September 26, 2021: Ideas in the Sky
Sunday, September 26, at 5pm:
In the summer of 2020, composer and musician Patrick Mathews-Halmrast approached us with an idea: As a summer internship, he would work on musical ideas that were based in our "sense of place." He'd heard us while helping with the harvest on the family farm near Georgetown, and thought we could work together. The summer culminated with Patrick taking a flight across North Dakota in a private plane (courtesy of UND professor Fred Remer). Patrick was composing, playing, and recording all the way. The result (or one result) is "Ideas in the Sky."
A note on Patrick: He's enrolled in grad school in California, and was recently in a car crash that severely injured him. His brother Tim has set up a GoFundMe page for his medical costs.
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BT: Ok, so can you tell us a little bit about the piece you are presenting this evening? Help us to get set up before we dive in.
PMH: Yeah, of course. It started with a reoccurring dream I’ve been having for the past six months or so.
BT: Ok. Tell us about the dream, will you?
PMH: Sure. In my dream I’m driving across the landscape in a car while listening to the radio. I’m by myself when I notice the radio appears to be talking to me. Indeed the broadcasters voice has shifted from regular programing and is now talking directly to me. At first it takes a second to register, but I decide the polite thing to do is to respond. As I do, sure enough, the voice coming through the car stereo answers back. Suddenly we are engaged in conversation.
BT: Wow. Ok, so in your dream you’re driving in your car when notice the radio begins talking to you. When you respond to it, it responds back. And then you begin to have a conversation- how does this conversation go? What are you talking about?
PMH: Ok, yeah, so in my dream I’m in a conversation with the radio. Its a beautiful summer evening; clear skies, open road and a sweet scent from the fields fills the air as the crops edge near to harvest. At first, we take a little time to get to know each other, and in this getting to know each other we begin to talk about music.
PMH: Yeah. And I begin telling the radio voice about this reoccurring dream I’ve been having, where I’m dreaming of an experience writing music while flying across the landscape in an airplane.
BT: Hmm, interesting. So, just to keep this clear- in your dream your talking to the radio- telling the radio about a dream where your writing music while flying across the landscape- How is the radio voice? I mean, is it a man or a woman? Can you describe it a little bit?
PMH: Right, in my dream the radio voice is a man's voice. Soft spoken, a medium range voice with a little bit of gravel in the upper register. Its a mature voice, and he’s probably somewhere in his late fifty’s early sixties- But the most interesting part is, I know the voice. I have been listening to it for years over the radio, but in my dream this is the first time it has ever spoken back to me.
BT: Ahh Ok, so its a familiar radio personality to you.
PMH: Right, yeah, its definitely a familiar radio personality. Its a voice where over years of listening, I feel like I already know the person behind this voice. But like I said, this is the first time I have ever had a conversation with him.
BT: Ok… So you guys hit it off it sounds like?
PMH: Yeah, I mean, I’d say so.
BT: And now you’re talking with the radio about music and flying in an airplane while composing?
BT: Ok, so… what next?
PMH: Well, yeah, I’m telling the radio voice about how over the years I’ve been having this reoccurring dream where I’m flying across the landscape in a small plane and I’m writing music while flying. He seems to be interested in the idea and asks what the music sounds like? He wants to know more about the sound of my dream.
BT: And what do you say??
PMH: I tell him, in my dream I’ve been working for a long time on developing a piece of music that is intended to be heard over the radio- a soundtrack for listeners who are driving in their car. I continue to describe to the radio voice how, in my dream the music coming from the car stereo has been written for that very moment- it has never been heard before. I also explain how the music coming from the car stereo begins to work like a soundtrack where the audience has been invited into a public art listening experience. The audience knows, as the soundtrack begins, that the music they are hearing has been composed specifically to accompany the experience they are having in real time. They also know that the soundtrack playing has been composed with respect to the surrounding landscape, acknowledging it as it passes through their car window. And knowing that the composer who wrote it is flying above them in an airplane, beaming it across the airwaves in real time.
