The column of light is beamed directly into the sky. As if intended to summon some celestial visitor, the beam of photons is emitted from a circle of glowing discs, placed in the most unassuming place imaginable—a farmer’s field (don’t ET’s always land there?). This, however, isn’t some outtake from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is, naturally, an art installation.
Composition for Percussion, Light and Ultrasound by London, Ontario artist Paul F. Walde is not intended to contact aliens, but rather a more terrestrial—if airborne—form of intelligence. There are over 10,000 species of moths in North America, and they’re generally considered to be an agricultural and household pest, the uglier, unloved cousin of the butterfly. Moths, of course, are attracted to artificial light, for reasons still unknown to scientists. Lepidopterists have a range of theories, from moths’ use of the moon for celestial navigation, to the infrared pattern of the females’ pheromones during mating season. No matter what the actual cause, the fact is that moths’ attraction to light is one example of how human beings interfere with nature.
And Walde’s piece is one of the latest examples in a growing body of work that explores the difficult, ever-shifting boundary between nature and culture. Let’s begin with the percussion part of Walde’s Composition. A circle of seven floor toms, poached from your standard five-piece rock drum-kit, is arranged in a southwestern Ontario field at night. Let there be light: each drum has installed in it high-powered lights that are pointed skyward through clear drumheads, and also a small microphone. The shifting beam of light attracts a variety of insects, including but not limited to moths, which land on the drum skins and sometimes climb inside the toms from their open bottoms. The sound of their tapping, thumping, flurrying, and scurrying is sent to a system of four loudspeakers that surround the drum circle. A further level of interference is added by ultrasound: at timed intervals, ultrasonic recordings of bats are sent through the system, triggering an evasive response from the moths, who periodically fall from the sky and land on the drum skins with a dramatic thump.
Premiering in the summer of 2010 at the fifth annual Electric Eclectics festival of experimental music and sound art on the Funny Farm, near Meaford, Ontario, Composition for Percussion, Light and Ultrasound attracted many curious onlookers en route from the live music stage to the woodland DJ tent, where they were treated to an eerie encounter with a familiar creature. It’s not often that we get a chance to meet insects like moths up close, and appreciate both their beauty and intelligence, alien and impaired as it may be in the moment by the confusion of the various stimuli they are being subjected to. It’s also a rare treat to appreciate an insect as a musical artist, as the bugs’ percussive performance provides an ongoing yet irregular rhythmic backdrop for the occasional high-pitched blasts of pre-recorded sonar.
“The piece looks to interpret nature however it happens in real time,” explains Walde. “I'm creating a system in which the drums and lights, as cultural signifiers from rock-music culture, become the attraction and the receiver for an action that takes place in nature. By pulling this behaviour into the realm of culture, I'm recasting it as a performance, a dance with its own percussion. Art involves a great deal of appreciation and thought on behalf of the viewer-listener. When one projects this same eye or ear towards nature, one realizes there is a lot of information there. I'm not trying to say that art and nature are the same thing, or that nature is artistic, but I do think there are interesting ways of looking at our position in this world, and art is one way to do this.”
Imaginary landscape / hidden landscape
You might say that Composition for Percussion, Light and Ultrasound is at the vanguard of a new, as-yet-unnamed movement in contemporary art, which explores the randomness at work—or not?—when cultural artifacts interface with the natural world. French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot received widespread attention in early 2010 with his commission for the Barbican Centre in London U.K., in which an aviary holding forty zebra finches was also equipped with a plugged-in electric guitar. The birds appeared to “play” the open-tuned axe, and became a YouTube sensation. Like fellow Internet star Nora the Piano Playing Cat, the finches raised the question of whether our animal friends can hear, appreciate, or even create music.
Walde considers his work to be influenced by legendary figures like land artist Robert Smithson—creator of the iconic Spiral Jetty, which forty-one years later can still be seen curling into Utah’s Great Salt Lake—and German performance-art prankster Joseph Beuys, best known for his self-explanatory 1965 piece, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” Yet Beuys also created ecological interventions like 7,000 Oaks, in which Beuys and volunteers planted 7,000 oak trees, each accompanied by a basalt stone, between the years 1982–87 in Kassel, the German city that plays host to the Documenta exhibition.
“I’m interested in fusing nature and culture to try and come up with things that are interesting,” says Walde. “With my sound work, I’m able to take phenomena in nature and show them in a way that’s cultural. Finding technology that makes it possible is a big part, especially if you can find a device that’s representative of culture. When I put the drums out in the field, the drums are such culturally loaded objects that whatever happens with them is going to be cultural in some way.”
Though currently based in London, Ontario, Paul Walde was born in the other London. Paul’s family moved from England to Canada when he was five, when his father, a doctor, took an internship at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. A year later, they relocated to Sault Ste. Marie, where Paul spent his formative years. Following the completion of his BFA at the University of Western Ontario—thus establishing his London connection—Walde moved to New York City in 1992 to do his master’s at NYU. At the same time, he was playing in psychedelic punk bands in the then-nascent Brooklyn indie-music scene, an experience that led the young visual artist to consider exploring sound in his practice.
