THOUGHTS ON SKYHARP: GHOST TREE
Skyharp: Ghost Tree is the closing act of the Skyharp installations. This is a work that was born twenty years ago in the bright sun and open fields near Kingston, Ontario, and which presently finds itself as a splendid ghost of its former self, swept up in nocturnal excitement, “demi” darkness, and an unpredictable full moon. It is, unfortunately, without its old time creator/performer: the magnificent Elm tree. Originally Skyharp: Ghost Tree, commissioned in 2009 by the Canadian Music Centre under the “New Music in New Places” program, was to be the swansong, the magnum opus for an all night, twelve hour, full moon illuminated performance in which the instruments were to be covertly strummed by the ghostly presence of an absent elm tree. Unfortunately, after weeks of creative musing, planning and maintenance (tuning if you wish), the thirty year old technology that constitutes Skyharp wasn't up to it and needed to be retired. Bummer!
Skyharp: Ghost Tree is made up of reworked material originally recorded as Skyharp: Ice Storm for curator Maralynn Cherry's Dream Ecology group exhibition, which was shown at the Koffler Gallery and Robert McLauglin Gallery in the early spring of 2000.
When curator Maralynn Cherry asked us to be part of Dream Ecology and told us that “live” environments wouldn't be found within gallery confines, we had to scramble a bit. After some consideration we decided on a format that would bring “our” elm tree—although in “dream state” format—home to an indoor environment. Conceptually Skyharp: Ice Storm emphasizes our perilous interconnectedness with nature and how we experience—immerse ourselves in—this relationship. The ice storm of January 1998 did great damage to our tree, a reliable friend since 1990; several major limbs were torn off and downed, small branches on the crown—once for playing soaringly subtle high notes against the blue sky—were missing or broken.
Ice storm uses video footage of the same elm tree taken in 1994, and also in 1999, taken after the ice storm. Each section of the tree's movements were interpreted, thus creating a soundscape that reflects environmental conditions. The sections of elm tree music are bridged by the dream-like movement of Holly Small in which she becomes the tree, the observer, and the initiator; Holly’s gestures and subtle movements are simultaneously analyzed by the installation's software, and transformed into sound. The resultant layering of image, gesture, sound, and memory thus become a compelling multi-layered past/present/future gestalt.
The entire sixteen minutes of image and sound were recorded in real time (without manipulation or rehearsal) in front of a very “alive” audience at the Koffler Gallery, Toronto, on March 2nd., 2000. It was displayed as a fifteen minute continuous-loop VHS tape during gallery hours for the duration of the Dream Ecology exhibition.
For Skyharp: Ghost Tree, the original video material collected at the Koffler gallery in 2000 was re-edited and processed to acknowledge the twelve hour full moon illumination of Chalmers House in Toronto that will occur during the night of October 3rd., 2009.
DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT NOTES:
Skyharp was designed to generate complementary music within an existing soundscape. It does so by analyzing differential movement within the frame of a video signal. This signal is analyzed by software for specific dynamic data, which is sent to a computer that triggers the sound. The resultant organized sound is played back though specially designed speakers and thus becomes, once more, part of the outdoor, natural environment. This results in an subtle embracing mixture of observer, wind, elm tree, and sounds of lake, field and forest. At any moment of time a Skyharp installation will always be authentic, cohesive, unpredictable, and non-invasive.
Our star performer for most Skyharp installations has been a 90-year-old elm tree, perched on the edge of a swamp near the Little Cataraqui River near Kingston. We have developed a strong attachment to this living creature during the many weeks spent listening to its wind-driven song.
Skyharp was born in the summer of 1990 when we were asked to create a non-invasive sound sculpture for Art for Earth's Sake, an outdoor exhibition at the Little Cataraqui Creek Conservation Area in Kingston Ontario by the Kingston Artist's Association. Our laboratory was a small room near the marsh which was surrounded by an astonishingly rich soundscape. In the ensuing two weeks we had ample time to observe the visual and auditory changes in the wetlands, and adjust our system in such a way that these changes would be reflected in the sound.
In an initial “discovery” of the marsh, we were immediately attracted by the then eighty year old elm tree that lived in splendid isolation on the edge of the wetland. The video analysis showed that the motion of the tree was very complex, for example: it consisted of magnificent short plucky branches seemingly tailor-made for pizzicato, as well as long complex pendulous movements that came from the long hanging branches—perfect for the generation of long somber glissandi.
At the completion of our outdoor internship, we became aware that the tree showed a lot of brown foliage on some of its branches, which we took to be signs of infection by the notorious and deadly “Dutch Elm disease”. Feeling pity for our tree and commemorating the devastating loss of millions of Elm trees that did succumb, we named our first composition Skyharp: Eulogy for an Elm Tree.
However, since we last looked at the tree this year (2009), we are pleased to rectify our initial erroneous observation: this particular tree is just fine; its imminent death was overstated.
DEVELOPMENT, DESIGN, COMPOSITION & CONCEPT:
Kristi Allik & Robert Mulder
GHOST TREE and ICE STORM. Dancer/Choreographer:
Skyharp: Gibraltar Point. Kristi Allik showing the "firecracker speakers". Toronto Island, September 2001. (see movie)
INSTALLATIONS AND PERFORMANCES :
February 9, 2010