Tag: meditation

Chicago: Hiking the Song Path, hearing music everywhere

These golden weeks of early fall are the perfect time for Chicagoans to get outside and engage our senses. Perhaps, with the help of composer and sound artist Ryan Ingebritsen, we might engage our sense of listening in particular.
When I heard about Ingebritsen’s Song Path project — a venture that began in 2010 as a series of “sonic guided tours” of Minnesota State Parks — I jumped at the chance to speak with him about it. The Song Path idea intrigues multiple layers of my existence as a musician, lover of nature, and meditator. For Ingebritsen, Song Path is a practice that explores guided meditation and hiking as a compositional form.


Ingebritsen recently designed a Song Path hike at the North Park Village Nature Center on the outskirts of Chicago. I caught up with him to chat about what it means for a primarily electronic artist to lead troupes of people through the woods.

Ellen McSweeney: You work a lot with electronic media, from the Millennium Park sound system to electrified sewing machines. But when you described the Chicago Song Path event, you emphasized the lack of microphones and electronic equipment. Is it refreshing for you, to just work with nature and the human ear?

Ryan Ingebritsen: When I first started working with electronics, it was actually quite a leap for me. Up to that point, I had viewed myself as an acoustic composer who would not get involved in electronics or amplification. In those days there was much more of an aesthetic separation between the two trajectories, at least at music conservatories. But I found that I was always wanting to orchestrate in a way where one sound kind of emerged out of another, and wanted to literally have one sound “become” another and embody something of the other sound. That is when I started working with electronics and amplification more seriously. That led to a career-long obsession with interaction and the interactive process, which in turn led to my obsession with interdependent performance practice between artists of different media or disciplines.

I’d spend hours in the studio with sound, listening to the subtle details that made up those sounds. And in performance, I often play the role of sound environment manipulator, focusing on the specific sound environment in which the performer and audience live. So in a sense, what I do with Song Path is not much different from my live performance practice. I’m just moving an audience through an existing space to create a composition, rather than manipulating a sound environment while they sit in one place.

EM: How did you first come upon the idea of Song Path, and how has the practice evolved for you in recent years?

RI: I first started to consider the idea of Song Path while just hiking through the woods with my wife Shannon on camping trips. I would find myself in a place with interesting sounds, like a swamp with lots of frogs or field of crickets, and would notice how sometimes these sounds seemed to appear almost out of nowhere and at other times increased gradually in a very dramatic way.
I think one such specific hike at Starved Rock State Park really got me interested in the idea of doing it as a musical event. The various cavernous spaces that had been carved by water over millions of years seemed to imply different “rooms” for which short pieces could be composed. An audience could hike from location to location and hear a multi-movement work.

I got my first opportunity to really develop the Song Path in 2010 through the support of a McKnight Foundation Visiting Composer Fellowship to Minnesota. In certain spaces, such as Whitewater and Banning State Parks in Minnesota, I found that placing musicians around the park to make noises in very specific locations allowed various sonic elements to be revealed. But my intention with putting them there was only to instigate something that was already present in the space. For example, some natural reverberations exist in a valley when one yells in a specific acoustic node. Put a drum in that node, and a spectacular sound is revealed.

EM: Are walks like these a way to rebalance and refocus your attention, in a world where 24/7 headphones and sonic overload are everywhere?

RI: I think that it is an opportunity to teach the audience to experience their environment in a different way. The head of interpretive programs at Whitewater State Park once told me that after engaging in a purely sonic meditation with his eyes closed, he felt that all of his senses were heightened. I have noticed this myself. Colors seem a bit more vivid and smells a bit more strong. Maybe there’s even a little bit of euphoria.

I will say that a heightened awareness of one’s environment can also be quite a shock to the system, as evidenced by a quick trip I took to Chicago in the middle of the first set of hikes I did. Just getting out of my car onto Western Avenue nearly knocked me over.

EM: Have you ever charted an urban Song Path? What are some of the sonic spots in Chicago that you might put on such a walk?

RI: I have done this for myself a few times, though never with an official audience. One such hike was in Millennium Park. You start it in Lurie Garden, a place that exists because of a man-made structure atop a parking garage that was dug out of a landfill built over 100 years ago that used to be part of Lake Michigan. Then, a garden was planted that reflects the natural landscape that would have existed at that time where a bustling city now stands. We often talk about the intrusion of mankind on nature. This feels more like the intrusion of nature on a man-made environment. It gives you a very small taste of what the place may have sounded like years in the past. But the garden itself also provides a sonic shield from the surrounding city.

I tend to gravitate towards locations where the natural sound environment and man-made sound environment intersect in some specific way. That’s not hard to get, since a sonic landscape untouched by man-made sound almost does not exist on the planet anymore. My friends Eric Leonardson and Dan Godston, associated with the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, have also done hikes in urban spaces, though perhaps with a slightly different aesthetic focus.

EM: What kinds of folks turn out for the walks, and what sorts of reactions and experiences do you witness while leading the walks?
RI: My first round consisted mainly of people who were camping in the Minnesota parks. I literally went tent to tent and talked to people, as did the park rangers. So I had quite a mix of people: from members of the arts scene in Minneapolis to people who were not aware that classical music was something that people still did. Some people said they could not think of what they were experiencing as “music,” but found it a profound experience. I am interested in what that experience is much more than I am interested in what it is called.