BT: Hmmm this is interesting- so you’re driving in your car listening to the radio and the voice in the radio begins talking to you. You respond and engage in a conversation about music and start telling the radio voice about a reoccurring dream you’ve been having- in this dream you are driving in your car listening to a musical soundtrack for the landscape- one that has been composed by an artist who is flying in an airplane overhead in real time… What next?
PMH: Well we go on like this for a while. Sometimes he asks about other things. Politics or organic farming.
BT: What do you know about organic farming?
PMH: Nothing. Not a thing.
PMH: Yeah, but ultimately he seems to want to know more about where this reoccurring dream is coming from. And he wants to know more about how it actually sounds.
PMH: Yeah, so then I begin to describe to him how so often I’ve been driving in my car and listening to the radio when I wished there were a soundtrack written for that very moment. So many times I’ve envisioned and often imagined that the radio begins playing an original score to a movie that I’m living. The music then shifts my perception of the world around me and turns my experience into one that is at best cinematic! The experience turns into one that is new, fresh and a profound expression of what it means to feel alive.
BT: Wow, ok. So in your dream, the music that has been composed by an artist who is flying across the landscape in an airplane is being transmitted through your car stereo and is acting as a soundtrack for your experience in the surrounding landscape… and how exactly does it sound?
PMH: Well, I could go on an on about how the soundtrack makes it feel as though the car has turned into an airplane and seems to lift off the road and begin flying over the landscape. I could go on about how the sounds coming through the radio seem to mix and blur the edges between what has been composed and what is naturally there. Or I could go on about how the expansive sound seems to stretch far into the horizon like electric rays of light as if it were composed at 5000 feet in the air- how the rich layers and textures lead your ear to the edges of the audio like a Rothko painting in sound… A composition where the journey is as important as the sound. But I guess, you’re the one with the controls Bill, so why don’t we just have a listen?
BT: Mmhmm hmm. well, Ok! Coming to you live from an airplane over head, a new public art installation piece from artist and composer Patrick Mathews-Halmrast. Here is the first movement from: Ideas in the sky.
(Music, Movement 1, Ideas in the Sky
BT: Ok wow. So we we’re in it now.
PMH: Yep, I guess we are.
BT: That was great. So is that it or… where are we exactly?
PMH: That was the first movement. You see, when we’re flying across the landscape we need to take it in movements. Right now we’ve touched down somewhere near Hazen I think, and we’re fueling up.
BT: Ok, right. Hazen.
PMH: Yes, the metropolis of Hazen. (the metropolitan area)
BT: So we’re fueling up.
BT: And then what?
PMH: Then, we’re going to take off again for the final stretch of our journey this evening. I’ve set the cameras and we’re ready to head into the Badlands and fly over Teddy Roosevelt National Park.
PMH: Yeah, first we’re gonna take it up to about 5000 feet as we cross over Lake Sacagawea. Then we’re going to bring the plane in low as we weave our way through the bald encrusted bluffs and clay and tufts of age old juniper- the land where the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Crow once lived in harmony with nature - a wild earth filled with Buffalo. The land where what were once called outlaws, and wild horses bucked and danced free in the wind. The land where Teddy Roosevelt came to find himself again- where Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea herself famously blazed that legendary Oregon trail.
As we bring the plane in low, banking into each turn and winding our way through the gorge, notice the layers of time shown in deposits of clay. Each ridge as a whisper of years long past. And the lines on the old woman’s face that have been carved in with streams- the traces of sorrow and joy…
Listen closely to the sound of the wind as it whips round the wings of the plane and lifts us high, holds us up, cutting across the sky.
Listen to the sound of the engine of the plane as it whirrs and whines. As it rumbles and embraces the ride…
PMH: Yep. so we’re ready to go now.
BT: Ok! Well here we go then! Fueled up, seatbelts on. Here now is a soundtrack, as we fly across the landscape with Patrick Mathews-Halmrast and the second movement from “Ideas in the Sky.”
