Sounding the Biomass: A Conversation with Lisa Schonberg

photo by Kim Zitzow

On a September afternoon between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I met up with Lisa Schonberg in our local coffee shop to talk about spirituality, family, music, and science. Lisa is a local musician and teacher. We became acquainted when Interfaith Muse helped to facilitate a work in progress evening for one of her projects.

Elizabeth Harlan-Ferlo: How do you describe yourself, religiously?

Lisa Schonberg: I’ve been confused recently about what “religious” means. I feel like the word has a bad connotation. Whenever it comes into play there’s a lot of dissonance. So I describe myself as a spiritual person who is Jewish and who is super into nature. It’s in my genes and it’s the religion I grew up with, so of course I’m still as much Jewish as I was when I was born, as far as heritage goes, or genetics. But I get to change how much of the religious and spiritual part I identify with.

EHF: Sounds like a part of that identity is with you no matter what the practice looks like, that it’s not dependent on practice.

LS: Yeah, the spiritual stuff for me can exist outside of Judaism, spirituality related to nature or just having relationships with other people, but the Jewish spiritual part can change how much it’s present.

EHF: Where do you see the connection of your spirituality to your work, to what you make?

LS: The reasons I pursued what I do is because I felt a deep spiritual connection to what I was doing, and a need that I can’t explain. Even when I started drumming, when I was a kid, I felt there’s something deep, there’s something meaningful, there’s something I feel not just when I do it for myself, but when I do it for other people, that connection, sharing. That’s why I play music. That’s also why I study the environment: I feel a spiritual connection, connection to spiritual health but also to my physical health. I see it as collective spiritual health. Music is so connected spiritual health for most people. And it doesn’t have to be the making of music, just the enjoyment of music. [When people] say, ‘I love this music, I love hearing this music,’ even if they don’t realize it, they’re talking on a spiritual level… because it’s what feeds you and it’s what makes you feel whole. But some people I’ve met, they don’t care for music.

EHF: Who are those people? (laughter)

LS: I know that my music isn’t going to do everything for everyone. Some of my friends don’t get my music. And that’s totally cool, they have other things to listen to.

EHF: What do you think is hard to get about your music?

photo by Alicia Jo Rabins

LS: There’s not grooves that carry for [very] long, usually, in a lot of the songs. There’s not really any vocals. For a lot of people, their spiritual connection to music comes through vocals and lyrics. And I don’t have any, really.

EHF: Is that a conscious choice?

LS: Words have been my weakness as far as being expressive in a creative way. I’m more of a scientific writer. I’ve never been drawn to doing poetry. It might be a little bit being disinterested [in vocals], and being super interested in composing for instrumental music and percussion.

EHF: Is there any particular part of being Jewish — the tradition or the experience — that inspires you?

LS: Something that comes to mind is the feeling of togetherness that music creates in a band. Then you have the larger audience that you create this connection to, when you’re all enjoying music together in a performance.

The first time I had that feeling was at bigger family gatherings with my extended Jewish family, around holidays. The reason my family is so close [is that] when they all came over from Europe, 1913, the first members, some of them, formed a Family Circle. It’s an organization to keep the family in touch, once they all came over. They had meetings, I think it was monthly. My dad has the meeting notes from the ’50s and ’60s; my Grandpa was secretary and treasurer and there was a Rule of Order and dues. And the dues would be used to pay for rent for the hall and get refreshment and throw the annual Hanukkah party and other things. Through the newsletter and the meetings, people kept up on how everyone was doing.

EHF: How many people are we talking?

LS: My Grandma had eleven siblings who had two to three kids each, so 30–40, and some cousins, two branches of cousins. So there’s this feeling of community and togetherness that I grew up with, from having this big group that I was stoked to be around. Wanting to have community and valuing it, then recreating it in the music community. That’s just music, and then there’s the science part.

EHF: Yeah, let’s talk about that.

LS: When I grew up in Staten Island, me and my parents, we went to look at trees. Like they literally called it, going to look at the trees.

EHF: Like at certain times of the year, when they are changing?

LS: Sure, or other times. I mean, we looked at nature and appreciated it, but I had a curiosity that wasn’t being fed and a concern for environment. When I left for college upstate, there was land and a nature preserve. I took an environmental studies class and they told us to sit in the woods and journal. I remember sitting there and thinking: Oh my God, has this been here the whole time? Ok, I have to be in nature for the rest of my life at least semi-regularly for or make sure I don’t become separated.

EHF: What was it that you were seeing?

LS Just like…there was this calmness and beauty and complexity that I was interested in, and the smells and the sounds. Also how there was an absence of consumerism and absence of social pressures when I was out in the woods. It seemed like this was all more important.

EHF: Do you think that stillness or quietness was part of it? Because you didn’t have that experience when you were ‘looking at trees.’

LS: I think it was the physicality of being in it, the movement, moving through that terrain. I remember when I was on Staten Island, there was this time I went to a park and I was running down a trail and jumped, and there were leaves I jumped into, and I was like, this is the best thing ever!

[In college] I remember learning that this one tree would drop its needles and change the chemistry of the soil so other things could grow there. There’s order and complexity to this. It brought me to ask, How is this like this? How did this come to be? Is there some higher power that did that? It did make me think about that. Of course, I didn’t come to an answer for myself, but maybe it’s not one figure like Judaism says, maybe it’s multiple figures. I definitely thought about it. I’m still Jewish; I didn’t adapt the religion — the organized religion — but I was definitely like this spirituality in nature is a big part of me.

