Interviewsand Articles


Music Outside the Music Box: Interview: Cheryl Leonard by Mary Stein, SF, October 15, 2010

by Mary Stein, Feb 23, 2011



I first met Cheryl Leonard more than ten years ago when she joined the martial arts dojo I belonged to and began practicing aikido with us there.  She caught on to aikido quickly, and I soon learned that she was already an experienced rock climber, often leading weekend expeditions into the mountains.  A little later I learned that she was a musician and composer with an unusual interest in making music with pine cones, feathers, sea shells, bones or any other of the myriad objects she found on her excursions into nature. Since then I've watched her perform several times and been impressed and fascinated both with the sounds that she's found in her musical research and with the way she performs. There's more of this in the interview, which took place recently as we sat at my kitchen table after an aikido practice. 
Mary Stein:  Let's start with the unusual instruments you use and how you got interested in making music with them.
Cheryl Leonard:  It was an evolution. In high school I wrote music and played the guitar, and I wanted to be a rock star. Then I went to college and learned about contemporary classical music. Always the kind of music I liked, from what I'd been exposed to, was whatever contained the strangest sounds. Even when I'd only heard pop and rock in high school, I liked the weirder sounding songs. In college I just kept on learning about new types of music that were more experimental. Here's Stravinsky! Wow, this is great! Where did this come from? And here's electronic music. 
It was all very exciting! My musical ear was evolving from being oriented towards more traditional musical sounds into being fascinated with sounds that normally wouldn't be considered musical-but I was hearing them as musical. And then for a period of time I played with a noise band. They were really into playing with found objects.
MS:  A noise band?
CL:  There's a movement called noise music, which originally came out of Japan. So I was playing with these people and they would do things like take some piece of metal they found on the street, put a microphone on it and play it as an instrument. During that time, the mid-to-late 90s, I was playing objects that were more industrial. I worked with a lot of metal objects, including a box spring mattress with the cloth removed from it, which had great built-in reverb, circular saw blades, motorcycle sprockets and plumbing pipes. Then gradually that evolved into playing natural objects as instruments. 
There were two specific events that really inspired me to start exploring sounds from natural materials. The first was the time my friend John Blue and I were doing some free improv outdoors in the Berkeley Hills. We began by playing our usual instruments, John on cello and myself on viola, and then after a while the improvisation morphed into trying to bow whatever else was nearby: tree trunks, branches, lichen, grass, leaves. Of course many of these materials either made horrible screechy sounds or produced nothing audible, but we had so much fun trying them all that we couldn't stop laughing as we played. Around the same time I saw a performance by I.D. Battery in which they rubbed and rolled a couple of large polished round stones on an amplified wooden board. This was all they did for an entire 40-minute set and it was utterly mesmerizing. The range of subtle textures and ambiences that they produced with such simple materials really inspired me.  
MS:  So this was a change from the industrial or picking up the garbage-can lid?
CL:  Yes. At that time, I was getting into mountain climbing and backpacking, and so it just makes sense-you're going to notice what is musical in your environment if you're tuned in to listening for it.
MS:  So you find an object in nature by listening for it. 
CL:  Yes. There's a process of finding an object that's interesting to begin with. Sometimes I just literally stumble upon good instrument materials. For example, if I'm scrambling down a loose talus slope and I knock a stone into a resonant flake of granite, or I pick up some shells and they clink together in my hands. Most of the time I collect materials based on a project's theme-mussel shells, marsh reeds and driftwood for a work inspired by estuaries. When selecting objects that make audible noises, like stones or shells, I usually try to gather a set of them that sound pleasing together. However, I frequently collect materials I can't really play in the field, which will be used to build instruments later on back in my studio. In this case I generally try to gather a lot of each material so I will have ample supplies to work with.  
Often, I must admit, I'm drawn to specific objects because of how they look-an elegantly curved piece of bull kelp, nearly-spherical stones, the particular topography of a gnarled branch. I have no idea if they will sound good, but I take them anyway, just in case. Once I get an object back to my studio I work much like a scientist. I do a bunch of experiments with it. 
