Tag: sonic ecology

The Big Pivot: Moving Urban Birds from the Park to the Internet

Two little girls seated at an outside table watching someone play cello on a smartphone.

By Jennifer Bewerse & Cassia Streb

The story is one we all know. In March of 2020 Synchromy was busy planning their Urban Birds concert when safer-at-home ordinances shut down all public events in Los Angeles. Urban Birds faced either cancellation or becoming one of the hundreds of livestream concerts flooding the internet. Synchromy had partnered with concert design team Middle Ear Project, and together, they were inspired to rethink the Urban Birds concert so that it could still be an original and engaging experience. Necessity led to inspiration.

The term “concert design” is fairly new to the classical music scene, but many of us might recognize it at work in our favorite concerts. At its core, concert design is the craft of unifying the elements of a concert into a meaningful whole. Venue, repertoire, dress, lights, all of these choices are musical choices in concert design by approaching the entire concert framework as an artistic medium.

Back to Urban Birds… When we (Middle Ear Project) began working with Synchromy in early March, they had already commissioned composers, hired performers, partnered with an outdoor venue (Debs Park, LA’s Audubon Center), and had crafted a theme of musically representing the park’s native birds. Even with all of these elements in place, they still had some specific concerns: How could they motivate people to move around the space? Why should audiences listen to short bird pieces? How could they make the event family friendly, but also enjoyable for experienced concertgoers? Middle Ear Project set out to connect the dots.

We would design the audience’s movement as musical bird watching, which would give listeners a frame of reference for moving around the space and a drive to hear as many of the short pieces as possible. We created a field guide that would act as a program, showing audience members which bird compositions they could look for. The guide would also have space for drawing or writing reflections on each piece, an especially helpful feature for young listeners with short attention spans. To make the event even more immersive for our youngest listeners, we would have a craft station styled as an outpost, where kids could make bird watching tools like toilet paper roll binoculars and a clothespin quail call.

We envisioned kids exploring the park and finding performances hidden among the plants and boulders, while contemporary music fans hiked around hoping to hear compositions by local composers and performers. All of this while the regular avian tenants of the park contributed their authentic bird calls to the scene.

Then, on April 10th, Synchromy sent out an email to tell performers and composers that because of the pandemic, Urban Birds could not move forward as planned. They were, however, committed to keeping the event alive in some capacity and, importantly, paying their artists.

Rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience.

The obvious option was to move Urban Birds online, but rather than create a compromised version of the live event, we were determined to create a distinct online experience. We went back to the conceptual framework of the concert—bird watching—and asked ourselves how we could create a virtual experience with some of the essential features of bird watching. We proposed an interactive website with features that would allow the audience to experience Urban Birds in their homes. Synchromy put their production team into action and the Urban Birds web experience launched a few weeks later.

The map of the park used for the Urban Birds project showing where each bird is located.

The performances became video recordings, which allowed the solo performers to safely present their music. The outdoor musical bird hunt became an interactive map of Debs Park and (for families looking for more of an adventure) a printable QR Code scavenger hunt. The Outpost became an activity web page with instructions for how to make binoculars and a quail call at home.

“This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic.”

Once the website was underway, Synchromy realized that Urban Birds could have an even larger scope than they first imagined. Since the launch, they’ve added more video performances to the website, and, because the online experience of Urban Birds is different enough from the live version, Synchrony still plans to present the original concert sometime in the future. In a time where the music performance industry is massively contracting, it’s exciting to have a project with so much potential for growth. As Jason Barabba, Synchromy’s Director of Artistic Planning, said, “What I found most interesting is I asked myself ‘why weren’t we planning to do this already?’ This website version is a great idea even without a pandemic. I believe this will change the way we think about everything going forward.”

Side by side images of a tree with an info marker and a girl walking holding a map and looking through a pair of binoculars.

It’s clear that social distancing will be the new normal for the foreseeable future, so arts presenters of all types are looking for ways to safely share their work. In contemporary music, we’re already familiar with creating within constraints, whether they be limited resources, shoestring budgets, unconventional venues, or skeptical audiences. We have it in us to apply our resourcefulness and imagination to this new landscape of performing.

Work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises.

While it’s true that some concerts are inextricably linked to a physical space, concerts that are built with strong conceptual purpose can be reimagined in different mediums. We need to ask ourselves not “what can we move online” but “how can a virtual presentation serve this music more fully?” Let’s keep our message, meaning, purpose, and truth at the center of our choices; work from a place of making meaning, not making compromises. The format will follow.

Visit Urban Birds at www.synchromy.org/urban-birds

Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb standing in front of a tree holding a rotary telephone and an XLR cable

Middle Ear Project (Los Angeles) was founded by Jennifer Bewerse and Cassia Streb, a concert design team who has been performing, curating, and producing concerts together since 2014. They use the entire concert framework as a medium to explore ideas, share musical perspectives, and process the world around us. Learn more at middleearproject.com

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.