The Trees are the Instruments

“I’m profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place…I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography–that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination.”
– John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams has been hailed by the New Yorker as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” After studying at the California Institute of the Arts, Adams embarked on a prolific career encompassing a variety of genres and media, including television, film, children’s theater, voice, acoustic instruments, orchestra, and electronics. His Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning orchestral composition, Become Ocean, has become one of the most popular concert pieces in the modern repertoire.

Much of John Luther Adams’ work as a composer and, increasingly, a conceptual artist is rooted in his love of nature combined with what he calls the “resonances” of a particular environment. For the Wind Garden, his installation commissioned by the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, that environment is a eucalyptus grove located in the campus Theater District. Based on a carefully determined site plot, 32 accelerometers were attached to the highest branches, measuring the movements of the trees in the wind. As the velocity of the wind changes so, too, does the amplitude of the sound. Tonal variations and harmonic colors are provided by two virtual “choirs,” a Day Choir tuned to the natural harmonic series, and a Night Choir tuned to the sub-harmonic series. The results are broadcast by 32 small loudspeakers hidden among the trees. Both volume and pitch change in real time throughout the day and with the sun’s movement over the course of the seasons.

Because the composition is driven entirely by wind and the sun’s light, it never repeats itself. The listener is surrounded by sounds that vaguely recall bells, voices, strings, and other acoustic instruments, but it’s impossible to describe them in just those familiar terms or to know their exact source. Like some of Adams’ other recent pieces, the Wind Garden has been described as “indeterminate,” but the composer argues that it’s more accurate to call it “self-determining,” not reliant on musicians or conventional instruments. Rather, Adams notes that “the trees are the instruments” while acknowledging the sophisticated technology employed to “give voice” to the trees.

Adams hopes that each unique encounter with the Wind Garden and its rich, ever-shifting harmonic palette will encourage both “deep listening” and an enhanced appreciation of the natural environment.

Watch The Wind Garden by John Luther Adams – Stuart Collection at UC San Diego

Pay Attention – New Documentary Features UCSD’s Stuart Collection

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An eternal question: What is “public art?”

The definition of public art continues to evolve, but at its most basic level public art can be defined as “work created by artists for places accessible to and used by the public.” In other words, there’s no velvet rope ‘twixt the art and the patron. It’s worth noting that the art/public art field distinguishes between “public art” and “art in public places.” The former term implies a contextual, often collaborative approach to the creation of art that takes the site and other local factors into account, while the focus of the latter is on the art itself, not where it will be sited. Put another way, “public art” is site-specific, or designed for a particular environment – for instance, a university campus.

“UCSD may not have a football team, but it does have the Stuart Collection.”
– A UC San Diego student

Established in 1982 by retired businessman James Stuart DeSilva, the Stuart Collection of public art at UC San Diego is unique in several respects:

Commissioned Works

Whereas other collections – for example, UCLAs Murphy Sculpture Garden – consist of acquisitions, all works in the Stuart Collection are commissioned; prominent contemporary artists are invited to survey the campus and develop proposals based on their site selection. Proposals are reviewed and approved by an Advisory Board, and most of the works are constructed on-site rather than in a studio.

Self-Funded

The Collection also differs in its funding model. Other collections, such as the J. Michael Bishop Art Collection at UCSF Mission Bay, typically rely on a percentage of construction budgets (1% is common) allocated for public art, but the Stuart Collection is entirely self-funded by grants and donations.

Variety of Forms

An unusual emphasis on variety is another hallmark of the Stuart Collection. Unlike a conventional sculpture garden the works span a variety of forms, materials, genres, etc., and are often “one of a kind” in relation to the artist’s body of work. As the pieces are varied, so too are the artists themselves, ranging from painters (Elizabeth Murray) to installation artists (Nam June Paik) to composers (John Luther Adams). Several of the artists who’ve created pieces for the Collection are not otherwise known for public art (John Baldessari, William Wegman, Terry Allen).

However varied in their form and function, all of the pieces in the Stuart Collection share a common goal. They don’t proselytize or attempt to define “good art” but, in the words of artist Bruce Nauman, they do ask the viewer to “pay attention,” to regard their familiar environment in a different way and, in the process, perhaps see themselves in a new way as well.

Watch Pay Attention: The Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, then browse more programs that explore UCSD’S Stuart Collection.