For example, when I first started playing pinecones, I knew that if you plucked one with your fingers it would produce quiet, woody, thumb-piano sounds. But then I wondered, how else can you play this? I just tried a bunch of things. What if you hit it? What if you dropped things on it? What if you used a violin bow and tried to think outside the tapping/striking/I'm-playing-a-percussion-instrument box? So with each new instrument there is a period of experimenting and allowing myself to do things that seem silly or outrageous to see if I might unearth or happen upon a new timbre or voice.
MS:  Did the idea of amplification come in at the beginning? I suppose it might have because you'd been in a band.
CL:  I'd been in a band, yes, so I was familiar with amps and microphones and PA systems. But amplification is just necessary for a lot of these sounds. If you hold some of my instruments right next to your ear you can hear them, but if I want to share them with an audience, they need to be amplified. And also amplification is an aural microscope. It allows me to find sounds and voices in an object that you wouldn't notice with the unaided ear, to explore very quiet sounds. And then you can build pieces out of what you find in there.
MS:  That's fascinating. Every time I've seen you play it's been with objects from nature. Listening to one of your recordings can be a haunting experience-like being transported into the wilderness. And I wonder if you attach any importance or value in concentrating on objects from nature like stones and pinecones.
CL:  Of course I do. I think they're fascinating.
MS:  More fascinating than a garbage-can lid?
CL:  Yes, absolutely. At this point in my life and career, I'm not interested in making loud, clunky industrial sounds. I'm interested in doing something more subtle and more organic with my music, and it seems like natural objects foster that kind of composition. And it's a way to connect with the wilderness when I'm not there. There's a sort of inherent problem with being a composer who lives in the city, but who loves being in wilderness. It's very hard to have a career if you live in the wilderness. Balancing these two passions is something I am always negotiating.
MS:  But you can bring it back as an interpreter, investigating all these ways to hear a stone or a piece of wood. I'm reminded of years ago when I experimented with batik dyeing using organic materials. At a certain point I point I realized that you cannot only cook with these onions and be nourished by them, taste them, smell them, but their skins can also make a dye. And now I'm realizing they can make sounds! It's another dimension.
CL:  I think I started working with natural objects simply because I was interested in them. I didn't have a mission to go out and convert people into caring about the environment and all that. I'm happy if that's a by-product, but that's not my intention. The intention is just to be fascinated by what sounds appear and to keep caring to be fascinated by that. How many different voices are in a rock? It's incredible. There's no limit to them. And it's true of any instrument. How many kinds of sounds can you get from a violin-or a trash can lid? A lot, if you want to invest in researching that.
MS:  Sometimes the melody is very subtle. Sometimes it is more in the rhythm or in the pauses in between, or some kind of textural sense, depending on whether it's being stroked by a feather or has something falling on it. 
CL:  I guess part of what I'm trying to do is share with people that you can recalibrate your definition of musical sound or your definition of a melody. I'm trying not to do that in a missionary kind of way, but just because I'm excited about it. 
MS:  It's interesting, watching you perform with your friends--there are usually three of you--and seeing you sitting on the ground, and gracefully leaning forward and stroking a pine cone or shaking down a bagful of sand...
CL:  Trying not to bump into things.
MS:  All these little tiny microphones right up against objects-it's quite an experience to watch. It's not just a hearing experience, it's more like dance.
CL:  People have said that to me before. I don't really conceive of it that way, but again it is just sort of a natural outgrowth of what you have to do to make these sounds. But maybe it's subconsciously there because I've studied martial arts and done a lot of rock climbing. Watching the movements of the body is part of learning both of those arts/sports. But I'm not really a choreographer.
MS:  You obviously practice so that you can move so surely and gracefully.
CL:  Lots of practice! And we have to focus very intensely because we are playing subtle sounds that are highly amplified. The slightest mis-movement can cause a catastrophic disruption in the performance. 
