soundcheckearth joshua tree

Music is All Around Us

A walk on a trail in Joshua Tree National Park becomes a chance to listen carefully to the way music interacts with the desert environment.

JIM POWERS Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

soundcheckearth joshua tree

During a SoundCheckEarth rehearsal last year, Laszlo Mezo on cello and Janie Cowan on contrabass perform.

There is only one box that Kennedy Verrett wants to be put in, and that’s the one he creates.

Which makes this week’s SoundCheckEarth event not only an opportunity to take a listen to the world as Verrett does, but more importantly experience sound like you never have before.

You’ll walk a half-mile path in Joshua Tree National Park where you might see a bassoon player sitting underneath a Joshua Tree, or a cello player perched on boulders. All of this has been choreographed by Verrett, three performances a day, April 22-23. Currently, times for April 22 are 6 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., free and open to the public. April 23 performances will be held at 2:30 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6:06 p.m.

This collaboration between Harrison House and the park takes place at Cap Rock, which is about a 30-minute drive from either the Joshua Tree Visitor Center or the Oasis Visitor Center in Twentynine Palms.

Palm Springs Life spoke further with Verrett about how he came to Joshua Tree, how SoundCheck Earth originated, and why it's important.

Kennedy Verrett, who once composed music for films including Deliver Us From Evil, The Monkey King, and Priest, has composed the music for SoundCheckEarth.

How did SoundCheckEarth get started?

I got a residency at Harrison House in 2020. So on Sundays, Eva Soltes (founder/director of Harrison House) and I would take walks where we would create videos during Covid. So on one Sunday, I took her on a sound walk. I've been doing a lot of research in sound ecology and just experimenting with ways to present music.

I showed her how I find inspiration from just the landscape and using the sounds that are available to us to create music and not necessarily like a violin or a traditional instrument that we think of when we think of music. So I just pointed out looking at the shapes of the mountains and the rocks, you can use that for melodic contours. She's like, "You know what? We have to do this in the park." And I said, "Okay, I'm down." And she invited the park's superintendent, David Smith, to come. And we talked to him about it and he was immediately on board.

In 2020, what attracted you to come to Harrison House?

I learned of Lou Harrison back in 2003 and '04 when I was working on a master's degree, and I had no idea that the Harrison House existed until it the summer of 2020. I wa sliving in Portland at the time. But I previously lived in Southern California and I was going to Joshua Tree all the time. I just didn't know about Harrison House. And so I put out a GoFundMe because I wanted to purchase land in Joshua Tree to create a little research facility for ecology and sound research. A friend of mine ended up sharing it with a group of friends of hers in Joshua Tree, and that's how it ended up getting on Eva's radar. She was like, "Wait a minute, I'm doing that." And I had mentioned people like Harrison, Julius Eastman, Paul Olivers in my GoFundMe — all the people that inspired me. And so she was like, "This is incredible. You have to come down here."

Kennedy Verrett (left) works with percussionists Danny Frankel and Kyle Hanson.

What connection did you make with Lou Harrison when you were working on your master's degree?

So I was studying with Lloyd Rogers at Cal State Fullerton and he handed me Lou's primer and he goes, you need to read this. And at the time I was like, hell bent on being a composer of fulfillment television. And I think he recognized that that was going to be okay for me, but I was really into art music and writing poetry. But he was like, you should read this and get back to me about what it is you learned. And I just remember being absolutely fascinated by the very plain and simple and as complex as it could be way that he presented his thoughts about music, conservation, and the way we perceive music. I was drawn to his work and to his philosophies because it was presented in a way that just felt comforting and knowing that like, "Okay, you can do this and be a living composer and you don't have to conform to the world necessarily, but you have to figure out a way to be creative and it conform to you." And so I found that in Lou and it was one of those things that I kind of carried with me throughout the years. Every once in a while I would pick up that primer, go revisit it, and that would encourage me.

Kennedy Verrett: "It's one thing to hear music, but as it bounces off of the rocks, I place the contrabass in such a way where those frequencies have room to spread out and reverberate through the space. So they'll probably feel those vibrations before they even get to where the base is."

How would you describe the SoundCheckEarth event?

This piece is written specifically for Cap Rock. All the contours of the melodies, they all come from that area. And so we, the musicians, are just migrating into the space just like the migratory birds that will be there. And I've worked with the park to place the musicians in places that are compliant and okay with archeological and biological things, but they won't necessarily be in plain sight. So as the people go around, the idea is that they're walking on the path and they might hear something.

And if they go and explore, they might discover what instrument is playing there. But as they go through the ideas, it's like these rocks and these plants are just creating this sounds as a conduit to listen closer to what else is happening. Because I have left space for the birds, I have left space for the wind, and the musicians have been given instructions based on time of the day, how long to play certain things. And so it really is just like an immersive sonic experience where there's no telling what you're going to hear or if you might even see anyone, right? But it's just the idea of them going in and being involved in the soundscape environment.

What are you hoping people take away from the experience?

Gratitude, for being able to just kind of exist and be a part of a space that ... It's just incredible. The space at Joshua Tree is just unreal. But also this concept of how essential listening is. We hear a lot of things, right? But we don't actively listen until there are sounds that alert us for something that we need to be alerted about, right? But if we can enhance and just change and challenge what we think about and how we listen. And so only that, but what we're listening to with regards to the environment and how we listen to each other, I think that ultimately is what I would like for us to take away because one, we have to listen to each other. We have to be able to have a conversation.

And within the context of music and even with the instruments, they're having to listen to one another in order to be able to make sure that this piece works, but they're also having to listen to elements and watch elements that are happening in the environment as well. And so these are things that we have to do every day if we want to combat things like climate change, or if we just want to be able to have a conversation without a few other things. And ultimately I think just be able to listen to one another and in the environment and understand how we exist within the context of that.

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