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Students and faculty are midway through a year-long, school-wide exploration of Music & Sound—our 2010-11 Umbrella Project. In the Middle School, students have approached the topic from many angles—experimenting with the music of poetry, examining the role of song in society, studying the neuroscience of sound, and creating their own music in lunchtime jam sessions. The highlight thus far was a collaborative sound and poetry composition coordinated through the Music Department at the University of Richmond and led by Erik DeLuca, an environmental soundscape artist from the University of Virginia. Erik and the students, together with teachers from Sabot and a group of local writers, poets, media artists, sound artists and composers, conducted a sonic exploration of a natural place, the James River.

First Movement: Composition. During the course of a chilly November day, the students, each paired with a mentor sound artist or writer, trekked through six different listening spaces along the river. The immediate sounds of each space were recorded, as participants focused on its subtle sonic layers—its soundscape. Listening and writing exercises allowed students to experiment with language and poetic forms. After hours of intent listening and writing, small groups of students and mentors composed and revised poems inspired by their experiences in the soundscape. Finally, gathered in a circle near the river, students shared their poems with the whole group.

Second Movement: Performance. Erik combined the poems and soundscape recordings to create a performance piece entitled Sonic Portraits: Pony Pasture Park for the University of Richmond’s annual Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival. (This is the second year in which Sabot at Stony Point students have collaborated with composers on pieces for Third Practice.) On Saturday, November 6th, students participated in a Camp Concert Hall performance that integrated the sounds of Pony Pasture with student recitations and slide projections of their poems—written the day before.

Third Movement: Reverberation. Not long after the performance, Middle School students were invited to share their experience with the first and third graders. On a cold, sunny morning, three Middle School students walked to the trailers and talked with the two classes. To an attentive, even enthralled, audience, the middle schoolers described their listening and writing work at Pony Pasture, pausing to ask the younger children questions: “What does wind in the trees sound like to you?” “Who knows what a haiku is?” “What color does the sound of running water remind you of?” They stressed the importance of being silent and listening intently; they commented on the wonder of slowing down and actually attending to the sounds of nature; and they each read one of the poems they had written about what they had heard that day, poems about the rushing river, the call of a heron, and the Christmas-ornament sound of wind in the trees.

Afterwards, the first and third graders ventured into the forest for their own listening experience. In the dappled sun of the Larus Park, the children listened to the sounds of water moving in the creek, wind rustling the trees, leaves falling or being scrunched underfoot, and birds chirping. Working in pairs or small groups, they began, with the utmost earnestness, to write poems about what they heard. Some of their poems contained echoes of the middle schoolers’ words, but these younger writers also took their poems to new places, finding combinations of sounds and images that were theirs alone.

Forest Poetry from Andrea Pierotti on Vimeo.