­­­­­­­Talking Trees

Karen McCoy and Robert Carl

Talking Trees is a collaborative sound and sculpture project commissioned by the Spencer Art Museum of the University of Kansas to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Kansas City Art Institute. When we received this commission, we immediately began to explore the history and geography of KCAI and KU. We were immediately drawn to the presence of venerable trees in lovely settings on both campuses. Through talks with experts in science, history, and biology, we began to understand that the trees have a deep connection with both the biological life of their environment, and the human culture that has surrounded them. We imagined what these trees would tell us if they could talk, what would be the sounds from their life on site (and from an even deeper past) if they could share aural memories”. 

Talking Trees consists of an installation in an old gingko tree on the KCAI green and in a similarly venerable linden tree in KU’s Marvin Grove adjacent to the Spencer Museum. A smaller maple in front of the Spencer Museum announces the work with a smaller installation. Suspended in each tree are several “sound trumpets”. These trumpets are made by transforming gourds, longhorn steer horns, and by shaping and galvanizing steel. These are animal, vegetable and mineral (galvanization uses zinc) materials closely allied to the region. The gourds, for example, are transformed to be more acoustically resonant and sculptural through the use of animal hide glue, paper mucilage and earth pigment colors McCoy has found in Kansas and Missouri. The sound trumpets may be used to listen to the ambient sounds at each site, and to a series of short sound compositions. Within each tree there is a solar powered playback device that will play back various sounds based on the history, environment, and general culture of Kansas City and Lawrence. Robert Carl gathered sounds through field recordings and mixing of free sounds available on the internet. 

“I set out to create a series of sounds that reflected the history of the tree and its environs, loosely modeled on the idea of an iconic sound from each decade (though there is plenty of overlap). Each soundfile is very much a tiny musical work, structured to have a flow and point. The majority are made up of many different sounds, mixed, processed, and edited to create the final product. If you want to listen to all the sounds used in this piece, they have been archived on a website, whose address is: http://uhavax.hartford.edu/nmc/TalkingTrees/TalkingTrees.html 

Trees are connected to vast underground systems of micro-organisms, the conceit is that have been listening to the culture growing up around them over the past decades. These sounds are necessarily delicate, and are meant to be perceived through the ambient sonic environment, not imposed on it. As a result, the listening trumpets are essential for the participant to distinguish and hear the sound more clearly and closely. This whisper of what the trees could tell us, if they could talk, provides the content for the sound piece.

Acknowledgements: Saralyn Reece Hardy, Director, Spencer Museum of Art, KU; Kathleen Collins, President, KCAI; Susan Earle, Curator of European and American Art, Spencer Museum, KU; Chassica Kirchhoff, Curatorial Intern, Spencer Museum of Art, KU; Kelly Kindscher, Senior Scientist, Kansas Biological Survey, KU; Ivan Katzer, Certified Master Arborist, tree consultation  and installation in Kansas City; Monroe Dodd, editor, writer and Kansas City historian; M.J. Pohler, Director of Jannes Library, KCAI; Milton Katz for his book The History of the Kansas City Art Institute: A Century of Excellence and Beyond; Anne Canfield, Vice President for Communications, KCAI; Raechell Smith, Director of the H&R Block Artspace, KCAI; John Riley, Director of Central Shop, KCAI: Lester Goldman Studio and Kathrin Goldman, gourds; Dave Barber, Master Horn Carver; Bill Zahner, A. Zahner Architectural Metal, consultant and fabrication of metal trumpets; Lief Ellis, design and fabrication of sound system; Natalie Poserina, Allison Maxfield and Jenna Stanton, studio assistants to Karen McCoy; Richard Klocke and Doug Bergstrom, Spencer Museum Exhibition Design; Tristan Telander, Graphic Designer for Spencer Museum; sound files used by Robert Carl from field recordings, freesound.org, and youtube.com.

For the sounds in Marvin Grove and on the KCAI campus, here is a brief description of each:

Shovel--the tree remembers its “birth”, when it is planted.

Cows--Cattle drives moved westward across Missouri and Kansas in the post-Civil War era, their endpoints following the westward-moving railheads.

Horses--an iconic sound that would have been heard everywhere throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Trains--the major form of motorized transportation throughout the same period; their roar and whistle would be heard everywhere, in cities and countryside.

Streetcars--the major form of urban mass transit until about World War II. One could take such light rail all the way from Kansas City to Lawrence.

Parade--marching men and bands would have accompanied soldiers heading off to World War I.

Cars--starting in the 1920s, the personal automobile would have eclipsed the horse and buggy as the preferred form of transport.

Waltz on the Range--the two state songs are The Missouri Waltz and Home on the Range, both dating from the early 20th century, and avatars of American popular music of the period. When played superimposed, they make unusual sense together.

Jazz--by the 1930s the Kansas City sound of big band swing would have become predominant. Here we have a little dialogue between Count Basie and Charlie Parker.

KU chant [KU tree only]--the Rock Chalk Jawhawk chant would have been heard repeatedly by the tree coming from the nearby stadium.

Lovers--the tree for its entire life would have been a refuge for couples to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Cicadas and Frogs--an iconic regional sound heard in the summer months throughout the history of the tree and place.

Birds--the two state birds, the Eastern Bluebird (MO) and the Western Meadowlark (KS) are heard in a duet.

Storm---run for the shelter, Dorothy! The area is noted for its violent weather. The conclusion of the soundpiece includes a recording of an actual tornado.

Baseball--by the mid 20th century, the sound of ballgames would be a presence for half the year, and if not live, then coming from radios through house windows.

Construction--as we move to the post-WWII era construction projects at both KU and KCAI would have filled the ear with mechanical racket.

Party--a sound on any campus, and especially with the wild times at some of the Beaux Arts Balls at KCAI.

Protest--in the 1960s the open spaces of the campuses would have vibrated to angry speeches to cheering, whistling crowds.

Ice--another iconic storm sound, this one of winter. The region experienced a major icestorm in the early 21st century.

Digital Sounds--the chorus of ringtones, computer typing, and alarms that make up the sonic tapestry of so much of our lives today.