Q & A with Pete M Wyer: ‘The Sky Beneath our Feet’, Descanso Gardens, April – August 31, 2020

How would you describe the installation you are doing at Descanso Gardens to someone unfamiliar with your work (including technology used, experience, etc.)?

‘The Sky Beneath Our Feet’ is a work for nine choirs of eight voices each, played back via 72 independent audio speakers across an area of California live oaks at Descanso. The score uses pitch, rhythm, tone, dynamic and space and it is my direct response to the land and particularly the trees of Descanso.

I have developed my specialised system of music scoring since 2004 but I still like to work in very old fashioned ways, alongside all the fancy technology I still walk around with pencil and paper and create scores that frequently look quite crazy but help me to picture the sounds as they work with the landscape. I strongly favour using human voices in these pieces because I feel it helps us see ourselves as a part of nature rather than outside observers of nature – we encounter human sounds as one more part of the natural environment. 

What about Descanso Gardens inspired this project?

I love to respond to nature and for me Descanso provides a stunning landscape that is both richly inspirational and very different from my native England. When I visited in 2018 I had just (re)read ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Woelleben. I was fascinated by the idea, expressed in the book, of the ‘wood wide web’ (discovered by Dr. Suzanne Simard) the fact that the tress were communicating with each other beneath the ground across very large distances, also through the air. So I was immediately drawn to the live oaks and to the ancient heritage trees of Descanso. I wanted to create something that suggested a deeper sense of the extraordinary interconnected world carrying on invisibly all around us. 

What is your process for creating this work, from visiting the Gardens to the event?

The beginning is very intuitive for me, perhaps it sounds naive – I spend as much time at the location as possible. I walk around and around, without any special focus. I listen a great deal to what is already there. Everything interests me, the susurrations of leaves in the breeze, birds, distant chatter, hose pipes, traffic, the hum of cables, anything (I have made entire pieces from noting down sounds like these).

Next, I try to hear mentally the sounds that I believe will work well in addition to what’s there. Alongside this I like to learn about the land, its ecosystems, what it would have been like ten years ago, a hundred years ago, a hundred thousand years ago… 

And in this instance I was especially interested in how the trees were experiencing the world. Their perspective of time, for example. I was interested in the history and impact of our own species but also aware that, to a tree we may just be one more fleeting, noisy organism.

What are some of your other sources of inspiration and of the sounds of “The Sky Beneath Our Feet”? Your email references the ancient language of the Aquitanians. What other languages will be included? What is the gist of what these language samples are saying?

I knew I wanted to primarily use a 72-voice choir (or nine choirs of eight voices each) each with a separate speaker, spread over the wide area where there are live oaks. I also knew that I wanted these voices to evoke something of the world of those trees. This led me to the question: ‘what do these voices actually sing?’ I didn’t want to simply give them nonsense sounds but it felt forced to use language in the way humans commonly do. But when I started looking back at very early languages I found what I was hoping for: ancient runic languages such as Elder Futhark and Ogham have a limited number of symbols with multiple possible meanings, these seemed to come from cultures that revered nature and lived with a much closer relationship to it. (illustration) 

Not only that but I liked the fact of communicating not in complex sentences but more in shared and exchanged understandings. Similarly with Aquitanian, the ancient and unique forerunner of today’s Basque language, I liked the fact that these people built altars to evergreen oaks (giving the first movement it’s title ‘Artahe’). I used other languages too, especially from cultures where I felt there was a tradition of reverence of nature.

The Sky Beneath Our Feet takes us on a journey through the life of the trees in ten movements:

  1. Artahe. Voices call across the woodland, an introduction to evoke a world where trees are in constant communication.
  2. Dagaz A celebration of the growing light of dawn.
  3. Sowulo A celebratory song of the earth at sunrise.
  4. Thurisaz (Thor) The coming of rain and storms
  5. Euri Ondoren. After rain comes sunshine.
  6. Kukoistaa. Flowering, blossom, love.
  7. Beorc. Budding. New life, birth.
  8. Mannaz. How do humans sound to trees?
  9. It is Enough. When trees are about to die they release their nutrients back into the soil. A song about acceptance.
  10. The Sky Beneath Our Feet. A short ‘hymn of thanks’ to the earth for the extraordinary natural life going on all around us.

In the above excerpt (from ‘Mannaz’) voices are heard distributed around the land at Descanso, each on a separate speaker. They sing transcriptions of birdsong (Darwin believed birdsong was the closest thing to human speech and many linguists believe speech is partly evolved from birdsong). This movement contemplates how trees experience humans.

Can you describe what visitors will experience with this work?  What do you hope visitors will do, hear, feel, take away from their experience?

The experience is unique for each person and I like it that way. Even for the same person visiting the same piece it’s different each time, it changes with the weather and of course there is no one place where you should be in order to experience the piece, you choose your own way through the piece. When I have created works in response to landscape previously, as with ‘I Walk Towards Myself’ which opened in 2017, I have been very pleased by numbers of people who have felt inspired or deeply moved, people have written to me about running, skipping, crying, even praying in response. But there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ experience, only ‘your’ experience. The only thing I would encourage is to leave the cellphone behind and enjoy it in the moment.

What makes this sound experience different from other experiences of listening to music in the gardens?

You could be forgiven for believing that our ears work in stereo, actually they are evolved, and extraordinarily sensitive, for working out where things are. We hear the world ‘immersively’. In my scores I have tried to account for this by using, in addition to the normal elements of pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamic: space. It makes an enormous difference. Imagine that Beethoven’s ninth symphony or the Verdi Requiem or your favourite piece of music had been written so that you could literally walk through it and wherever you went each experience was different to the last and yet intended as part of the whole experience. Incidentally, the piece does something that Beethoven and Bach didn’t do but that they wanted to do, ie to write for space as well as pitch, rhythm, tone and dynamic.

Is there a target audience for this experience?

As an artist I try to create work in response to an inspiration and then worry about who will like it afterwards so I don’t really think in terms of ‘target audiences’. But I do like to create work that is inclusive and am guided by the saying that ‘art is a dialogue between souls’ – the idea that you can have a very simply dialogue with it, or you can go deeper. So it is very much my hope with The Sky Beneath Our Feet that anyone of any age or disposition will find it memorable and moving and, for those that wish to go deeper, the journey will be rich and rewarding.

Will the music be the same in all areas at the same time (sort of like playing a song over a broadcasting system)? 

Each of the 72 speakers will have its own unique sound, but that sound is coordinated within a score so there will certainly be times when sounds come together.

Or are there sound pieces that are unique to each location? Is the experience of this work the same for all people, or is it unique to the path you take through the gardens (that is assuming that every location has its own piece of music).

The work is never the same twice and no two people will have an identical experience. It will be different depending where you stand, what the weather is doing, how active the squirrels are and so forth. There is never any place you should be with the piece other than where you are – and if you’re somewhere different, that’s where you’re meant to be, too.

 Can you share who some of the performers will be on your work?

Over the years it’s been my great privilege to work with singers and musicians from the Royal Opera House, London symphony orchestra, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Juilliard and many others. I have been able to develop a relationship with some of these world-class performers over the years and form my own ensemble for this work under the name ‘Voices of the Ancient Woods’ (and the ‘Orchestra of the Ancient Woods’).