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  • Liza Kitchell

Songlines: A Conceptual Score

How do a wavy line and a falling leaf make a musical score? It’s called “conceptual music” - where musical ideas are represented by visual graphics and then turned into music by the performers. 


Back in November, I performed a conceptual piece called Songlines at the Growing Center, and then a few weeks later at the Arts at the Armory in a festival called THANG. I want to share how I came to write Songlines and how the soundscape of the Growing Center inspired it. 



Detail from the score Songlines.

Songlines began in Oakland, California thirty years ago, just after I had completed my BA in music composition at Mills College. The visual score I originally created was based on the Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, near where I grew up. I wrote the score to be site-specific and for the performance to be shaped by the physical place. Needless to say, my idea was a bit too ambitious, and the performance never happened. However, my husband always loved the score and still hoped to see it performed someday. 


I have been a volunteer at the Growing Center for more than twenty years and had always wanted to write an original piece for the Center. So I decided to adapt Songlines to be site-specific to the Growing Center. 


During the summer of 2023, I practiced “deep listening” once a week at the Center and began to collect sounds that represented the Center’s soundscape to me. I then used these collected sounds to form musical ideas which could be played on a variety of instruments such as the accordion, harmonica, ocarina and various percussion instruments. Using one panel of the original score (which constituted a movement), I added elements from the Center such as leaves and seed pods from the linden trees, and drawings of cicadas and birds. I also made “leaf shakers” out of the seed pods from the Hornbeam tree (and they fell apart by November). 


Liza Kitchell, Monique Duhaime and Ram Kelath at the Growing Center.

In July, I invited the community to participate in playing the score. People in the neighborhood stopped by to join the “practices,” and the score began to take shape. Over a period of two months, I was able to create a new Songlines with the help of Monique Duhaime and Ram Kelath through weekly practice sessions. I couldn’t have done it without them! 


If you would like to try playing conceptual music, I will be creating Songlines II next summer. Stop by and join the group. No musical experience is required! 


-Liza Kitchell


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