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.
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).
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!