MS:  In aikido, you start with the feeling that you're being constantly resisted by the other person. Then you gradually realize that there's something about the way you're responding to this person that could change. Then you won't feel you're being blocked and resisted. It's a process of learning to move with other people.
CL:  Yes, that's like learning how to interact with the natural-object instruments. In order to produce the correct sound there are certain ways one must interact with the object. If you get it wrong it may make a horrible sound.
MS:  And in actual performance you discover still more things.
CL:  There are the other performers and their relationships to the objects. Maybe I had an initial idea of how they would play a certain instrument. I'm trying to show them how to play it, and they may teach me a better way to do it! I think of my performers as co-researchers. It's been nice in the past when I had a lot of time to work closely with the performers, and they were very integrated in the development of pieces. We'd begin with a set of instruments and a general idea, do some improvisations and find out what sounds we could make with the instruments. Then from those improvisations I would sculpt a composition. 
So the works really grow out of what the other people found, as well as what I discovered. I prefer to work that way. It's not always possible, but when you are only one person I think it's easy to get stuck in how you approach things. It's good to mix in some fresh perspectives.
MS:  It's certainly very different from a symphony orchestra or even a chamber group trying to play something that was written down many years ago. I have seen your scores and I have to say they're beautiful. I could frame them and hang them on the wall. Yet it seems that this beauty comes as a by-product of the need to be inventive in expressing your musical ideas.
CL:  It's very complicated. The kind of work I've been doing just has so many layers-finding the objects, building an instrument, figuring out the sounds you can make with the instrument, making a piece, and then how do you articulate the piece to the other players in a way that they can look at a score during a performance very quickly and see what they're supposed to do? So this is another skill I've had to develop. And each piece requires a unique approach to scoring, depending on how it's played. Some pieces I can write in regular musical notation. Some pieces are just graphics or pictures indicating the kind of sound at a given time.
MS:  You mean sometimes you can score regular musical notes, like quarter or half notes?
CL:  Not very often! Sometimes there's a melody that has a specific rhythm and I can write the rhythm out in regular notation. But there are things I have to adjust in the notation for each piece. Maybe it's a piece that plays with bowing and how hard you're pressing down on the bow changes the sound, so I need to make up a symbol to show the amount of pressure, or indicate the precise location where the bow touches the object. So I am constantly needing to invent new signs, marks and symbols.
MS:  If I were working with you as a fellow musician I would obviously need to have gone over this as a reminder -"Oh, pressure at this point."
CL:  Yes-pressure changes here, or here I moved my hand in a circular motion versus a linear motion. There's always a problem-solving process. What is the efficient way to notate this so other people can understand?
MS:  Maybe you could talk about your stay in Antarctica a year or so ago. 
CL:  I visited Palmer Research Station in the northwestern part of the Antarctic Peninsula during the austral summer, in January. Contrary to the conception of Antarctica as barren and quiet I experienced a place teeming with activity, life, sounds and even patches of vivid color. On days when the wind was calm the kazooing of distant penguin colonies mixed with the snorts and howls from elephant seals, barking fur seals, squawking skuas, and squeaky terns. Meanwhile there were the booms and gunshots as immense towers of ice broke off into the sea. These gradually disintegrated into snapping, popping icebergs and clinking ice flushing out into the open ocean. I could hear many small glacial meltwater streams, some that gurgled in cyclical percussive rhythms and others with alien voices. And there was the ever-present sounds of wind and waves. It was a much noisier place than I had expected!
MS:  Did you notice relationships among some of these sounds, for example between ice sounds and penguin sounds? 
CL:  First of all I have to point out that the Adelie penguins near Palmer Station have chosen a very musical island on which to nest. Torgersen Island is covered in shards of dense igneous rock fragments that clink and clank under the penguin's feet as they walk. The sound never ceased to delight me. It's lovely that the simple act of walking can generate little melodies. The penguins have specific paths that they follow to get between their nests and the beach and you can see these walkways. It was great fun to set up my microphones along the edge of a path and then record the lines of birds jingle-jangling by. 