I also felt a great connection to the body’s process and being alive, simple things like breathing and sweating. When I was turning 40, I had a lot anxieties about mortality. And I find that those are most at ease when I’m in nature. I think about it and that specific anxiety when I’m in nature, and I’m like, that’s cool, whatever, the trees are dying too… and it’s going to be fine!

EHF: The importance of relationship and connection is showing up in both places — in your family, in the music, and then being interested in the relationship between parts of the natural world. I see that thread.

LS: [My] project in the Amazon kind of relates to that. I went to the Amazon as an artist resident with Lab Verde. You’re in the rainforest and on the Rio Negro and they bring in different scientists every day and you’re asked to make work in response to what you learn. I noticed they had an entomologist on the list of panelists, and he studied ants. And I studied ants in grad school and then had moved to doing more general field work, and then doing music. I’d always wondered, when am I going to go back to it? I spent 4 years in a lab studying ants. I wrote to him: I think maybe I want to record ants. Would you want to do this together? [And he said,] What, ants make sounds? Yes! We started this collaboration and are in its second year now. We’re pursuing art and science at the same time.

We can’t make assumptions about what other species’ capabilities are to communicate with each other and with other species. In some ways [the project] does say, hey, we’re not in charge, we don’t know everything, we didn’t make all this stuff and we can’t say what’s there. We can figure it out a little bit, we can say we think we know but there’s a greater power at play. Whatever people want to call it. It’s the question of mystery and the unknown.

Ants have these intricate communication systems and importance in tropical ecosystems. They have such a huge biomass compared to other species in the rainforest; they are crucial to the integrity of the rainforest. The Amazon rainforest is so important to global climate the stability of global climate and countering global climate change. The ants are really important.

EHF: So, what sound do ants make? That’s what I am dying to know.

LS: We call it like little monkeys. Because they stridulate like a cricket.

EHF: Say that word again?

LS: Stridulate. You know, the way a cricket moves its leg on its body, against a ridged surface. But it’s other parts of the body. And they have ultrasonic stridulation beyond the range of hearing, higher. So we’re recording some of that too.

EHF: Is that something you’re hoping to incorporate into a musical piece?

LS: Yes, I’ve already written two pieces that are just sounds from the Amazon, general sounds, not ants. And two or three that focus on ants, with and without percussion.

photo by Laura Gorski

EHF: As a drummer, have you learned anything from ants?

LS: Some ants drum. They bash their bodies against surfaces. We haven’t captured that [on a recording] yet. I really want to hear what rhythm they are making. It was challenging to write the music because I was recording mostly aggregations of ants in a nest. There’s no repetition or pattern that’s obvious so I had to really listen to find anything that was recognizable or that I could take out and make a loop. I had to have this new level of being a detective and trying to find things that I could take out and use, and appreciating that chaos and reflecting on it.

EHF: What artists inspire you?

LS: Bernie Krouse. He was originally a synth artist and folk musician who played with The Weavers. He was getting into field recording in the ’70s and ’80s. He wrote a book called The Great Animal Orchestra that looks at soundscape as a whole. He’s interested in how organisms each have their own sonic niche. And Murray Schaefer, he’s another guy that studied soundscape ecology and acoustic ecology. They’re artists but in realm of art/science too.

I really like composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I really like the drummings of bands like Can, Led Zepplin. Bjork’s composition, how she composes orchestrations the melodies over vocals. Even though I don’t have lyrics, I try and still have melodies.

EHF: What do you wish I would have asked you about your work?

LS: I realized you asked me about how Judaism affects my work and I totally didn’t mention the whole Chavruta project. That was a really big part of my work over the last couple years. It was an art project about Jewish identity, exploring themes of feminism and environmentalism within Judaism and other traditions.

EHF: Since that project finished do you see any changes in the way you go about your work or what affects your work?

LS: That experience nicely marked beginning of [the collaborators’] 40s because we were asking these questions of our work and our learning processes and of our spirituality at that juncture in our lives together. if I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would have been as clear-headed about what I wanted to do, and I moved really clearly into this last year or two about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

EHF: The Amazon stuff or just everything?

LS: The Amazon stuff. And I have a couple of other projects that are smaller that are also in this science/ecology connection. Doing that project with [Alicia Jo Rabins] helped me have a clear view about it. To connect. Considering not just practicalities, because if I was just considering the practicalities I wouldn’t have ended up doing it! I was looking at more what fulfills me in a way that I can return more to the world and do good in a spiritual context. ❖

Lisa Schonberg born in 1977 in Staten Island, New York. She is a composer, percussionist, field recordist, writer, naturalist, and teacher. She integrates her interests through creative documentation of soundscapes, insects, and habitat, drawing attention to endangered species, habitat loss, and other environmental issues. She has documented the endangered Hylaeus bees of Hawaii, logging in Mount Hood National Forest, and ant acoustics in the Amazon. Lisa’s place-based compositions are performed by her percussion and noise ensemble Secret Drum Band. Lisa co-directs the artist collective Environmental Impact Statement, which asks artists to respond to development on public lands and interjects artist work into environmental policy-making. She is the author of The DIY Guide to Drums, The Hylaeus Project: A Documentation of the Endangered Native Bees of Hawaii, and Fieldguided, a series of books on insects and their habitats.

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