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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sonic Sculptures

Air Date: Week of

Steve Peters (Courtesy of Steve Peters)

Doves cooing, juniper branches crackling, wind blowing through the holes of a dead cactus. These are some of the sounds that artist Steve Peters recorded at an outdoor art space in New Mexico. Peters transformed the sound into an installation called “Hereings” in 2002. Paul Ingles produced the story for Living on Earth and it won an Edward R. Murrow Award for best use of sound. Here’s a re-broadcast of the piece and a followup with sonic sculptor Steve Peters to see, or shall we say hear, what he’s now working on.


CURWOOD: This month, this Earth month, Living on Earth is taking a listen back to some of the award-winning stories that have been heard on these broadcasts over the past sixteen years,

And today we start with a piece about a sound sculptor for whom it seems that anything can be music to his ears. We first heard from sonic artist Steve Peters in 2002, when producer Paul Ingles brought one of Peters' environmental sound sculptures to the radio.

Peters spent hours recording in an outdoor space in New Mexico called "The Land," taking care to capture sounds of nature that normally escape our attention. The broadcast segment won an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

Steve Peters’ latest audio installation is up this month at the College of Santa Fé_in New Mexico. We’ll hear about that and his other recent work in a few minutes. But first, let’s dial up the way back machine for a listen to Paul Ingles’ 2002 piece on Steve Peters’ work called "Here-ings".


PETERS: The land is located about an hour and a half drive southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the eastern foothills of the Monzano Mountains. It's a 40-acre site. But there's 14 acres of it that they use as a work site and exhibition space for environmental art and, specifically, low-impact environmental art.


PETERS: I was just so impressed by how still it was and quiet. And what happened was that, because it was so quiet, every little sound that happened really stood out. You really noticed it. And all of the sounds had this kind of delicate, hushed quality that I'm a real sucker for anyway.
So, what happens, if I commit myself to coming here for a year, a couple of times a month, and sitting and doing nothing more for an hour at a time than listening to what's going on here?

Steve Peters (Courtesy of Steve Peters)


PETERS: Each time I would go and spend this time listening to this place, I would make a recording of that hour. I stretched a whole day out over a year. I made 24-hour cycle of recordings over the course of one year. What I did with all those 24 hours of recordings was to edit each hour down to about five minutes or so.


PETERS: This is the sound of a chollo cactus. Chollo cactuses are these kind of long, spindly things. And when they die, they leave these beautiful kind of sculptural shapes, like long tubes with little long holes in them, and they're hollow. So this is a chollo cactus with a contact microphone attached to it on a windy day. And you're hearing the wind sort of whistling through the holes in this dead cactus.


PETERS: This here was probably the most sensational sound in the whole show. I had set a contact microphone outside the entrance to an anthill of these large, red, I think, harvesting ants. And, a couple of scouts came out and investigated, and they walked around on it. And then they went back and got a whole bunch more ants. And they all came out and swarmed on the contact microphone and started chewing on it. And then they started making these sounds, which I later learned are called "strigulation" where they sort of have like a rub board on their thorax and their abdomen or something. And they rub it together and make this little shrieking noise. It was slightly terrifying. I thought, "Okay. I think I better go now."


PETERS: This is the sound of a wire fence that runs around the perimeter of the property. And that's kind of an interesting story because I thought this fence was such an insult to the landscape in a way. I'd sit there and go, "You know, the land on this side of it isn't any different than the land on the other side. And what's this thing doing here. It's just ugly and stupid."

And then one day, I was out there, and it was really windy. And I put my ear up to one of the fence posts, and it was the most beautiful sound.


The wind was blowing these stalks of grass against the lower strand of the wire fence.


PETERS: You don't get a sense of the beauty of the place from a quick scan. You really have to slow down and be with it and accept it on its own terms. And I think that's a really good lesson for all of us to carry over to all sorts of other areas in our lives.


CURWOOD: Since Paul Ingles produced that award winning story for Living on Earth, Steve Peters has moved to Seattle where he continues to find and remix unexpected sounds into aural sculptures, including this one, called “Morning Ragas.”

[Steve Peters “Morning Ragas” from ‘Soundwalk at Port Angeles Fine Arts Center’ (Port Angeles, WA – Summer 2005)]

CURWOOD: He also appears sometimes appears in the group called Phonographers Union.

PETERS: What happens at a phonographers concert is who ever shows up is the group for that night and it’s usually somewhere between eight and 12 people. And we all have either personal CD players or laptops or iPods loaded with recordings that we’ve all been making on our own and then we perform live improvising sound collages with untreated field recordings.

[Steve Peters & Seattle Phonographers Union “Excerpt 1” from ‘Building 27 Sand Point, Magnuson Park’ (September 22nd & 23rd, 2006)]

PETERS: I’m pretty fascinated with the idea of kind of managing to pull something out of nothing. And then I’ve also continued to do site specific sound installations in various places. At the moment I have one at the College of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[Steve Peters & Christine Wallers “First Light, Last” from ‘Sound & Video Installation at Portland Art Center’ (Portland, WA – December 2006)]

PETERS: Openings for my work tend to be kind of a horrible experience because everybody is being festive and drinking wine and talking and laughing and my little quiet, barely-audible pieces tend to get crushed. (laughs) Everybody is always saying “Can’t you turn it up? Turn it up” And I’m saying, “No I’m sorry. Come back some time when it’s not the opening.”

CURWOOD: Sonic sculptor Steve Peters latest work "Atrium Sound Space" can be seen and heard on our web site L-O-E dot O-R-G.



Steve Peters' blogspot

Seattle Phonographers Union


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