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Cheryl E. Leonard

Composer, Musician, Field Recordist & Instrument-Builder

Kelp Flutes, Walrus Impersonations, and Glacier Gamelans: A Composer's Search for Polar Music


Composer, performer, and instrument-builder Cheryl E. Leonard has journeyed to both the Arctic and Antarctic to gather musical materials and inspiration. Her polar music combines sounds produced on amplified natural objects and materials (rocks, bones, shells, feathers, seaweed, sand, water, ice, etc.) with carefully-edited field recordings of wildlife and natural soundscapes. Leonard’s compositions are often inspired by scientific research and connected to issues surrounding climate change in the polar regions. Several of her Arctic and Antarctic pieces were developed in collaboration with visual artists and, in addition to being performed in musical concerts, have been shown in galleries as interactive installations and video/sound art.

Leonard will discuss working with sound at the ends of the earth and share examples of the field recordings, one-of-a-kind musical instruments, and compositions that have grown out of her polar adventures. She’ll explain her compositional process and describe field recording successes and defeats, instrument-building eureka moments, how to play music on penguin bones, strategies for notating bowed limpet shells and fizzy icebergs, and what it’s like to perform live on stage with scientific glassware and dripping icicles.

Meet the Speaker:

Cheryl E. Leonard is a composer, performer, and instrument builder whose works investigate sounds, structures, and objects from the natural world. Her projects cultivate stones, wood, water, ice, sand, shells, feathers, and bones as musical instruments, and often feature one-of-a-kind sculptural instruments and field recordings from remote locales. She uses microphones to explore the subtle intricacies of sounds and develops compositions that highlight these unique voices. In addition to her individual works, Leonard has produced installations and multimedia works with visual artists and scientists; composed for film, video, dance, and theater; and designed sounds for museums. Her music has been performed worldwide and is available on multiple record labels. Leonard’s commissions include works for Kronos Quartet and Hope Mohr Dance Company. Her awards include residencies at Djerassi, Kunstnarhuset Messen, the Arctic Circle, Oberpfälzer Künstlerhaus, and Villa Montalvo, and grants from the National Science Foundations’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, American Composers Forum, American Music Center, and ASCAP.

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