Livingston River Windows

Often when I think about artists whose work has increased awareness of the environment, writers, photographers, and landscape painters come to mind. But Creative Work Fund recipient Hugh Livingston’s work uses sound to draw attention to the particular qualities of the natural world.

A cellist, Livingston has long been interested in how the acoustic qualities of different spaces affected the sound of his playing. This interest evolved from a practice of site-specific performances to the creation of sound sculptures and installations.

The Creative Work Fund requires an artist and a nonprofit to work together to realize a project. Livingston wanted to work in California’s Sonoma County. Thinking of the aural qualities of that place led him to an obvious source, the Russian River, which flows southward and west through the county.  Referrals led him to Russian Riverkeeper which, since 1993, has worked to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, and three species of endangered salmonids.

Two hot topics on the river are controlling agricultural run-off and gravel mining. Both call for a balanced approach: Sonoma’s economy depends heavily on agriculture, and gravel bank build-up contributes to downstream erosion of valuable property. At the same time, pollution and disruption of the river and its creeks further endanger wildlife.

Through Russian Riverkeeper Livingston gained access to the river and contacts at wineries that shared Riverkeeper’s concerns. Livingston’s Creative Work Fund will culminate with a sound sculpture at a new Riverkeeper Park and with a river opera. In the meantime, he’s created river sound and video installations at Warnecke Ranch; the Sonoma County Museum; and Slaughterhouse Space.

Livingston writes, “There is no manner in which I can convey in one short glimpse the vast soundscape that I have experienced along the River, the colors I have seen, the frogs that have chorused.” Yet, his pieces evoke that environment in complex and playful ways. Three chairs stationed under an oak tree invite visitors to relax into the sounds and vibrations of cello music, wind gusts, creek water riffles, and river sounds. Eight stills taken from extensive video footage of the river capture the play of light and quality of motion of the water. From the stills, Livingston has extracted Pantone color palettes, cataloguing, numbering, and naming them with a distinctive Russian River names for colors such as “Spilled Zinfandel,” “Farmed Salmon,” and “Old Tractor Pink.”  Words used in river policy debates are projected against one dark wall, in a shape that mimics the river’s meander. Yet another piece sorts river gravel according to its Krumbein Roundness factor.

Livingston asks of the latter, “But what if the gravel was chosen in order to maximize the sonic qualities of a brook?” And what if artwork caused all of us to pay attention in new ways to the distinct qualities of the natural world? Two practical lessons from this project are:

1.)   Choose partners carefully, making use of referrals

2.)   Don’t try to rush: expect the work to evolve and change course as you learn from the community, adapt to weather (and floods), and ask deeper questions.

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