Many of my family hikes were attended by parents who were hunters. They said that what I had been doing in the woods — listening deeply and trying not to disturb the natural surroundings so I could hear everything — was very similar to the practice of hunting, or at least what some of them referred to as “real hunting” where it’s just you and the animals: no traps or other tricks. Animals are so sensitive to what they hear that any small movement or noise you make will disturb them and give them some sense of danger. This kind of hunting is a practice of listening more than anything else, and they spend hour upon hour, day after day doing it each season.

I had a hike where a group of atheist hippies from Minneapolis walked alongside a couple that was taking a road trip across the USA visiting different mega-churches. It is rare that a musical experience can engender such commonality among different groups. Musical communication often relies so much on idiom, which in itself often has social or perhaps even political implication. I’ve seen people almost get into physical fights over musical taste, in arguments far more heated than any political debate I have ever seen. But the experience of the hike seems to help tap into something a bit more universal.
Ryan Ingebritsen is the composer of 3 Singers, an innovative opera/sound installation created in collaboration with director and choreographer Erica Mott. The piece will have its Chicago premiere in January.

Buddhist music-making: how meditation could transform the way you work

Tian Tan Buddha

Tian Tan Buddha
Photo by Molly Sheridan

The last concert I heard before I went on a silent meditation retreat was the DePaul University Chamber Orchestra’s all-contemporary program. The first-ever performance of its type at DePaul, the concert generated considerable excitement among the Chicago listening community. The evening was an ambitious tour of 20th-century orchestral monoliths, designed by conductor Michael Lewanski to make a strong statement of advocacy and artistry. The young ensemble opened with Xenakis’ Tracees, closed with Berio’s Sinfonia, and played Ligeti’s Lontano and the US premiere of Gerard Pesson’s Aggravations et Final in between.

As I sat during the Xenakis, utterly annihilated by the sound of the tam-tam, I wondered what it would be like for a musician, in particular, to pass seven days in silence.

We musicians know that silence is as precious as sound itself; we try to care as well for the rests as we do for the music in between. But we also, like most human beings, fear the idea of a long silence. Is it safe—is it even possible—to pause our perpetual inner soundtrack and be truly alone with our chaotic thoughts, our chaotic selves?

As it turns out, a week spent in silent meditation is difficult, but quite survivable—even wonderful. I was very fortunate that two of the foremost Western teachers of Buddhism, Christina Feldman (whose phrasing I use below in quotes) and Narayan Liebenson, led the retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Both teachers spoke about how ancient teachings on mindfulness and compassion can illuminate our modern lives. Now that I’m speaking, reading, writing, and playing the violin again, I’m reflecting on how these teachings could transform our work as composers and performers. While meditation is not a self-improvement or life-fixing project, the principles and guiding intentions behind the practice have the capacity to gently and completely transform the way we live.

Learning to live within our bodies. One of the primary trainings of a meditation practice is to notice how often we are lost in thought, and to redirect our awareness inside the physical body. The first foundation of mindfulness is to “know the body as the body.” For the performer in particular, this is a powerful tool. As we sit onstage, surrounded by a swirl of sound, activity, anxiety, and many other human beings, we can anchor ourselves in awareness of our breath, physical contact with our instrument, or where our body makes contact with the floor or the chair. We can recognize that we are here, and fully inhabit our bodies as they perform their complex tasks.

Learning that each moment disappears and is followed by another moment. This teaching—that all things are impermanent—might be one of the tidbits you learned about Buddhism during your middle-school survey of world religions. Or it might resonate as a kind of New Age cliché: this moment is all we have! Yet performers and composers already inhabit this reality, because impermanence is inherent to our art form. A beautiful chord, a nicely blended timbre, a favorite melody, or a facepalm-inducing mistake onstage: whether pleasant or unpleasant, they’re here and then they’re gone. Getting in better touch with the ever-changing nature of our experience might increase our sensitivity, relaxation, and appreciation of what we’re doing—and help us let go of what wasn’t perfect.

Learning to “cultivate non-distractedness.” What’s the point of sitting still on a cushion for several hours a day, doing absolutely nothing, paying attention to what we are experiencing internally? Perhaps we could consider it a kind of practice session for being present during everyday life. I still remember being a teenager and hearing a professional musician say that he sometimes thought about what color to repaint his kitchen during orchestra concerts. Distraction and boredom are utterly human, but they unfortunately can keep us from being present during the very moments in our lives and careers that we want to treasure most.
Learning to balance between “agency and receptivity.” In meditation and in life, this means striking a balance between doing something and letting things be. For chamber musicians in particular, this is such a huge part of our work. When do we lead? When do we follow? When do we seize control of the tempo to avoid it sagging, and when do we allow the music to simply unfold, trusting that it will do what it needs to do? A silent meditation practice is a kind of training ground for precisely this.

Learning not to be at war with ourselves or others. For about an hour each day on my silent retreat, we did a practice called metta, or loving-kindness, in which we set an intention for the happiness of all beings. During metta, you gradually widen the circle of good intentions: beginning with ourselves, then those we’re close to, then those we don’t know, and finally, those we struggle with. This insight meditation practice acknowledges that we spend much of our lives dwelling in the emotional equivalent of toxic waste, and that we need an active practice to create a more safe and nurturing emotional environment for ourselves and our awareness. In case you haven’t noticed, life in music can be difficult at times. The challenges often lead us into mind-states of competition, criticism, and anxiety. I’m hopeful that my own metta practice will help me make a shift in perspective from separateness to togetherness, and from scarcity to sufficiency.