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The Boom & Antarctica: Meet the Woman Making Music from the Sounds of the Southernmost Continent

Jamming out with penguin bones.

Considering the fact that music is the one and only universal language, there’s pretty much music everywhere. From the homeless guy hitting a bucket on a crowded subway platform to a sold out rock concert at Madison Square Garden—even the noise your piss stream makes splashing the toilet water is sound, and could be valued as music by somebody’s standards, as eccentric as that sounds. Improvisation is the act of experimenting with purebred sound, and is the freest form of musical expression. It can be accomplished using anything; your hands, a tree branch, or even a shard of glass clinking a street post. For those who are musically inclined, it’s a natural thing to want to make music out of anything. I mean, really, how many times have you tapped your desk to the beat of a song that’s invading your headspace?

With genres like noise rock exploding in popularity as of late, music in general seems to be taking a more avant-garde approach, allowing musicians and listeners alike to really appreciate the basic concept of noise at its fundamental level. After all, it’s the simple act of producing noise that was responsible for the creation of music in the first place. Some might say that there’s more to it than that, and surely, by no means does this downplay the breadth of time and effort that goes into composing and releasing a mainstream hit (no offense, TIDAL), but if you can appreciate basic noise, then you can truly appreciate the full scale of sounds that come at you during a song.

San Francisco’s noise scene has been improvising and experimenting with different sounds and objects for some time now, including things found on the street or in nature. Composer/musician Cheryl E. Leonard was a part of that, and also has a deep personal connection with sound and noise in general. She’s dedicated her life to the isolation of unusual sounds in nature, and in particular, the frozen tundra of Antarctica. She also has one of the most unique jobs in the world and will undoubtedly pique your curiosity. Have you ever played a penguin bone with a violin bow? I don’t think so. From what she tells us, she provides her listeners with a way to experience the ethereal beauty of Antarctica, vicariously through her music.

Noisey: The obvious first question is, what is the mission behind your music?
Cheryl Leonard:
I’m interested in finding new and unusual sounds, and kind of how I’ve been doing that is by playing sound objects from nature to find out what kind of voices they contain. It’s a little bit like a mad science experiment or something sometimes. [Laughs] But it’s really fun, it’s almost like being a kid again. My purpose, well, is firstly just the pure joy of hearing something new and unusual and then to share that with other people. I make compositions that use these sounds to kind of highlight them and show people that there’s music in almost anything.

What inspired you to enter this line of work?
I studied music in college and I was always drawn to unusual sounds, so I was doing extended techniques on normal instruments, playing normal instruments in unusual ways. Then I was part of the “noise scene” here in San Francisco, where I was surrounded by people who would play found objects in addition to regular instruments. They would find a piece of metal lying on the street or something and bring it back to the studio and put a mic on it and play it. I did that for a while and was simultaneously getting more into doing outdoors things, like hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, etc. So I think it was just inevitable for me to try and combine my love of nature with my love of making weird sounds.

Were you ever involved in any other non-related musical projects?
Oh, I’ve played in a lot of bands over the years… other people’s bands, other composers’ ensembles. I was in high school marching band. I was playing the flute and then got bored with that and started playing the mallets. I’ve played a lot of different kinds of music. Though I’ve never played with anyone who is famous, I started out playing Led Zeppelin covers on guitar back in high school, then I did more indie rock kind of stuff, like Sonic Youth. I played electric guitar and then I played viola, but it was more like “noise viola.” [Laughs] After that I had progressed into the “noise scene.”

How can playing a bone with a violin bow give someone the sense of what Antarctica really sounds like?
Well, I have this instrument called the Bone Slug, which is just two penguin leg bones mounted in some wood, but it really sounds like Antarctic wind. I mean, I can tell you because I’ve heard the Antarctic wind in person. So if I bow it, or pull a string along the bones, it really sounds like that. That instrument can literally replicate the sound of the wind that I heard. Many of them are more abstract, but that one is quite literal.

What kind of work goes into making one of your instruments?
Sometimes they’re very simple, but as time has gone on, they have gotten more elaborate. It’s a lot of woodworking, but in a rough hewn kind of way. Meaning, mainly, I’m only using pieces of driftwood for armature, to hold the objects in place. So as you can imagine, there’s a varying quality, but they have a lot of character, visually and sonically, and I like that. A lot of the wood I use looks like it could be bleached bone or something. A lot of the time, especially with the Antarctic materials, I try to find a way to mount them so that I can play them easily, but also in a way that doesn’t involve drilling holes in them or damaging them permanently, because they’re non-replaceable. It’s not so easy to go back and get more parts. [Laughs] So they’re often clamped or strapped to things, but they’re never bolted or nailed.

Have your instruments been used by anyone else for musical purposes?
Well, I often play with an ensemble where people come in and play my music with me. I also wrote a short piece for Kronos Quartet to play and they had me build some instruments for them. So they played some instruments I had made from eucalyptus bark and driftwood.