*Ideas in the Sky: Movement 2 plays here*
BT: That was nice.
PMH: Yeah! Thanks! I enjoyed it.
BT: Ok, so now that we’ve had a chance to experience it, I’m curious if you could share a little more about the process that went into making it?
PMH: Yeah! For sure. That would be great.
BT: I know from our conversations that for this piece, you mentioned how the story of making it is as important as the end result. And you actually composed this score from an airplane while flying across North Dakota.
PMH: That is true.
BT: Can you tell us more about it?
So as the titled suggests, in my work I’ve been interested in consciousness and exploring ideas that live in the sky- translating them into sound.
BT: This idea of the story or journey of making something being as important as the end result- is this the case with all of the music you write? Or could you talk a little more about how that idea relates to your work- and maybe tell us more about the story involved with this creation?
PMH: Absolutely. Yeah, thanks for bringing that up. Ok, so over the years writing music I’m always working to find a way to make sense of the work. When I start a new piece, there are so many decisions that need to be made to get it moving in a direction that makes sense and means something. In one way or another, somewhere along the way I usually have to come to terms with the reason why I am making it. There needs to be some sort of driving force that sets a solid foundation and direction.
BT: Right, yeah that makes sense.
PMH: Even if that reason is there is no other reason than to explore something new or to be engaged in creative activity.
Depending on where I’m at in my life, this might open up some sort of internal philosophical discussion… or sometimes the answer is so obvious that it would be more of a rhetorical question for myself.
In the case of this project, it was two fold. One thing I am and have been passionate about in my life is the landscape. I care about nature and what it has to offer. So that is one theme I have worked with in the past and seems to be the one that makes the most sense when I’m considering a public project. I’ve learned how its one thing to write for yourself and its another thing to present something to a larger public audience. You have to ask yourself if you have anything worthwhile to say. I take that question seriously… Not too seriously, I hope, but like I said, nature has been a constant in my life where, when I prepare to present something to a larger audience, it is territory I feel I know and might have something to say.
But I will say I haven’t presented a ton of work publicly up until this point.
Bt: Ok. You're young. But you have presented some.
BT: So what is another project you’ve worked on? Give us an example.
PMH: Yeah, Most of my work up until this point has been about trying to understand the world around me. Processing the world through different media and maybe learning something through the process. One project I presented in the past was centered around the theme of water. The three movements in that piece were: beginning at the surface of the ocean the listener descended down to the ocean floor. Once there the ocean floor turned into a desert- the second movement. And the third movement was inspired by the Ville d’Este Italian Renaissance garden in Tivoli, Italy- about an hour outside Rome. It is known as the garden of water. The third movement was titled “Fountain” and was basically as many different water sounds as I could manage, flowing- speaker fountains- all mixing together. It sounds as if you had entered a water world!
BT: A speaker fountain moving through the city- ok, that sounds nice.
PMH: Yeah, the piece was presented in Austin, Texas on four mobile speaker units towed through the city on bicycles. I didn’t know how it would work, but the experience of more or less bringing a giant fountain on wheels through downtown Austin was surprisingly beautiful.
BT: Ok, So you brought a water experience to Austin.
PMH: Right, yeah I definitely brought a water experience to Austin! And the thinking I used to ground that project was how I think water is such an important part of our lives we often take for granted- if I could get people to start thinking more about water, the rest would take care of itself.
BT: So it was about raising the public consciousness of water.
PMH: Exactly. That was it. To bring an experience that would raise the public consciousness of water. The collective I worked with had presented me with an ecological theme as the framework and water just made sense.
BT: Very nice. And so for this project you were able to channel some of those ideas of experience and nature to ground the project in something meaningful.
