Music responding to the sounds already present
"It sounded so free, like it was spontaneously generating itself... I don't think I've ever heard you play like that before."
~ one of my sisters, after listening to the video below
WaterWalks is a series of artist-led events centered around water justice in Pittsburgh. At Nine Mile Run, participants hiked along part of the stream, learned about its health & ongoing restoration efforts, and attended a tea ceremony held by artist Ginger Brooks Takahashi.
In October, I got a text from a friend of mine & former classmate, Zachary Rapaport. A project of his, WaterWalks, had been postponed due to COVID & was being re-organized for a safely-distanced version in November.
For this version, he invited me to collaborate. As someone who envisions building her performing career around multidisciplinary, community events, I happily accepted.
“some improvisational flute music that welcomes people to the 'delta' of Nine Mile Run… Responding to the sounds that will already be present there, the birds, insects, the water, leaves rustling, falling, crunching.” ~ Ginger Brooks Takahashi, from an email exchange brainstorming our collaboration
Over email, Zachary, Ginger, and I came up with a plan for me to offer live, improvisatory music before the tea ceremony. Here's a glimpse of our collaboration (I start playing at 0:35).
In this video, Ginger serves tea for participants. Music starts at 0:35. Thanks to Kathy Zhang for this video! I will re-record this music to share with my community on Patreon.
My history with improvising stems from two experiences: taking eurhythmics classes and improvising with pentatonic scales for yoga classes.
Here is my idea of "good improvisation":
Has something to do with a tonal center
Employs strategic lengths of phrasing, rhythmic variation, etc.
versus what I know how to do:
"Whatever sounds nice"
Intentionality with details, as if they’ve been planned all along (tone color, inflection, rhythmic energy, character)
In music school, they don't train you to "respond to the sounds that are already present." You're trained to deliver a pristine, painstakingly-prepared performance. This collaboration awakened the radical creative freedom lulled to sleep by traditional music performance.
"WaterWalks: Creative Action for Community Justice is a socially engaged art project working to center overlooked histories and marginalized perspectives in Pittsburgh’s ongoing water crisis. This goal is accomplished through artist-led 'Walks,' participatory experiences that advocate for environmental justice." ~ WaterWalks' mission statement
In total transparency, during the Walk, I struggled to balance the tone of the event (introspective, healing, meditative) and my responsibility to sustain this tone, with my inner stress regarding the uncertainty of what I would play & how it would sound.
As a performer, I’ve never had so little control over — and known so little about — what was going to happen. Not only was I about to improvise based on my surroundings, but this was my first time in that space. Outdoor gigs are always a gamble with the weather & acoustics.
I had the option of not going on the roughly 2.5-mile hike before playing, but wanted to learn & participate along with the others. Throughout the hike, I had so much nervous energy that my mind was improvising music non-stop, in a frantic grasp at control over my performance.
This level of mental stress might come as a surprise to those who were present. Part of it had to do with having just worked a busy morning shift at the bakery counter. Mostly, I think it has to do with how many "firsts" this gig held for me.
However, as with any traditional musical performance, the warmth of people's response rinsed my perspective — the countless details of my performance paled beside my vulnerability in being there, offering music to those around me.
As a collaborator & performing artist, I want to be incredibly flexible with the values and vision of my collaborators, even if it means melting the walls of my comfort zone. At Nine Mile Run, this meant I wasn’t quite “performing” — rather, I was a background piece meant to blend within & enhance a much larger experience.
For the rest of this post, I’ve documented how I prepared for this gig. If you read through, I'm curious what you think of my approach, and what you may have done differently.
For now, here's a link where you can learn more about Nine Mile Run & read Ginger's poem for the tea ceremony, as well as a brief, final clip from the event:
Thanks again to Kathy Zhang for this video!
How I prepared before the Walk:
I read Ginger’s poem for the tea ceremony for a sense of mood, color, rhythm, character.
Based on the poem, I chose a pentatonic scale (but eventually added a 6th note for more flexibility).
In the days leading up to the event, I practiced improvising with those six notes for ~10 minutes at a time (the time estimate we'd come up with). I focused on using color to sound intentional, rather than haphazard.
I recorded my practicing. Here's one of these recordings. (Though in this video, I was so focused on improvising that my intonation went out the window.)
I listened back to my recordings, deciding what kinds of note-groupings & rhythmic patterns I wanted to incorporate.
During the Walk:
Throughout the hike, I listened to the sounds around me. What could I create with six notes that existed in dialogue with these sounds? (Notably, the soundscape was constantly changing.)
Based on these sounds, I brainstormed, "What can I improvise that sounds like this?" (Water — a sense of fluidity, cascading — fast rhythmical patterns. Birds chirping — high-pitched trills & fast, short repeated notes. Leaves rustling — low notes, trills.)
Due to nervous energy, I was also improvising in my head throughout the entire hike. The nervous energy wasn't ideal, but the additional mental practice helped.
I arrived at the delta shortly before the other participants, where Ginger was waiting & had prepared the tea ceremony. The breathtaking imagery provided plenty of further inspiration.
I assembled my flute and found a spot close to the water.
I didn’t warm up, because the improvisation itself could function as a warm up (also, it was only a couple more minutes before people would begin to arrive).
As I started to play, I realized how cold my hands were. I was unable to play as many fast rhythms as I had practiced. (Obviously, this was my first time playing outside in colder weather & I didn't plan too well.)
As I became aware of people arriving, I recalled the thoughts that centered me during my performance "Around the Fire." To breathe deeply, to remain focused & present to the music I was creating, to keep my posture grounded, & my body free of excess tension.
Before the tea ceremony, I used those six notes (or more specifically, the repertoire of rhythms & note-groupings I'd assembled prior) to offer some kind of dialogue with the sounds and sights around me. Something pretty, introspective, evocative.
After the tea ceremony, I was inspired by Ginger's words & used the same six notes to experiment with balancing tones of sadness, heaviness, with the exhuberance of the nature around me.
"a tea for the protection of intimacy and immunity
as one does not exist without the other...
Here in Nine Mile Run Watershed, which is part of Monongahela watershed, and a small part of the ancestral homelands of the Osage Nation, I asked the following plants to be part of this tea...
Boil water, pour over your blend of wild cherry bark, mugwort, dokudami, and elderflower...
Let this tea be a prayer for our collective bodies."
~ words from a tea ceremony held by Ginger Brooks Takahashi