When you're isolated at the station, what role does music play in keeping you sane?
Well, even if there isn’t music around, there’s always sound, and I’m interested in sound, obviously. So I found it quite fascinating in Antarctica just to listen to what was going on in the environment. I was there during the Austral Summer, so there was actually quite a bit going on. All of the animals are trying to breed in a very small window of time, there’s glaciers collapsing into the ocean. The ice from the glaciers makes a lot of different sounds. So I was never bored or stir crazy, but that being said, I’m sure it’s a completely different experience if you’re at the South Pole in the middle of winter.

What kind of music do you personally like to listen to?
I like to listen to other people who are doing experimental work with field recordings and extended techniques, like avant-garde improvisation. I also like to listen to a lot of folk music from other cultures, so like some of my favorite music is Korean traditional music.

Interesting. So nothing, really, in the American mainstream? You’re not a Radiohead junkie or anything?
I used to a lot of indie rock and I was a DJ in college and stuff. One of the problems for me is that every day I’m working on my music or trying to work on my music, so when I want to relax, I sometimes don’t want to listen to music. I need some sonic space. Even though I love music, I can’t have it constantly going on. There’s music in my head all of the time too.

Have you ever played around on your instruments and busted out a cover of another song?
[Laughs] No, they don’t really play normal scales. I did an instrument demonstration once at a science conference and someone asked me to play a Beatles song, and I was like, “It makes its own music, it doesn’t do the Beatles, sorry.”

You recently had an exhibit in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. What do your exhibits bring to the table that maybe a still painting doesn’t?
I only recently did that one museum exhibit that just closed, but I’ve done a few art shows with my instruments and art objects. Sometimes when I’ve done that I also do a performance and I think it’s cool for people to look at the instruments visually and then hear the sounds they produce, kind of looking at it multi-dimensionally.

What can someone expect to see at one of your live performances?
They can expect to see a lot of weird instruments on stage made out of bones and shells and driftwood and seaweed, or whatever else I’m interested in at the moment. I usually play several instruments, even in just one piece. I’m often seated on the floor, surrounded by a ring of instruments. There’s definitely a bit of a visual spectacle to it as well. Often, if I can, I try to get people to do live video, because the instruments are kind of small. If I can get someone to shoot close-ups of the instruments while I’m playing them and we can project that onto a larger space, then the audience can see how the sounds are being produced.

Do you work with any regular collaborators?
I’ve been working with several different visual artists recently, one of whom is Oona Stern from Brooklyn. We were in Antarctica at the same time doing separate projects and then we later went to the Arctic together so we’ve done some video pieces and we’re trying to do some art installations that include sound, sculpture and video. I’m also working with a woman in Australia named Genevieve Swifte, and we’ve just been doing a couple of videos with sound. She spent a couple of months living in Greenland, doing her residency there, doing polar things. I have some musicians who I collaborate with regularly. Lately I’ve been working with Phillip Greenlief, who is a composer and a reed instrument specialist. We’ve been working on some of my pieces together, like last year, I wrote a walrus piece for him to play. I play with him too, but he’s quite proficient in extended saxophone technique. He imitates the sounds that a walrus makes using a saxophone mouthpiece on top of a long piece of dried kelp, which we called the “Kelpinet.” [Laughs] There were plenty of “I am the Walrus” jokes. We’re hoping to do a project together about bats in the next year or so.

How important is the discussion on climate change, and how can the rest of the music industry be more vocal about it?
Well, I think the climate change issue is crucial, I think it’s really important for us to deal with that, no matter if you’re a musician or whatever you do. Ignoring it is not going to bode well, but as far as what the music industry can do about it, it’s a tricky thing. I think that people are overwhelmed about hearing how it’s all just going to hell. People just don’t feel optimistic or that they can make a difference, so they just shut off. So, my approach has been to not so much hit people over the head with it but to try to make something beautiful that people can connect with viscerally or emotionally, that makes them feel something. So, I think that sort-of foster approach is something that can be more effective at this point. We already know we should be scared, thanks to the media, but it’s not encouraging change. I think we need to go for the heart, and that’s where music and other art forms can be very effective.

Have you ever or do you plan to make music from anywhere else in the world?
Oh yeah, I definitely want to go to other places. I’m looking to go back to the Arctic soon. I’m also doing a few pieces that are more California-based at the moment, focusing on climate change here. I’ve just started a project about glaciers in California, which we have very few of, and they’re melting very rapidly. So there’s that, and then the bat project with Phillip Greenlief, which doesn’t have a venue yet, but we’ll be going out and recording bats in California, then trying to make music using those recordings and my instruments, as well as Phillip’s saxophones.

Michael Haskoor is on Twitter - @Tweetskoor