Field Recordings and Amplified Rocks

The Echo de Pensees Sound Series, an ongoing series of events and installations at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, hosted two performances on Friday, June 23, that provided an interesting study in contrasts. Aaron Ximm‘s “Guantanamo Express,” which came first, is a tape work. He dimmed the lights, lit two lamps and hit play. After the intermission, Cheryl E. Leonard led a live trio, rounded out by two other women, A.L. Dentel and Parry Liu. Neither set included much in the way of sounds typically associated with a concert: Ximm’s tape work was composed of field recordings of a trip he took with his wife to Cuba in 2004. Leonard and her trio’s instrumentation consisted almost entirely of rocks with contact microphones.

Ximm’s was a single, 40-minute piece, which by his own admission might induce sleepiness, thanks to its languorous pacing; it was knitted together from recordings of conversation, music and travel (especially by train, a favorite of phonographers), all focused on a pair of musician-brothers, Jesus Avila Gainza and Julio Gainza, whom he’d befriended during the trip and who invited the Ximms to accompany them to visit family in Guantanamo. The collected snatches had the feel of one’s own memories, how various sounds filed from one to the next, occasionally overlapping, their connections at best a matter of loose inference. Ximm, recording and performing as Quiet American, has a long career working found sound into performance, and this, his longest piece, suggests an interest in narrative that supplants an earlier emphasis on texture and tone.

Leonard’s trio performed a handful of short pieces, each of which required some set-up time. In one piece, Leonard used snare brushes to detail the topography of a large stone while Dentel rubbed a small rock in circles around a larger one and Liu rolled small stones. In another, they each had an amplified wood board on which they moved around large and small pebbles. In another, the sound of three different grains of granite sand were contrasted. At one point Leonard explained how different the rocks sounded if not played in precise pairings and according to specific instructions. Each work was fully notated, and they generously let me photograph the scores for perusal after the show. Each rock has its own name (Purple Potato, Tickle Rock #1, Cylinder Rock, the Sea Egg), and the transcriptions appear to be gestural in nature, evidenced by shapes that suggest volume level, direction and, perhaps, speed.

What the works had in common was an air of political transgression: Ximm’s not only because it was recorded in Cuba, where travel by Americans requires jumping through some legal loopholes, but because of its association with the prison at Guantanamo Bay, lightning rod in the U.S. government’s “War on Terror”; Leonard’s because, as she explained, some of her rocks were removed from national parks. She appeared to find this funny; I didn’t (parks are protected from pilfering for obvious reasons), but it didn’t keep me from enjoying her performance. Her set closed with a piece that was as visually beautiful as it was sonically; each member of the trio manipulated a thin film of sand that fell from large bags that resembled pillow cases. The sound of the sand hitting those amplified boards was soothing, no less so than the image of the thin lines of sand falling as if from hourglasses made of rough cotton. One didn’t envy the effort necessary to get all that material out of the gallery space; Leonard’s trio isn’t a rock group, but they deserve some rock roadies.

More info at the websites of Ximm ( and Leonard (, and of the sponsoring body, the Museum of Virtual Memory (

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