Cardinal Points/The Hinge @ NC Botanical Gardens Annual Sculpture in The Gardens Show

The Cardinal is one of the most recognized birds in America. Named for their color like the robes of Catholic Bishops, Cardinalis Cardinalis is the state bird of seven US states including North Carolina. Having lived in four of those states, the Cardinal has been my state bird most of my life. So I enjoyed collaborating with Debbie Cohen, visual artist, and Bruce Edwards, woodwork artist, on the multi-media sculpture Cardinal Points/The Hinge.

The inspiration for the piece sprang from a years long friendship forged in creative play! Each Fall season, Debbie invited me to see the Sculpture in the Garden at the NC Botanical Gardens. She and her mother, Joan Cohen, have exhibited pieces in the show in previous years. One year, we sang Debbie’s brilliant song Tick Tock Time while engaging with the their sculptures and with the gardens. Last year, I wondered aloud about a sonic component to a sculpture, and off we went!

Our first inspirations were lofty – a ceramic perch for hawks with a sound sculpture of the calls of all the hawks of North Carolina. The perch would serve as an amplifier for a small speaker in the bottom playing the hawk calls. We realized that the regular calling out of many predators might be potentially aggravating for the smaller birds around the garden. This brings up an interesting design aspect of sound sculpting – how to present sculpted sound in a particular space so the audience is engaged and not irritated. This issue came up later in our working on this piece.

Then we were inspired by the Cardinal! First, the word Cardinal with its Latin/Catholic Church underpinnings and all its varied uses – Cardinal Numbers, Cardinal Directions, Cardinal Points, the last of which became the title for the piece! The physical sculpture was a group collaboration with input from Debbie’s mother, Joan, local artist/dancer Marty Broda, and others. Debbie, Bruce and I co-created the sculpture, which evolved over time but was always conceived as a tryptych. Debbie created four abstract Cardinal sculptures that are mounted in three different settings. One setting is a gorgeous piece of driftwood we obtained from Marty’s collection. I did not think much of it, as I got excited finding a perfect piece of white birch about 3.5 inches in diameter and perfect bark with interesting markings!! What is more iconic than a Cardinal on a white birch limb! So the birch limb is one setting.

Back to the driftwood- one day we intentionally broke the piece, reassembled it in an interesting way, and glued it into a new shape, which is a nest-like configuration. Debbie sanded and poly-ed that piece of wood into a gorgeous wood sculpture on which 2 of the ceramic birds are mounted. This piece is the anchor for the tryptych, and, thanks to the way Bruce mounted it on the fence at The Gardens, it appears to be floating!!

The third piece brings us back to the how to engage the audience with the sound sculpture. The first idea for this was to have the sound sculpture in an amplifier that would be triggered by motion! I commissioned Mark Boyd to design and build a box for this purpose. The box is beautiful and works great, but the curators for the show rejected this aspect due to possibly being an irritant to staff who might be triggering it over and over while working in the garden. I was disappointed and understanding of their position. The sound box was no longer a part of the physical sculpture. Bruce had designed and built a small shelf for the sound box and bird, so what what could replace the sound box? Debbie found two empty bird nests which she carefully wove together to create the third piece – a Cardinal on a nest.

We were pleased that Cardinal Points was accepted, and wondering how to bring The Hinge in, when friend Shana Adams suggested linking the sound sculpture to a QR Code so folks viewing Cardinal Points could listen to the sound sculpture via their phone! This turned out to be the perfect solution to the presentation issue in this case. The curators agreed, and we have the QR Code on the informational plaque for Cardinal Points. The QR code can be scanned by the camera on your phone! A website will come up on the phone, tap it and this will take you to my blog, where the sound sculpture now lives! You will see a web player with a playbutton. Make sure the sound on the phone is at least 75% full volume, tap play and listen!

The inspiration underlying The Hinge came from several spiritual traditions that believe the Cardinal is a messenger who moves between the spirit and material worlds. The word Cardinal is from the Latin cardo meaning “hinge”, so the birds are the hinges on the doorway between realms bringing messages to and from deceased loved ones. This is the inspiration for the sound sculpture, which sonically creates this movement between worlds in 45 seconds. First we hear the familiar “what-cheer” that is so recognizable as the Cardinal’s song! After several iterations, the call shimmers, breaks apart and feathers out into a kind of out breath. I invite folks engaging with the sculpture at NC Botanical Gardens to see the beautiful visual, remember a beloved and send love with the sonic outbreath.

The show runs from September 18 to December 4, 2022. For more about the show go to https://ncbg.unc.edu/visit/exhibits/sculpture-in-the-garden/

Listening to the Micro-Environment

Thanks to Nancy Lowe from AS IS Center near Penland School, I am “new best friends” with Mark Boyd. Mark is a sound artist who records and amplifies the “voices” of plants, ants and flowing water: the realm of the tiny vibratory world. Talk about deep listening! Mark has been using electrode sensors on plants into a Volca Synth to listen to the electrical life force within the plant! He sent me recordings of his “biologues” with Bleeding Heart and Fern, and Dogwood. The playback presents us with a lot of fast-paced random sounds. Mark is interested in transducing this data into something people might listen to. Here is an excerpt from Mark’s Bleeding Heart and Fern biologues:

Excerpt MB BiologueBHnF

Ableton Live contains numerous tools for transposing/transducing/converting sonic data. An audio clip, such as the one you just heard, can be converted into midi clips; one that renders melody information, and another that renders harmonic information. So now we have audio information rendered as 2 packets of midi information. Within Ableton, midi files can be collapsed or stretched across a timeline and still maintain the integrity of the rhythmic intervals. Midi data can be assigned to a “voice” that feels representative of the sound artist’s impressions of the particular plant that is speaking. Midi data can be fed back into a synth such as the Volca to complete the circle.

The scaling of the time frames of the midi clips is exactly what is needed to help us “hear” the biofeedback from the plants. Doubling the length of the midi clip slows the overall “tempo” and helps us to listen into a kind of river of sound emitted by the plants. Slowing down allows us to tune into a rhythmic cohesiveness that is obscured by the frantic pace of the plant’s raw electrical impulses. We inject spaciousness into the mix in just the right amount, and it sounds like something is being communicated.

After finishing the new rendering of the data, I sent this to Mark:

Excerpt Biologue BHnF Remix dejacusse

He was ecstatic, over the top about all the possibilities of Ableton. He downloaded the Lite version and took off with it. We had some great email exchanges and he sent me samplings of his tests and experiments with the flora around his mountain home. Here is a beautiful example with a plant in Mark’s home:

I look forward to Mark putting together an orchestra of local flora in concert in the near future. In the meantime, I am enjoying dialoguing with another human being who is listening as deeply as I am.