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October 1, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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The music of trees, a listener's guide

What's that noise?

It's not noise. It's music.

Those sounds drifting through the Washington Park Arboretum as of last weekend are the musical composition of UW doctoral student Abby Aresty. See my story in today's Seattle Times for more about that. And, Abby's blog on the making of the piece.

Tree Sound.JPG

UW doctoral student Abby Aresty tests her equipment before arborist Chris Watson installs it in a 120-foot high ponderosa pine at the Washington Park Arboretum. The speakers play with power from a solar collector Watson hauled up into the tree, too.

Photo by Steve Ringman

solar panel.jpg

Solar panels power the stereos and speakers in the installation. Watson took this photo while up in a tree. Look for the black rectangles nearly at the top of the center pine. Chris Watson, photo

I've walked the installation a few times and talked with Abby a bit about it. Here's a listener's guide, based on those experiences:

Open wide. When you listen, hear not only her pieces, but the ambient sound. The compositions are complete only within the soundscape.

Take your time. As Abby learned making the piece, the sound of a place can be most richly heard when it is savored. By spending more time, you will hear more.

Dress comfortably. Some of these pieces are best enjoyed sitting at the base of a tree,

Don't worry about listening to the pieces in any particular order. The installation is a collaboration with you, the listener. It can be heard in any order in which you encounter the pieces.

Don't worry too much, either about finding the pieces from the map. It's more fun, I found, to just walk and let them find you as you walk the paths of the arboretum. Hear something a little unusual? Follow it.

On my first walk through, I heard the sounds of something dropping; a high, shimmering trilling sound, and gurgling water. Each lead me to one of the installations.

How did they do it? That's where Chris Watson comes in, the arborist for the Washington Park Arboretum, who hauled more than 1,000 pounds of cable, speakers and stereo equipment into the trees for the temporary installation. Some of the equipment had to be installed more than 100 feet off the ground. He made it look easy.

"It took a while to figure out the first one," Watson said. "I love climbing trees. I love taking a moment at the top to myself. It's been really interesting," he said of the project. "I've gotten a lot of air time." By which he means working high up in the tops of the trees.

Aresty began recording sound for the piece at the arboretum a year ago. The compositions at each site are made from sounds recorded at that site, be they a fly walking on a microphone, water running in a stream, or crunch of leaves as squirrels tussle under a tree.

The installation will be up through the month of October on Wednesdays from 3 to 6 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30 to 1:30.

Be sure to check out the sculpture by Kate Clark in one of the is a beautiful surprise.


A sculpture by Kate Clark evokes a bottomless wishing well, strung in the complex basketry woven by rhododendron branches.

Abby Aresty, photo


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