And it was also, ironically, his experience in the big U.S. city that led this small-town northern Ontario boy to engage the natural world as his primary subject—and medium. “I started looking at art and science when I was in New York, and that’s when I started considering nature as a possible subject, which for me was kind of taboo. You don’t want to talk about nature. But the taboo made me more interested.”
For Canadian artists, the mountainous shadow of the Group of Seven looms large. The mute, anonymous wilderness plays a huge role in our national identity, and the Group’s landscape paintings remain highly canonized. In Canadian music, it’s equally hard to escape the massive influence of R. Murray Schafer, with his concern for acoustic ecology and retreat into the literal woods to present his music.
Regarding the influence of the landscape, Walde says, “I think the thing for me is that it was just there. As kids we just went into the bush and played, and I knew it was different, having come from England —just the vastness. It wasn’t until I got to New York that I started thinking about it. When I went back to northern Ontario, people said, ‘Oh, that’s the opposite of New York.’ But it’s not. There’s a little more edge up there. You have to do things on your own. You’re fighting against the elements. There’s also that edge to survive in New York—every day you have to get up and do something because you have to pay the rent. When I moved to Brooklyn, we were living in these lofts and building our own environment. We were kind of living like pioneers.”
The trajectory of exploration that has led to recent work like the drum piece started in the late ’90s, when Walde moved back to Sault Ste. Marie from New York. A visit from our friendly national animal inspired his first sound-oriented work, Northern Symphony. One morning, Walde found some logs from a tree felled by a beaver outside his cottage, and began thinking about the significance of the bite marks left behind. “I was interested in the fact that humans are not the only creatures to alter their environments, and in fact beavers are great terra-formers. I was looking at these markings for years with my work in print and painting—in the Gnaw series and related works—and I decided to imagine how these ideas might be interpreted or misinterpreted by people who might have no idea what a beaver was.”
The result of this strategy was a multi-component installation that included relief-printed wallpaper on the gallery walls, a cast architectural frieze, a “designer” beaver lodge, a DJ booth, and an outhouse renovated into a miniature art gallery. Northern Symphony also featured a score for a string quartet, which was “remixed and reconstructed” by experimental, electronic improvisers such as Sook-Yin Lee, The Rust Brothers, and Combustion Lente, at its première at Toronto’s V. MacDonnell Gallery in 2001. The musical component of Northern Symphony has retained a life of its own, and nine years later in 2010, the romantically minimalist string quartet was finally premiered by a group of young classical musicians at a remount of the exhibition at Malaspina Printmakers in Vancouver.
His London calling
Driving into London, Ontario, the visitor is first greeted by the squat, square, red-and-yellow brick residences that emerge from the flat, unassuming landscape. The town’s lack of pretension is indicated by business names like Nucleo Sporting and karaoke joints that “speak Sing-lish!” All of a sudden, the financial towers shoot up, and you’re dropped off in the middle of one of those seemingly interchangeable southern Ontario downtowns that seem charmingly tiny to a snobby Torontonian. Yet this city of almost half a million—tenth largest in Canada—is not to be underestimated.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, its relative geographic isolation—sitting all alone in the middle of southwestern Ontario, two hours either way from Detroit and Toronto along Highway 401—London has a remarkable history of underground music and art. It was in London that The Nihilist Spasm Band—probably the world’s very first noise band—began assembling for their weekly jams on Monday nights at the Forest City Gallery back in 1965. This is a tradition that continues to this day. In the band’s own words, “We play for our own enjoyment, but an audience is welcome.” Now well into their seventies, the NSB are revered worldwide by artists like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and are worshipped in Japan. Amongst their membership was painter Greg Curnoe, killed while riding his beloved bicycle in 1992. Credited as one of the champions in regionalism in Canadian art, Curnoe bemoaned our tendency to imitate and follow trends coming out of New York.
Paul Walde has happily called London home since the turn of the millennium, residing there with his wife, author Christine Walde, and their two young children, and teaching studio art at Western. For the last half decade, he has helped raise the profile of the music and art scenes in London as the artistic director of the LOLA (London Ontario Live Arts) Festival. Founded by young entrepreneur Andrew Francis, LOLA has run annually every September since 2006, and its primary home base is Victoria Park, a lovely public park in central London, blessed with a large bandshell. The majority of its programming therefore has free admission. Its live music component is programmed by music curator Ian Doig-Phaneuf, a local musician and DJ, Walde, meanwhile, curates the visual arts component—presented in and around the park, as well as around town—and together Walde and Doig-Phaneuf curate the transMedia program, “hybrid sound, visual art forms and performances” intended to “bridge the divide between music and art audiences.” LOLA’s programming has been consistently phenomenal and wonderfully diverse—2010 alone featured Jamie Lidell, Text of Light, Fond of Tigers, and Caribou in the music program, while the art program featured William Basinski, Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid), Todd Tremeer, Barb Hunt, and Yoko Ono. As if this weren’t enough, the transMedia program went on to feature Tony Conrad, Rhys Chatham, Chicago Underground Duo.
