U-M doctoral candidate creates sonic interaction with peonies

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The newly minted W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden is celebrating 100 years of peonies, approaching the end of their season at the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum.

But now, thanks to Alexis Lamb, a U-M doctoral candidate in Musical Arts in Composition, a visit to the peony garden engages not only the senses of sight and scent, but also sound.

“Hybrid Cultivars,” created by Lamb, consists of 27 single-pipe chimes installed throughout the garden. Each chime plays a similar pitch, so as visitors walk among the flower beds they are immersed in a drone-like sound of the collective chimes as they interact with different natural elements and humans.

This is Lamb’s way of encouraging people to “open their ears to what is already around them.”

“I love spending time outside and just listening to what is happening around me, so I have been trying to find ways in which I can use music to compliment that, rather than get in the way of it,” she said.

By foraging natural elements from the arboretum where the installation is set, Lamb assembles what she calls a “nature orchestra” of rocks, acorn tops, pinecones, pine needle brushes, sticks and even deer bones. These pieces are attached to the chimes amplifying the sounds that the natural world is always creating with the materials around us.

“Using these foraged materials is meant to help us rethink what it means to take a walk down to the river,” Lamb said. “You walk through the peony gardens and down all these other trails, and our feet are making so many sounds underneath, the birds are making sounds around us, the trees are whistling in the wind.

“All of that is such a beautiful soundscape already, so with the chimes I wanted to bring out all of those elements and then add this one human-made component with the chime itself.”

Most recently, Lamb led another nature orchestra in Alaska where her team searched the shoreline at low tide to collect crab, clam and cockle shells, kelp, seaglass and other natural elements. They put these pieces together, listened to the different sounds that were happening, and created their own music using that soundscape. To leave their mark, they created chimes that were left around the community.

“You’re not really adding anything physically new to the space, but it’s a reframing of what’s already there and appreciating the sounds that are being created with these instruments.” The Nichols Arboretum is free and open to the public.

The peony season is coming to a close, but they are on view as long as they are in bloom.

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