In my recordings of the penguin rookeries there are occasional chimes from nesting stones being dropped into place. Adelies are picky about their nesting stones. The same stones get used year after year and penguins often steal rocks from each other's nests. The nesting stones have become highly polished from use. I noticed that they tended to be especially resonant as well, so I can't help but wonder if the penguins might consider a stone's sonic qualities, in addition to size and shape when they are picking them out.
I found it intriguing that the stones on Torgersen and the floating bits of brash ice produced many similar sounds. In fact, I discovered that all of the Antarctic natural materials I brought back can be played in ways that generate icy sounds. 
MS:  You brought back a lot of discoveries in sound from a part of the planet most of us will never visit. And it struck me that it was one place where the fact that you're very physically fit really mattered. It reminds me that we haven't talked about aikido, this activity that we've shared for a long time. What led you to aikido in the first place?
CL:  I came to aikido almost by accident. I had a roommate who was studying aikido, and she'd get home from practice and we'd talk about it in the kitchen.  I became interested and I went and watched one class and thought it was really beautiful. I didn't know anything, hadn't studied the philosophy of aikido, I just decided I wanted to do it.
What has happened for me over time with these different pursuits, aikido and climbing and music, is that I've, subconsciously at first, then consciously, been looking for the parallels between them, how they interrelate. It's how I think-"Oh, this is connected to this!" It's how my brain works.  It's a natural thing for me to try to see these relationships. I tend to do this in all aspects of my life-"Oh, this is related to this!"
MS. Could you give an example of that?
CL. Well, I was talking with Ezio [one of our aikido teachers] this morning and he said, "I'm not sure music relates to aikido." And I said, "Oh, it totally relates to aikido in many ways." One of the primary ways that I think about it relating is this idea of breath. So there's breath and timing and feeling the space and distance between people, and the blending, in aikido.  It's exactly like music. You're playing a piece and the piece needs to breathe. . .you have to wait for it sometimes, wait for the right moment to start to play the note, or hold the note until it's the right moment to stop. And that's the breath to me. Musical timing is not just notes and rests, it is cycles of inhaling and exhaling.
MS. Breath can be broken up into rhythmic patterns.
CL. And it repeats a certain number of times.  When does the music build and build, like inhaling? When does it release like exhaling?
MS. Like spiraling upward in aikido, then accepting the fall.
CL. Yes, exactly. I see parallels in the shapes of the movements-spirals and cycles, using a circular motion to produce a sound, or using an arc or a straight line; I really see these shapes in the music, as well as in aikido.  I did a whole series of compositions, "Music for Rocks and Water," and I realized midway through writing them that they were inspired by aikido. I was creating these pieces based on certain shapes and gestures. There's a piece called "Uzumaki" which is all about spirals. All the sounds for the piece are produced from spiraling motions: small stones are whirled around inside ceramic cups and bowls, a bowl of pebbles is stirred, and rocks are dragged in slow and fast gyres against each other. There's another piece that is based on falling in vertical lines. I constructed a set of instruments for it that sift and drop parallel streams of sand onto amplified wooden trays so that I could hear the vertical motion. Eventually I realized that I had been thinking about the shape of the gestures we do in our aikido movements.
MS. There are centuries of thought about how movements go, which could inform that in some mysterious way.
CL. It does, though not consciously.
MS. Do you feel the need to convey this to anybody else if you are working with them? Do you say, I'm inspired by this kind of movement?
CL. Yes, sometimes, to my performers so they can understand what the piece is about. Maybe I won't talk about aikido.
MS. But you will demonstrate a gesture. . .
CL. Or just say, this is all about spiral motion.
MS. That's informative in itself.
CL. Or, "it's about rolling rocks. I'm trying to roll them in a straight line."  Another thing about working with natural objects is that, as in aikido, there is an element of chaos in what happens (which is not so much the case if you're dealing with a cello or violin) where the instruments don't necessarily do what you want them to. Say you are rolling a rock and you want it to go in a straight line, but sometimes it won't because it's not perfectly balanced. It's a challenge-and inspiring-to build pieces that work with that chaos.
