This story originally appeared in The South End's fall 2019 Back to School print edition.
Editor's note: The original article did not have a proper em dash in the title, this has since been fixed to reflect proper punctuation.
Audio recordings of volcanoes, in their abstract form, have artistic qualities. They are subjective and open to interpretation.
The deep, sustained roar the volcano produces may conjure up frightening images of destruction. But to another ear, its steady frequencies have calming qualities, like the quiet hum of a television left on at night or the distant rumbling of rain.
Master of Music candidate Andy Jarema was named artist-in-residence by the National Parks Arts Foundation for 2019. For the program’s residency, Jarema will be teaching a music workshop and exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park with a handheld recording device.
Instead of creating music with traditional instruments, Jarema will use the raw and natural sounds of the park to create musical compositions.
“It’s (the residency) a lot of just exploring the park and just sort of exploring it for my own sake as an artist,” Jarema said. “All of the workshops and the recording I do is actually a small part. It’s more me just enjoying the park.”
Jarema said the application process was extensive. He applied in April and submitted a detailed proposal once the top 25 candidates were selected.
“At that point they whittled it down to three, which is the point where I started to get just completely beside myself and nervous, and I’m like ‘I’m one of three, what if I don’t get this.”
While Jarema proposed other ideas, park officials gravitated toward the idea of collecting natural sounds to use in musical compositions — wanting him to focus on that part of his proposal, he said.
As a trumpeter in his elementary school’s band, Jarema discovered he had perfect pitch. People with perfect pitch can hear a musical note and accurately name, sing or play it. Soon after this realization, Jarema found the world around him became noticeably more “musical.”
“It allowed me to think of everything around me as having a pitch,” Jarema said. “And so how could I treat that as music in a way?”
Two summers ago, Jarema and his wife visited Badlands National Park in Interior, South Dakota. There, his wife spotted a work of art with a plaque underneath that read “artist-in-residence.”
On the car ride home, the couple did some research. They found the park service hosts artist-in-residence programs, spanning all 50 states. The programs invite artists to stay in the parks, hone their craft and share it with park visitors, according to the park service website.
Soon after, Jarema filled out a small batch of applications. He wrote about his idea to create music recordings that incorporate natural sounds harvested from the park.
In 2018, the judges at Great Smoky Mountains National Park selected him. Armed with his trumpet, recording software and his trusty Zoom H4 — a digital audio recording device — he set out. He said much of the process involved taking long walks while recording.
“Then, at the end of the day, I just come back into the cabin and go ‘Okay, what can I do with this sound? Is it gonna be put into a beat? Is that sound high-pitched for a hi-hat sound? Or maybe I’m gonna take that sound and stretch it so instead of being one second, it’s gonna be a minute long, and it’s going to be this long, ambient soundscape,” Jarema said.
On Aug. 4, Jarema started another residency at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Much like his residency at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he will be harvesting sounds from the park to use in musical projects, he said.
In his proposal for the residency, Jarema had to talk about his plans for the music workshop he would be leading at the park, he said. He focused on what he could bring to the workshop as a teacher.
“I really know how to engage the public speaking forum, so I really went into depth about that,” Jarema said. “I think they said that was a really strong part of my proposal — the way it really seemed like I could connect to an audience.”
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park has a rich cultural history. Park visitors may think of the volcanoes and craters as natural wonders or landmarks. But for the indigenous community of Hawaii, this land is fundamentally tied to the culture, spirituality and history that make up their identity.
Joshua Duchan teaches 20th-century music, a course that addresses how this disparity exists in the music world.
“At the very least when incorporating sounds, styles or other aspects from another’s music into one’s own, it is necessary to be thoughtful and respectful of the original musical context,” Duchan said. “And of course, give credit where credit is due.”
Jarema, who took Duchan’s course, said he applies this lens when composing.
“You know the last thing I want to do is appropriate a culture that’s been appropriated enough,” he said.
Duchan’s standard for writing helped Jarema draft the park service proposals in a thoughtful way. Duchan also praised Jarema’s writing ability.
“That skill enabled him to tackle challenging topics in his papers without losing the clarity of the arguments,” Duchan said.
Jarema generated new ideas for this project. He said Jonathon Anderson, associate professor of composition and theory, taught him some of the tools he will incorporate into his music. Anderson showed him how to work Max MSP — a music software.
“(With the software) you develop these things called ‘patches,’” he said. “If I take
a sound and put it through one of these patches, it will randomly generate different twists and turns with that sound and different effects.”
Jarema referred to Anderson as the “crazy ideas guy.”
When Jarema was preparing for his Great Smoky Mountains National Park residency, Anderson made a suggestion. He told Jarema he could record the sounds of insect footsteps by attaching a piece of tin foil to a contact microphone.
“I got the sound of ant feet moving across the surface,” Jarema said. “It just blew my mind that he thought of this.”
Jarema said he incorporates things he learns on his trips into his classroom, where he teaches 500 students.
He teaches at an elementary school in Warren, Michigan and works with students who are new to music composition.
“A lot of the time we’ll do fun things like we’ll make animal sounds and turn that into a composition because you can order the sounds and maybe half the class will make one sound and half the class will make the other sound,” Jarema said.
For his artist-in-residence program at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he made a contraption out of his computer where one sound is inputted, and the computer creates 100 different sounds.
“My kids had a blast just coming up to my microphone and they would say something like ‘Hello,’ and make this huge soundscape of noise just from their one sound,” he said. “That was something I just kind of designed for the Smokies, and so I loved it so much, I had to bring it into my classroom to teach my kids (and) just have a blast with it.”
Jarema finds similarities in the classroom and with the park service.
“A lot of my teaching informs what I do at these artist residencies,” he said. “Working with people and visitors, it’s like teaching really.”
Jack Thomas is a staff writer for The South End. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover photo courtesy of Andy Jarema.