It’s incredible that this much forward-thinking activity could take place in London, of all places. Paul tells the story thusly: “From 2006 until 2008, I took a break from teaching to accept the position as curator of public programs at Museum London. Andrew Francis walked in one day and told museum director Brian Meehan and me that he had started a festival, and would we be interested in curating the art portion? I told Brian I was interested in taking this on, and the rest is history. I really fell in love with the project, and by 2008 I realized that I couldn’t do LOLA and work at the museum as well. Andrew asked me to be the artistic director, and I accepted. As for how we make this thing work in London? We ask ourselves this very question daily. London does have a longstanding history of art and alternative music. Also, with the University and Fanshawe College in town, London has a large population of educated young people who are looking for unique experiences. Since there aren’t as many events as in larger centres, it’s also been easier to focus the attention on our festival.”
At home in the audio lodge
The centre of London’s historic downtown is the covered Covent Garden Market, where the winter blues are quickly wiped away by the aroma of warm soup and fresh coffee. Just a short block’s walk away is Paul Walde’s studio, located in the sort of high-ceilinged loft space that makes rent-challenged Torontonians envious. LOLA’s office is across the hall, and this complex acts as something of a community drop-in centre, with Walde acting as a mentor figure to many young artists on the scene.
It’s here that every Thursday evening Paul gets together with his “band” to jam. Audio Lodge may be a sound art collective, but the trio—which also includes Troy Ouellette and Kevin Curtis Norcross—operates not unlike a regular band. In the spirit of the Nihilist Spasm Band, they meet weekly to improvise together, occasionally in public performance, and most often on “The Speakers,” three matching loudspeakers used as both instruments and microphones, bowed to create long textures or tapped to create percussive rhythms.
Audio Lodge also marks Walde’s first entirely sound-oriented project. “We are all more known separately for our visual work, and all share an interest in environmental issues, and all worked independently with sound,” he says. “We spent several months meeting and mostly talking about our ideas, and from this the form of the collaboration began to take shape.”
So far, the collective has produced two conceptual, non-improvised pieces. Downtown may be Walde’s most explicitly urban, or culturally oriented, work—the score for Petula Clark’s unnervingly optimistic 1964 pop song is transposed onto a map of downtown London, and each note in the score is then used to map out the location of a short field recording, each exploring the sonic qualities of urban space. “We had no idea what the end result would sound like, but as with a lot of conceptual art, you have to have faith in the process. In the end, Downtown was much more powerful than we imagined. When assembled, the field recordings painted a much darker portrait of the city—one full of yelling, car alarms, tires screeching, building exhausts, and generally a lot of noise pollution. This really got us thinking about noise and the effect it must have on societies.”
All that is stripped away, however, in Time Transposition 1010, a twenty-four-hour sound installation at University of Western Ontario’s University College, which imagines what London would have sounded like 1,000 years ago, prior to European colonization. The noise of modernity is replaced by chirping katydids, the distant call of foxes, and the Iroquoian language that would have been heard in the region at the time. “In creating the work, we started with twenty-four hours of field recordings that were recorded in one of the largest remaining stands of older-growth trees in the region. We had to remove over a third of the recording through the editing process to eliminate highway sounds, passing aircraft, and industrial farm noises. We then had to add back in the sounds of over thirty species—many of which were not very friendly to man, including the sound of a passenger pigeon flock. We realized in recreating some of these sounds that they are not pleasant to humans, and in fact the landscape as it existed 1,000 years ago would have been a formidable environment. We also included a re-creation of a conversation between two Iroquoian residents, as we felt it was important to illustrate that London wasn't an uninhabited wilderness prior to Colonel Talbot's arrival here. Time Transposition 1010 really is the flip side to Downtown. Both are markedly different portraits of essentially the same geographic area. In many ways, they say the same thing as each other, but in completely different ways.”
Audio Lodge is distinct from the rest of Walde’s oeuvre, not only in being a collective enterprise, but also in being his only completely sound-oriented venture. Yet these projects can be seen as asking some of the same questions as his solo works, but with an important twist—and one that also illuminates this artists’ sense of humour. A piece like Composition for Percussion, Light and Ultrasound presents a human cultural artifact—in this case, a drum kit—as an object almost comical in its insignifance, swallowed up as it is by the uncaring vastness of the natural world. Similarly, Northern Symphony cheekily suggests human innovations in shelter as existing on a continuum that connects us with our more “primitive” mammalian friends. The humour in the Audio Lodge works, however, takes a darker turn. The ironic juxtaposition of Downtown’s urban dystopia and Time Transposition 1010’s sonic vision of a lost environment only underscore the distance from the natural world that we, as a culture, have. With life as we know it threatened by climate change and resource depletion, the work of artists like Paul Walde encourages us to re-engage with nature—and not with awestruck reverence, but more with a conspiratorial wink.

AudioNorthern Symphony (Movement 4, 2001). Composed by Paul Walde. Performed by the Jordan Mann Ensemble. Image: Paul Walde pictured with his installation Composition for Percussion, Light and UltrasoundImage by: Courtesy of Paul Walde.