Adventure in Listening: UCSD's Stuart Collection adds a musical piece on campus in La Jolla

It’s alive! “The Wind Garden,” the latest addition to UC San Diego’s Stuart Collection, is different from the 18 other site-specific artworks that enliven the 1,200-acre campus.

Created by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, it is not a fixed entity, but an ever-changing soundscape performed — with the help of sophisticated software — by a chorus of wired eucalyptus trees.

Due to variable winds, times of day and weather conditions, what you hear when you stroll through the grove outside the Mandell Weiss Theatre is different every time.

At the official opening Aug. 7, Adams and his team of sound, data, and system designers were happy to talk with visitors about the piece.

“It’s a musical composition in the form of a garden, played not by instrumentalists, but by the wind,” said Adams, who has been working on the piece — his first outdoor installation — for years.

“Each tree is a cluster of sounds,” explained sound designer/programmer Jem Altieri. “As the day goes on, the tonality shifts from major to minor. There are 32 trees, with a loudspeaker and accelerometer (a device that measures movement) in each one. As each tree sways in the wind, its movement is streamed into a computer inside the theater, and we’ve programmed different tones for different times of day.”

Adams added, “At night, the sound gets darker and lower in pitch. One of my favorite times is late afternoon, around sunset, when you get the mixing of sounds. And at night, when it’s absolutely still, you can hear the grove breathing.”

He spoke of the musical grove as a kind of chapel. “There’s the central path, and then there’s the apse,” Adams said. “Sit and listen for awhile, and you’ll hear little melodies and points of sound all over the place.”

There are benches strategically placed to encourage deep listening. Even when the wind is up, the sounds are not loud, so the more attentive you are, the more you hear.

“My work is about listening to nature,” Adams said. “I hope the piece encourages you to slow down and listen in a way you don’t usually do.”

There’s another singing tree piece in the Stuart Collection — Terry Allen’s 1986 “Trees” — but that one involves pre-recorded music and readings. “The Wind Garden,” on the other hand, is what Stuart Collection director Mary Beebe calls “a live response to the immediate territory.”

She said she and project manager Mathieu Gregoire considered adding something musical to the Collection a decade ago. At an on-campus concert, they were drawn to “The Light That Fills the World,” a shimmering orchestral piece by John Luther Adams. They decided he could fill their bill.

“He came here in 2008, and we went all over the campus,” Beebe said. “At first, he was going to do several works, in different places — all natural, none of them using electricity. Once he chose the grove, instead of 32 loudspeakers, he originally wanted 32 musical instruments.”

Said Gregoire, “John’s an extraordinarily hardworking artist, deeply committed to his ideas and research and wonderfully experimental. He’s put hundreds and hundreds of hours into this project.”

Beebe chimed in, “I absolutely love that it makes you want to listen. I’ve heard sounds in there that I’ve never heard before.”

Stop by “The Wind Garden” anytime and hear for yourself.

About the Stuart Collection

The Stuart Collection, wholly funded by individual donors and foundations, began in 1981 with a $1.5 million gift from an art-loving Rancho Santa Fe businessman, James Stuart DeSilva. Thanks to Mary Looker, a longtime Friend of the Stuart Collection, it now has a million-dollar endowment.

According to Mary Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection since its beginnings: “This is not about decorating the campus, it’s about providing experiences for people to think about.” Decisions are made by an advisory board of art professionals, and, finally, the university chancellor, but it’s Beebe who finds the artists, helps with their proposals, runs them by the board, and does the all-important fundraising.

Beebe’s right hand is project manager Mathieu Gregoire. “This is a place where artists can take chances, come up with an idea and not have to think about how to build it,” he said. “That’s our job.”

Niki de Saint Phalle’s 1983 “Sun God” was the first piece in the Stuart Collection. Coming in 2018 will be No. 20, a 195-foot pole topped by a light flashing in Morse Code Samuel Morse’s first telegraphed message: “What hath God wrought?” The artist is Mark Bradford, currently featured in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

“We’re raising money now,” said Beebe. “All wallets are welcome!” (858) 534-2117. stuartcollection.ucsd.edu

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