From Movement to Sound: Composer Cheryl Leonard responds to Trisha Brown

Cheryl Leonard performing  Asterisms  at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Margo Moritz.

Cheryl Leonard performing Asterisms at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Margo Moritz.

Below musician Cheryl Leonard reflects on her process of creating an instrument and a new piece of music, Asterisms, in response to Trisha Brown's Locus as part of Hope Mohr Dance's 2016 Bridge Project, "Ten Artists Respond to Locus."


I began by defining the space within which I would work, and I knew this would take the form of a large musical instrument/sculpture that my "Locus"-inspired composition would be played upon. Trisha's use of a 3-tiered cube interested me but was a bit too square for my tastes, which have been tempered by years of studying circular and spiraling movements in aikido. I wanted to use a spherical space, but that posed too many logistical difficulties so I went with a cylinder.

In order to explore performing with no "front" to my stage setup, I decided to build a 360-degree instrument I could sit inside and play, a little like the tabla tarang (in Indian classical music, a set of tuned drums arranged in arc around the performer), but completely encircling me. I also toyed with the idea of breaking free from this space at some point during my piece and either playing the outside of the instrument or leaving it behind completely and striking out into the audience, suddenly exploding and expanding my conception of the space. These ideas didn't make it into the first version of my piece "Asterisms," mainly because of time constraints, but I'd still like to explore them in future iterations.

As for what exactly my instrument would be comprised of, I wanted to continue using natural materials, both because that's my preferred instrumentation these days, and as a nod to John Cage's piece "Child of Tree," in which the performers play plant materials as instruments and improvise within a randomly-generated time-based framework. I performed this piece once back in the mid-90s at a John Cage Festival at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. Not only was Cage an important contemporary of Trisha Brown, but his work has had a huge influence on my musical development. Incidentally, "Child of Tree" and "Locus" were both composed in 1975.

DD, a musical instrument built by Cheryl Leonard for her composition  Asterisms.  Photo by Cheryl Leonard.

DD, a musical instrument built by Cheryl Leonard for her composition Asterisms. Photo by Cheryl Leonard.

I chose to have three strata in my instrument: dirt, tree branches, and autumn leaves. The base of the instrument is a donut-shaped container, 5-feet in overall diameter, which is made out of cardboard, lined with plastic, and filled with potting soil. Experimentation revealed that cactus mix is the best sounding potting soil, so that's what I employed. This inadvertently created another connection to "Child of Tree," as amplified cactus is one of the instruments specifically called for in Cage's score. Mounted into the dirt donut base are four tree branches, each approximately 4' tall, and positioned equidistant from each other. Red, yellow, orange, and brown autumn leaves from a variety of trees are attached to the ends of twigs on each branch. In the spirit of haiku, I thought it would be fun to include a seasonal reference in my piece. Thus the leaves are required to be autumn leaves. The instrument is named DD, which is both an abbreviation for "dirt donut," and a reference to "didi," the Nepali word for older sister. DD is amplified via hydrophones buried in the potting soil and contact microphones taped onto each of the four tree branches. Two open-air microphones are used to pick up the sounds of bowing additional loose leaves.

Although I have studied music made through aleatoric processes, especially many of Cage's compositions, I have never really used a randomized system to generate or organize my own music. I admit, I'm rather attached to my aesthetic sense governing my compositional process, and so I'm reluctant to leave too much up to chance. However, I am intrigued by the idea that a randomized structural system can be a vehicle for innovation, a concept that fueled Trisha's creation of "Locus" and many of her other works. Beyond just incorporating a random organizational structure, "Locus's" structure specifies where to move in space, something which is not often addressed directly in music. I was interested to see what new directions (please excuse the unavoidable pun!) a random, spatially-based external structure might push me in.

Like Trisha did for "Locus," I began my compositional process by translating a few sentences of text into locations in space. Instead of a 3-dimensional cube I chose to work with 2-dimensional compass directions, a navigational system I am very comfortable with from extensive experience hiking and climbing. I wanted the text to connect to my instrument and also to the concept of artistic lineage, so I chose the first two sentences from Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree. They read:

"Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest."

Generating the score for Cheryl Leonard's  Asterisms.

Generating the score for Cheryl Leonard's Asterisms.

I mapped each letter of the alphabet to one of eight compass directions: north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest. I considered dividing the compass into 26 bearings and mapping each letter to one of those bearings, but that seemed unnecessarily complex and very difficult to realize in live performance. Therefore each of the eight compass directions corresponds to more than one letter. I wrote out my sequence of spatial directions as text abbreviations (N, NE, S, etc.), but soon realized this would be impossible to interpret quickly on stage. A more intuitive way of notating the compass directions was needed. I toyed with a few possibilities and landed on the notion of working with one word at a time, mapping its points onto a circle, and then drawing vectors between them. I was delighted to discover that the resulting diagrams resembled a star chart full of mini-constellations. This is how my piece got its title, "Asterisms" (an asterism is a pattern of stars recognized in the Earth's night sky). I also color-coded the score based on the number of vectors in each individual word/asterism as a way to quickly locate simple or more complex patterns.

