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Improvising with Trees Using Contact Microphones

post by Cara Jacobsen
March 2021 – June 2021

As part of the early stages of Branching Songs, we collaborated with trees to create improvisational contact mic recordings. This recording process was developed by Julie Andreyev for her Fall 2020 MDIA 300 class as a performing with trees assignment (see the Performing with Nonhumans E-Collection).

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Research assistant Sam Street listening through headphones while improvising with a tree at the 1308 Trees site near Lost Creek, Burnaby. Photo by Leanne Plisic.

find a tree

For each improvisation, the first step begins with finding a tree. We chose trees that were off the path so that we would not be interrupted. Every tree has different possibilities for collaboration and can offer different sounds from touch interaction. The thickness of the trunk and branches, the texture of the bark, and the location/size/texture of the leaves all present different possibilities for generating sounds with the tree (Julie also created an awareness exercise that can be helpful for relaxing and connecting with the tree and surrounding environment before beginning the improvisational process). For the Branching Songs initial research, we chose trees along the Trans Mountain Pipeline route and property line.
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set up

We placed contact microphones against the tree to pick up the sounds of improvisational touch interactions. There are many contact mic options, but we prefer microphones with long cables so that the mics can be placed high on the tree’s trunk or branches and still reach the field recorder placed on the ground. For our initial recording sessions, we used two contact mics in order to have two channel recordings, and provide more possibilities for improvising. We placed the two mics on different locations on each tree and secured them with flagging tape. Sometimes both mics were placed on the trunk while other times we secured one mic to the trunk and attached the other to a branch. Once the mics were in place, we plugged them into a field recorder (Cara used a Roland R-26 recorder and Sam used a MixPre-6), adjusted the settings as necessary, plugged in headphones, and turned on stand-by mode on the recorder. With the recorder in stand-by mode, any gestures made in contact with the tree will be picked up by the microphone. At this point, we tried out different gestures with the tree and made adjustments. Usually, both volume inputs needed to be turned up quite high, and occasionally the mics also needed to be adjusted or repositioned.

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Research assistant Sam Street and Julie Andreyev recording a contact mic improvisation with a cedar tree in Pacific Spirit Park, Vancouver. Photo by Keira Madsen.

touch interactions

We found that the testing/experimenting stage, while in stand-by mode, can take quite a bit of time but it is important not to rush. There are many different gestures that can generate interesting sounds with the tree—plucking branches or twigs, knocking on the bark, shaking or rustling leaves, etc. Each tree makes very different sounds. A large cedar tree’s bark can produce a scratchy sound while a smaller, smoother tree might sound more melodic.  Once we tried out different sounds, we planned a composition. Having a few sequences of gestures or touch patterns planned in advance helps the improvised recording go more smoothly. Once it was time to record, we turned on the recorders and enacted the gestural sequences we planned. We listened to the surrounding environment throughout the process and sometimes slowed down or stopped our gestures to allow other sounds, such as wind rustling the leaves or a train passing, to be heard. Some contact mics will pick up these ambient sounds, and they can be integrated into any soundscape composition later. Some of the contact mic improvisations that we recorded became components of the Branching Songs soundscapes, along with geophonic and ambisonic recording. We experimented with layering the sounds of the contact mic recordings together, sometimes combining different sections and overlapping multiple improvisations. The mics often picked up unexpected environmental sounds as well such as construction noise and bird calls. It’s a surprise to listen to the recordings after returning from a field recording session, and hear smaller sounds that may have been missed while improvising and listening through headphones on site.

See if you can hear our touch interactions with a red cedar in the Cedar at Stoney Creek soundscape below.

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