MS. The unpredictable.
CL. That blend with the unpredictable or that are sculpted around the unpredictable.
MS. So it's built in---
CL. Yes, it has to be. Otherwise you're in conflict with your own piece- the piece won't work with the materials. You've got to find a harmony between the materials and your conception of them in the piece. Sometimes it's hard. There are times when I realize, you know, I'm trying for something that this rock just doesn't do.  I am commanding, "Come on rock, behave how I want you to! And do it perfectly each time!" but it's just not how that object moves or sounds. And it reveals parallels in other parts of my life...
MS. It tells one a lot about oneself.
CL. Absolutely. Like, I am a jerk! Why can't I let go of this?  I really, really want it to be this way. And you know it's a funny thing, being a composer, because one can behave like a fascist dictator. And traditionally the role was to be a fascist dictator. How can we not behave like that and yet still create something that is our vision? How can you let the players have some freedom, let the materials have some freedom, and yet somehow I still want it to be mine. Maybe I just need to let go of authorship!
MS. Sounds like one's life work, actually.
CL. Yes, as human beings.  If you want to get environmental, it's like we absolutely want to control an environment, have it do what we want it to do.
MS.  There's something about artists in general being willing to make that kind of discovery, being willing to expose themselves to that.
CL. Some artists will, some not. For some it's . . . "This is about me, this is how I do it."  Or maybe you start out that way and then grow into realizing it can't be all about you.  Aikido can help with that too.  Or mountaineering. The mountain doesn't really care if you're climbing it, and if you fight the weather, if you fight the terrain, there are real consequences, life-threatening consequences.  There are many people who say, "Oh it's kind of raining, I'm going to try anyway because I really want to go to the top." You've got to learn that it's not about that. Fighting the environment won't work.
MS. You need to be able to put yourself in a situation where that question will have real meaning.
CL. Hopefully everyone doesn't have to risk their lives. But it's true that we used to be, as a species, much more in touch with our natural surroundings and real physical danger.
MS. One can't help thinking that was more normal.
CL. Absolutely. Living in our comfortable homes arranged on straight, paved streets, with a surplus of calories within hand's reach, we've almost completely lost touch with that.  One can, and perhaps should, choose to be out there a bit more, be a bit more exposed.   
MS. To go back to your work as a composer and musician, is there a sense of being part of something that needs to be represented, served or shared in some way?
CL. It wasn't about that when I started.  It was "me me me. This is my fun project."  And it's sort of evolved into that, which I guess is natural as you grow older, to realizing that I could give something back.  So now there is an element of wanting to help people find music in unexpected places.  I think it is really cool when people can find music in some phenomenon in nature [at this point my dog walked through the kitchen]. If you can hear your dog's toenails clicking and go "Wow, that's an interesting sound."
MS. A fresh impression.
CL.  And it's pompous to think that you can give that to everyone. So maybe if a couple people will get something like that out of my work, that would be beautiful.
MS. Opening up the listening. It's worthwhile.
CL. Yes, there are many composers and sound artists who have done that and still do that. But it is worthwhile. We are very visually focused beings. It's nice to use the other senses sometimes to recognize that we are listening beings too.  
MS. You forget that.
CL. You forget that, but if you listen you don't forget. And we all have a library of sounds in our memory that we may not even be conscious of, but that we know very intimately, sounds that bring a specific situation or individual immediately to mind. You know the sounds of your roommate's footsteps, your husband's footsteps, your children's feet pattering down the stairs, your squeaky bathroom door. Not only can you instantly recognize who or what the sound is coming from, but it's another elemental way in which you know that person or environment. Other people don't know them like that.
MS. It opens up the feeling.
CL. Yes. 
Cheryl's web sites: go to  for news of her artistic activities; for photos and field recordings from her work in Antarctica, Cheryl's next big project is a collaboration with visual artist Oona Stern to create a series of site-specific installations in the Arctic: see      



About the Author

In 'The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido', contributing editor Mary Stein has written about finding one's place within the constant movement of a martial art.


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