PMH: Right. For this project, I drew on that and other projects I have worked on where nature plays an important role. The vast landscape of North Dakota is a mysterious mythical place. I’ve driven across the state many times (and flown now I guess) and am always enchanted, really, by the badlands and western North Dakota. For this project, I wanted to create an experience that would not only raise the consciences of the landscape, but open up an opportunity for the audience to connect to it and maybe see it in a new way.
BT: So for the water piece, the story was important in the making, but the presentation form didn’t allow for storytelling in the way radio does.
BT: And for this piece, how you would you describe it? The story was what allowed the music to exist?
PMH: Exactly, yeah. The story was what produced the music- without the story of flying- the music wouldn’t have existed. As a composer, I think I’ve begun to realize that and become even more interested in the process of exploring a story where I know it will include and result in music. By focusing on the story, it allows the music to exist freely- almost as more of a document of the experience rather than an attempt at trying to make something specifically.
BT: Really nice. That seems like a great way to think about it.
PMH: Yeah, thanks. I guess the best way to put it is to say that over the years I’ve learned that as a composer, music isn’t the ultimate end. It is important, and as Quinten Tarantino once put it, “I’m gonna deliver the goods,” alright, but I’m also going to enjoy the experience of making it. Cause if your not enjoying the experience of making it, why do it?
PMH: If I’m searching for one thing in the music right now, personally, its what it means to experience life feeling totally alive. There is adventure in that. There is joy.
PMH: The writing process then becomes a vehicle to explore that thing, life alive in this case… I guess that’s a long way of saying, I’ve learned that one way to best achieve an end result is by focusing on the experience. If you do that, you create meaning in the music. Its not just a person sitting in a studio bouncing ideas off the wall, or imagining, or pouring their heart through a keyboard (though sometimes it is that), but if you start thinking about the music as everything that goes into arriving at the end product, it really opens up another world. A rich world of experience and life. It gets the composer out of a solitary place and out into the world- living- I hope you can hear that and feel it in the music.
BT: Ok so as we finish up, is there anything else you would like to add? A final word perhaps?
PMH: Sure, it could be nice to see if I can give it one final succinct definition. A clear path of understanding that might liberate the listener.
BT: Right. And then we’ll play a little reprise as we take it to the top of the hour!
PMH: Ok, and thank you Bill! This has been a great experience and I have you to thank for the support and encouragement along the way. It was a sweet opportunity and I am grateful for that. I could not have done it on my own.
PMH: Ok, here we go:
The main concept for this project was to create a public art listening experience. While many listeners are often driving in their car, I decided it would be a nice opportunity to create an experience connecting the sounds of radio with an experience in the landscape. As I began writing I noticed that the mental images driving much my process were from the perspective of a plane flying over the landscape. Bill and I decided it would be a worthwhile part of the creative process to explore writing music while flying in a plane. I did so and the resulting project is one where I found the story of the creative process as interesting as the work itself.
Since then I continued in the creative process, thinking about the listener experience in relation to the landscape and a definition of the word “place.” I produced hours of experiments in an attempt to achieve the sonic vision of a transcendental sound experience transporting the listener across the landscape of North Dakota. It was my goal to create a moment that might invite the listener to think about the landscape and to allow them to experience it from a new perspective.
Above all, I envisioned this piece as a multi-layered Rothko sound painting where the interest can be found at its edges. I purposefully allowed space for the naturally occurring sounds of the listeners environment to be included in their overall experience. I wanted the experience to be one where the audience experiences the combination of flying and driving, sound. And I did my best to act as a translator; or an archeologist of the future, uncovering a work that was seemingly already there and bring it into life.
Thanks to everyone at Prairie Public for their support on this project - Doug Hamilton for leading me through the interview process, Marie Offutt for promotion, Mike Olsen for listening to my work, and Fred Remer for piloting the plane. Special thanks to Bill Thomas for working with me on this and for giving me the opportunity! I learned a great deal and thoroughly enjoyed our time.
Now, as we look into the future, may we keep our eyes focused on bright horizons. Our ears open to the world around us and or minds fixed on translating the electric sounds of ideas in the sky.