Cheryl Leonard's final score for A sterisms .

Cheryl Leonard's final score for Asterisms.

Because the spatialization of sounds is central to both the instrument and my composition, a quadraphonic sound system is used for "Asterisms" and each microphone on DD is mapped to an octant in the performance space. The four hydrophones in the dirt are located at N, S, E, W. The four contact mics on tree branches are at NE, SE, SW, NW. The two open-air condenser microphones are at E and W. Given this setup, it is possible to play grand gestures that literally move the sound around the entire venue, to generate smaller localized voices, or to sample the myriad other options which lie between these two extremes of scale.

I knew I wanted to play the three strata (dirt, branches, leaves) one after another, from bottom to top, to parallel the idea of lineages growing, branching out, and blossoming, and also in reference to the fact that Trisha used the same sequence of numbered points three times in "Locus." But how exactly I would translate my star-chart score into music remained to be determined.

Drawing on concepts from physical exercises in our workshop while experimenting with how to interpret a page full of mysterious diagrams, I brainstormed techniques for playing DD. I took rounded granite stones and, in large sweeping motions, literally traced the vectors of each asterism around the whole instrument. I played with smaller motions of tilting, tipping, stacking, un-stacking, redirecting, and rotating stones in the dirt. On the tree branches I bowed limbs and twigs with a child-sized violin bow, and wove and pulled string through the branches like a giant game of cat's cradle. Again, the asterisms could be interpreted with large-scale movements which spanned all the branches encircling me, by using more modest motions like rotating the bow around a single branch, or even on a microscopic scale by subtly shifting the direction and amount of pressure placed on the bow while leaving it essentially in the same spot. With leaves, I tried brushing, shaking, swishing against, and bowing them, both using ones attached to the branches and free leaves that I played while moving them around in front of the open air mics. As I explored these diverse techniques I considered how movement qualities such as lengthening, redirecting, inhaling and exhaling, the pull of gravity, counterthrust to gravity, and equilibrium might affect the sounds I was generating.

From my favorite DD sound discoveries I assembled a loose plan for my improvisational composition and created a tape part that I could play on top of live. The tape part is entirely comprised of recordings me playing DD (plus some extra autumn leaves) and all the sounds are interpretations of asterisms from the score. Given more arms I would have loved to have played all the sounds live but, being limited to only two upper limbs, a tape part was necessary to generate a compelling density of sound.

The piece begins with the first 10 or so asterisms played in order using rocks in the dirt. After this I largely abandoned the sequence of asterisms and gave myself license to jump around freely between them while progressing through a lexicon of playing techniques and journeying from dirt to branches to leaves. Throughout the piece I continued to use the asterisms to generate shapes for my musical gestures and tried to express each one as a sonic phrase. Still playing with scale, some phrases stretched out leisurely over time, while others were fleeting. Sometimes I really struggled to unearth some kind of musicality while remaining true to the dictates of the asterism. Although this could be quite frustrating, it did succeed in forcing me to seek out new approaches and techniques, and I have the asterisms to thank for a few precious eureka moments (including the strings-woven-through-branches cat's cradle section). The piece ends with a return to the formal sequence and original sounds, as the last four asterisms ("king of the forest") are played in the dirt. For me, this return to the roots, as it were, is an acknowledgement of and wink at my artistic forebears.

In this first version of "Asterisms" I have only begun to scratch the surface. I am certain DD contains more unique voices just waiting to be unleashed, and that those little star-patterns can lead me to a lot of other sonic worlds. I'm looking forward to realizing a much longer version of "Asterisms" in the future and exploring some more unforeseen possibilities.

DD. Photo by Cheryl Leonard.

DD. Photo by Cheryl Leonard.


Cheryl E. Leonard is a composer, performer, and instrument builder whose works investigate sounds, structures, and objects from the natural world. Her projects reveal and highlight unique sounds and often feature amplified natural-object instruments and field recordings from remote locales. Leonard has received grants from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, American Music Center, American Composers Forum, ASCAP, Meet the Composer, and the Eric Stokes Fund. Her commissions include works for Kronos Quartet, and Illuminated Corridor. She has been awarded residencies at Djerassi, the Arctic Circle, Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus, Villa Montalvo, the Paul Dresher Ensemble Studio, and Engine 27.