transcendental, prophetic, and foreboding. To luxuriate in it is to surrender some control to the space. And, after all, is surrendering some of our power over space, yielding to it, a first step in regenerating?

“The West Coast, historically, is known as the kind of place where experimentalism was allowed to flourish… There’s a certain geographical emotion here,” says Baird on why this fusion of environmentally-based work feels so deeply trenched in the landscape. But beyond that, there’s something deeper: “I think that California is just so vast…”

That concept of a geographical emotion followed composer and theorist Justin Ralls as he prepared for his environmentally-informed opera, “Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story.” Journeying along the Lewis and Clark Expedition route, the composer made recordings in the field, a crucial part of his overall project. He was taken by the natural beauty of the sagewort and sprawling plains, requisite cottonwoods and Sitka spruce. But then, settling in for a day of recording, Ralls found himself facing a dilemma. “One of the spots that I went to, there’s a cement plant and a highway by it now,” he says. “There’s so few places we can go where we can just listen to natural sound, unimpeded by anthropic sound. It’s like how most folks haven’t really seen the dark night sky.” 

He struggles, now, with whether he should be including some of these human “intrusions” in his work. It’s a question Baird has also asked, their recordings often punctuated by the quintessential L.A. sounds of a highway, sirens, construction. “The way we make music and even think about music in our culture, in relation to the environment,” Ralls says, “is going through a substantial transition because the environment we consider is going through a catastrophic transition.” In other words: What does it mean to pursue meaning and even beauty in the midst of environmental erasure?

“I think artists will preempt these things,” says Ralls. “They’re the first ones to imagine a different future. Or to shine a light on the things that are happening now. Make us face it.”

At the same time, Dr. Aaron S. Allen, a musicology professor at UNC Greensboro, is interested in what the pursuit of some “pristine” natural soundscape devoid of human threat may say about our failings to understand the cultural nuances of sustainability. Allen, the quasi-Godfather of ecomusicology, wasn’t even allowed to pursue a thesis investigating the overlap between environmental science and music when he was a student. His advisers told him no one would give him a job if he tied his name to such a project that, ultimately, “wouldn’t be perceived as serious.” After all, who would care about the connection between music and nature? 

Now, however, he finds himself often considering the idea of how an untouched wilderness in need of documentation reinforces the problematic separation of human and nature that feeds environmental neglect. “The idea of wilderness is this idea that there is this nature that’s not ever been touched,” Allen says. “This has informed a lot of conservation. And it says, for example, oh, we like tigers, we’re gonna create a tiger sanctuary and get all the people out… It’s really problematic, and that undergirds a lot of the racism, the xenophobia, the eugenics, a lot of the kinds of really problematic environmental history in this country in particular.” 

The effort to pursue wilderness at all costs, according to Allen, can be something of a trap. But the act of drawing attention to its historic entanglement with music is surely meaningful.

For California-based instrument maker, field recorder, and performer Cheryl E. Leonard, this work really began as a type of collection. Rocks, shells, trash from the street. Years ago, she had been absorbed in the San Francisco noise music scene. She watched musicians making instruments from garbage, she started noticing the sound a rock would make when she kicked it on an afternoon hike. “You start to think hey, that’s a really nice sound. Can I take that home with me,” Leonard says. She began taping mics onto everything, testing out what they might offer. Then her self-described eureka moment came. 

She was in the Berkeley Hills Park playing viola with a friend, another musician playing cello. All of a sudden, musical improv gave way to both musicians forming bows for their stringed instruments out of items in the forest. Then, the duo realized the items themselves (a stick or a leaf for example) could themselves be the instruments. “It’s really just exploring objects and sounds… And deciding to play,” Leonard says. 

Today, she can be found shaping penguin vertebrae into hand-held instruments, tree bark into bows, animal bones into rattles. When she traveled to Antartica with the intention of recording Weddell seals and glaciers, she was struck by the sheer noisiness of a seemingly quiet deserted continent. “I was there during the austral summer so all the animals are frantically trying to reproduce,” she says. “There’s always wave sounds and then lots of birds. Elephant Seal calls echoing from far away.” She released an album composed of the arctic sounds she heard, Antarctica: Music From the Ice, combining field recordings with sounds played on limpet shells, rock slabs, and penguin nesting stones. Here, bringing sounds back from the edge of the world became a way to remind people what is in need of saving.

A variety of select Antarctic musical instruments made by Cheryl Leonard using Adélie penguin bones, Antarctic limpet shells, and driftwood. (Photo by Cheryl Leonard, 2011).

Now, Leonard is carefully tracking the evolution of microphone technology in wait of the day that she can record those quiet sounds she’s so drawn to, without them being eclipsed by feedback. Certain types of plants. Certain cuts of stone. There is potential for not just the cerebral but the investigative in this type of work. She believes this kind of probing search for beauty and disruption is where change can often find its most fertile foothold.

Leonard wants to record California glaciers on Mount Shasta. Altogether, she’s collected three hours of recordings but it’s an expanse of time she describes as minimal. She wants more. There are, after all, not many glaciers left in California and even the ones that remain are rapidly melting. To preserve some piece of this in sound is to preserve some piece of life that will soon become history. “The great thing about sound is it has such a visceral effect on us,” Leonard says. “It’s a way to connect people in this emotional way to place.”

One of Cheryl Leonard’s homemade instruments: Kelpchimes.

And indeed: Baird, Bouyer, Primason, and Allen, each have some story about those first sounds that were too mesmerizing to ignore. Maddi Baird was drawn to foghorns. Ethan Primason: the sound of wind filling up an empty cavern. Carmen Bouyer: the water. Even Aaron Allen: the sound of rain on a tin roof, then birds.

“It’s a similar idea to beauty,” Leonard says, “you can either learn to recognize the beauty in that place, or you can keep going and completely miss it.”

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