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/

Adrift in a Sea of Bells


My cohort Eleanor Mills introduced me to The Soundgarden at Central Park Elementary School several years ago. Eleanor goes there on a regular basis to “wake up the bells.” She has developed an intimate relationship with these bells, their interesting harmonics and how they all speak to and blend with each other. I have been privileged to play along with her on several occasions. Here is a short sample of Eleanor waking up the bells at a recent play date:

The Soundgarden was designed and constructed by Andrew Preiss in honor of Greg Taylor, a local musician and teacher at Central Park School who died in 2007. ┬áIt is made of steel cylinder tanks (often referred to as bottles) cut to varying lengths to produce a variety of tones low to high. There are 8 large tanks and 12 tank tops positioned along M shaped bar (see photo). As you can hear from the clip, these rough cut steel tubular “bells” send out a sweet and sour soup of tones. Eleanor has discovered a variety of techniques in her playing that pull a rich and interesting sonic landscape from them.

These days our group prefers to pop up and perform soundscapes in interesting spaces with little notice. So the Soundgarden is a perfect spot for us (once I discovered there was electricity available. As an electronic musician, electricity is a necessity­čöî). In order to produce a soundscape that would compliment the bells, I wanted to analyze their harmonic character. So I took my tuner down to the Soundgarden and hit each bell and held up the tuner. Well, the diverse harmonics that spring forth from the bells were just too much for the tuner – it was all over the place and seemed inaccurate to my ear. For example, the two tanks on the right in the photo above are clearly a minor third apart to the ear. Yet the tuner registered A# to F, which would be a fifth. This was a puzzlement.

I found a more accurate method of analysis by recording each bell individually and studying them on a spectrum analyzer. This approach was revealing and somewhat tedious. However, the rewards made it well worth the time spent scrutinizing the spectrum analyzer to pinpoint precise frequencies as they arose and decayed in the bell tone. I was able to track overtones up into the 5th and 6th octaves above the fundamental tone of each bell.  Most of the overtones are enharmonic overtones (meaning the frequencies are not in a whole number integer relationship to the fundamental frequency of the bell), so they tend to be slightly more dissonant than consonant.

One interesting discovery was the presence of undertones in the bells. The two middle bells hanging on each side of the structure had tones that popped out underneath the perceived fundamental tone. The mystery of the heard minor third opposed to the measured perfect fifth was solved by this discovery. The fundamental tones of the two bells as seen on the spectrum analyzer and perceived by my ear are A# and C# – voila! the minor third. The bell that sounds a C# had an undertone of F, thus the tuner picked up the undertone. Interestingly, the center two bells on each side all had undertones and the tuner picked up on these undertones as confirmed by the spectrum analyzer.

So I had fun putting all the frequencies on charts to compare and contrast them. It was interesting to note how true (or not true) the bell overtones were to charted pitches. For example, a concert A is 440 hz but the bell tone frequencies that fell in the 400 block of A were closer to 432 hz (something to chew on for all the 432 hz tuning conspiracy theorists.) I charted all the over (and under) tones to see which tones were the most prominent. The most frequently appearing tone was a B, which is the tone of the natural world and deep space. The next most frequent were A,D,F and G. The least frequent tone was G#, but that one popped up alot in the tank tops.

In the final analysis, I used a pentatonic scale of BADFG for the soundscape called “Adrift in a Sea of Bells”- and it is a work in progress. Tonight we will play to a prerecorded track of the piece, but you will get a taste of it. My computer decided it was tired and started dropping audio as I was playing the soundcapes at our runthrough last Sunday. So we will not play “The Sound of Sirens” tonight because I really need to trigger and sculpt that piece with Ableton. We will perform that next time we play.

I believe the weather will turn in our favor, so please join us tonight at 7 pm for a Post-Moog sound offering. We will be at 724 Foster Street at the Sound Sculpture in front of the Central Park Elementary School. Bring your own chair and join us for an hour or so. Look forward to seeing you there!