“I realized the most important thing is that the place itself is an integral collaborator in the work you’re making. It’s not just what you’re seeing as you go on the walk but how it feels to be moving through that particular space.”
In 2016, a one-antlered deer made its way through Harlem, New York. Five years later, the deer’s legacy left Stephanie Fleischmann, Christina Campanella, and Mallory Catlett wondering… How did he end up here? What did he leave behind? What stories are waiting to be told?
Long-time collaborators, Fleischmann, Campanella, and Catlett set out to create a sound walk meets outdoor opera, taking listeners on a sonic urban odyssey that explores what it means to immerse oneself in the complex layers of a single place.
They previously worked together on pieces like Red Fly / Blue Bottle, which premiered at HERE Arts Center in 2009. Now, HERE Arts Center presents their latest work, The Visitation, an on-demand sound walk that listeners can experience on the Gesso app through July 31, 2021.
Reflecting on how this sound walk came to be, the creators shared some insights on their production process:
What inspired the sound walk?
Fleischmann: I’m always looking for subjects for an opera, and I came across this inspiring story of the deer. I kind of put it aside as a possible opera idea. I thought Christina would be the ideal composer, and so we had been in conversation about it prior to the pandemic. When the pandemic began, Mallory mentioned to us that Black-Eyed Susan, one of the performers you’ll hear in our sound walk, was looking for material to work on and asked if we had anything. I had been writing some text inspired by that story without a concrete project in mind and so I offered it up.
Mallory had Susan record some stuff on the phone, and that was really the beginning of The Visitation. HERE was intrigued and said they’d like to commission it. Mallory became a co-creator, and it allowed for a much more collaborative process and this incredible generation of ideas.
Campanella: I had first heard of the Harlem deer in 2016 but it had more of an impact on me when Stephanie presented it to me. Focusing on the eyes of the deer, there was just something for me about imagining its experience, wondering what was going on inside it. It caught me in a grip of wonder, and that was the tipping point of my sound exploration.
What was the process, from initial concept to finished sound walk, like?
Fleischmann: Mallory had this idea of using these snapshots that people had taken of the deer in 2016, so our first adventure was to go to Jackie Robinson Park. We had collected a bunch of these snapshots and we tried to match them with actual locations of the park. It was kind of a scavenger hunt, and Christina and I then went up to the park to start charting out a route.
We wanted this sense of journey, really like a descent and progression deeper in. We wanted people to go out onto the street but we really wanted people to go in before they go out.
We videotaped the route we started proposing, and then we had these texts and characters that we started dreaming up. We tried to match the characters with the locations of the images. When you do layers and layers of research, things start revealing themselves to you, and a sort of synchronicity starts happening.
What we were interested in was the layers of allowing people to have an experience in the space that was both connected to the sonic and textual material and also the randomness of the space itself. There were a lot of beautiful synergies and surprises with what the park offered up as a layer on top of the sound and text we made.
Campanella: From my perspective as a composer, I also paid attention to the ambient sound and how it was getting into the composed sound. There’s a progression where it starts out like a standard sound walk describing what you might see as you walk along. The listener gets used to the uncanny timing of when I say, for example, “you should have arrived at this corner” at the exact moment you get there. As you get deeper into the park, it becomes more reflective in a way, a little more internal as we ask listeners to consider the land they’re walking on.
Can you expand on how you collaborated with performers and historical consultants?
Fleischmann: I, in collaboration with Mallory, wrote a draft of the text and then we shared it with Oleana Whispering Dove, a Lenape Historical Consultant, who then responded and would have feedback. She commented a lot on the language and helped us contextualize things. Having her eyes on the piece was a really great deepening of the work.
Campanella: Oleana was amazing. She would say, “Did you know that in the Lenape language, there’s actually no word for land ownership? That word doesn’t even exist.” That was so profound to all of us because we think of things as land being bought, and she said there’s no way the Lenape could have understood the idea that “you give me this in exchange for that and the result is that I own it” because they share everything. I got such a sinking feeling when I heard her say that. As a composer, that sinking feeling is definitely in the score.
In regards to the performers, my composition process is very integrated with the musicians I choose to work with. The primary collaborator with me on the music was Mark Spencer, a multi-instrumentalist and he also happens to be my domestic partner! For others, because I have a rich history of working with other musicians, I often have people in mind and where I’ll have them join in. Sammy Baker, a drummer who I’ve worked with for over ten years now, knows my music and what I want so that was a beautiful union.
All the vocalists with the exception of Black-Eyed Susan were new to me, which was different because I usually write for particular voices. In this case, I composed the songs with my own voice, and artists would then interpret it in their own way which was beautiful.
What do you hope listeners will take away from this experience?
Fleischmann: For me, this was such a learning experience in terms of how profoundly layered the history of any one spot or geographic location is, especially in the city. It’s interesting to explore how many different cultures contribute to this history, how there’s a history of colonization, silencing, and exiling going on, and how a piece of land is so resilient and then gets reclaimed by different people. If you think back to about 200 years ago, it would have been completely natural for the deer to be there, and just that fact alone, I hope, gives people something to meditate on.
Campanella: Music is such a beautiful gift for something like this because music can get into the body, right past that cognitive part of the brain. Using music to get a person to that state paired with Stephanie’s text, which was written to reveal things about the environment, sets the listeners up to experience things on a deeper level.
I hope listeners experience a feeling of grounding in the true history of where we are and a sense of awareness of things that happened here. The reality of colonization is a really important thing for us to know. That sinking feeling you might get when you hear the information deepens your understanding of who you are and who other people are.
Campanella: We just received a commission from OPERA America. They have a grant for women composers, and we were awarded it for The Visitation! This all leads to the next phase, culminating in a concert reading with live performers. We can form it into a promenade style opera where people are in Jackie Robinson Park wearing wireless headphones, walking around the park, and experiencing the piece as live performers are planted around different areas of the park as well.
What advice do you have for other artists who might be interested in working with location-based audio?
Fleischmann: What we learned is that sound and music are things that are sort of primed for movement through space. How you navigate stillness, motion, and the movement of music and sound through a space and in your storytelling are all really complex mediums that an artist has at their disposal. Sometimes the limits of the geography and your material bump up against each other and that’s a really interesting collision of impulses.
Campanella: Spend a lot of time listening. There were early drafts of this where I’d record and then go up to the park and listen to it. I realized the most important thing is that the place itself is an integral collaborator in the work you’re making. It’s not just what you’re seeing as you go on the walk but how it feels to be moving through that particular space.
On a technical level, always add bass! Using lots of bass frequencies helps to ground the listener’s body in a more receptive place, it comforts and deepens the experience so that the ears are more open for taking in information.
The fact that there will always be ambient sound should not be a detractor. Don’t look for a quiet place. Realize that ambient sounds from the place are part of your score, and one of the elements you have to work with is a collaborator that’s going to be constantly surprising you. You have to just design it for those happenstance situations, so leave room for a lot of openness.
The Visitation is presented by HERE Arts Center and supported, in part, by Café Royal Cultural Foundation and Foundation for Contemporary Arts.
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