Let the music ring: A Q&A with the creator of 'Tree-Ring Listening'

Let the music ring: A Q&A with the creator of 'Tree-Ring Listening'

By Andy OberUniversity Communications
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Kelly Leslie, associate professor of art, created visual and design elements for "Tree-Ring Listening," including the above image of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in the Bryant Bannister Tree Ring Building.
Kelly Leslie, associate professor of art, created visual and design elements for "Tree-Ring Listening," including the above image of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in the Bryant Bannister Tree Ring Building.
Sara Fraker,  associate professor of music
Sara Fraker, associate professor of music
Leslie's students created posters inspired by the 12 trees of "Pine Chant," including this one by senior Autumn Weaver.
Leslie's students created posters inspired by the 12 trees of "Pine Chant," including this one by senior Autumn Weaver.
Master of landscape architecture student Alizabeth Potucek created this poster of a Ponderosa pine for the performance.
Master of landscape architecture student Alizabeth Potucek created this poster of a Ponderosa pine for the performance.

Sara Fraker has always had an interest in science, but she has made her career out of another love: music. Her position as an associate professor of music at a research institution has given her the opportunity to combine her passions to create an ambitious project – a multimedia collaboration telling the story of 12 Arizona trees and what they can tell us about our relationship with nature.

"Tree-Ring Listening" features the world premiere of "Pine Chant," a composition by Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth, as well as light design and art direction by Kelly Leslie, associate professor of art, and spoken word by Margaret Evans, assistant professor of dendrochronology and biologist with the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

In this Q&A, Fraker discusses how the project came together, the message it delivers and what you can expect to see if you attend one of the performances.

How were you introduced to "Pine Chant," and what inspired you to turn it into the “Tree-Ring Listening” performance?

"Pine Chant" is a piece that I commissioned for this project. I got to know the music of Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth, especially his writing for wind instruments, and I felt he was the right person to create this work. Luckily, he is very adventurous and accepted the challenge to write a piece based on tree-ring data.

What will people see and hear during "Tree-Ring Listening"?

The performance begins with "Pine Chant," which is scored for English horn, clarinet, bassoon and a gorgeous aura of electronic sounds. We'll be playing in front of the giant sequoia "cookie" installed in the LTRR's gallery space. When we visited the LTRR building back in 2019 at the very beginning of our collaboration, we knew we wanted to play a concert in this beautiful acoustic space. Margaret Evans, a plant population biologist and our science adviser on this project, will be sharing some context through a spoken word performance. In her work, she uses tree-ring growth data to understand what the trees can tell us about carbon uptake and forest resilience in the face of climate crisis. Our trio will also perform a set of pieces written for this instrumental combination by a diverse group of composers. The reed trio produces a rich sound blend because our instruments share a common mode of sound production – single or double reeds – and wood resonators – the bodies of our instruments made from mpingo, maple and cocobolo. Accompanying the musical program is an art exhibit by Kelly Leslie's digital illustration class in the School of Art. We asked these students to portray "Pine Chant's" 12 individual trees in 12 art posters. They're inspired by botanical drawings and summarize what we know about each tree. They are quite unique and beautiful.

How was this piece inspired by tree-ring climate data from the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research?

It's exciting to be a faculty member at this incredible research university. As a musician, I'm always looking for ways to make interdisciplinary connections, engage new audiences, and pursue the ideas that fascinate me. The LTRR is such a unique research facility, and I was especially drawn to the climate science being done there. 

What is the significance of the 12 Arizona trees, and which ones are they?

Lachlan, our composer, selected 12 individual trees from a large data set provided to us by the USDA Forest Service. These are Douglas firs, Colorado pinyon pines, and Ponderosa pines, all living on forestlands in Arizona. He used tree-ring growth data to control various musical parameters – like note duration, number of pitches, and temporal placement – while also creating a free-composed harmonic structure to center the emotional content of the piece. "Pine Chant" is a data-driven work that sonically embodies the life histories of these trees, but it's also an emotional response to climate crisis. It was important to both of us that the piece go beyond techniques of data sonification, or just turning data into sounds. It's a very compelling musical statement that we hope will resonate with our audiences.

What message do you believe this piece delivers about conservation and climate change?

The simple act of listening indicates respect. Through listening, we acknowledge trees as incredible living beings, as well as our own interbeing with the forests and the land. Through listening, we might even come to discern an intelligence beyond our own. The science is clear: there is very little time to act before environmental consequences become even more dire. The pace of climate change, previously observed on a geologic time scale, is accelerating to approach the human time scale. Observing this change from the perspective of a pine's lifetime is another way to view this confounding situation. At the end of "Pine Chant," one Douglas fir dating back to the 1700s echoes forth into the present moment. It's just incredibly powerful.

Your research explores the intersection of ecology and music. Can you tell us more about this field of study and how you became interested in it?

I've been drawn to ideas in biology and ecology since I was a child. In college, I thought I would pursue a scientific field before my musical studies completely took over. Ever since, I've been dreaming up ways to integrate these two passions of mine, which for me are both embodied and spiritual. My previous artistic collaboration with ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of "Braiding Sweetgrass," spoke to the ways that music can represent animacy, reciprocity and gratitude. This project is an extension of that work. 

What role can music and art play in efforts to address ecological issues?

More and more people are being called to create artistic responses to a broken relationship with the land, because the arts are all about storytelling and cultivating connection. Music especially impacts us in this extraordinary way. It's beyond language and beyond discourse. As musicians, it's this connection that we're always hoping for.

"Tree-Ring Listening" will be performed Dec. 5-7 at 7 p.m. at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research in the Bryant Bannister Tree Ring Building. The performance will feature Sara Fraker on oboe and English horn, Jackie Glazier, assistant professor of music, on clarinet and Marissa Olegario, assistant professor of music, on bassoon. Tickets are available online.

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