A Map to the Music of the Place

Falon Mihalic sets the stage for a performance of Inuksuit, a free-form cacophony meant to be experienced in a landscape.

By Zach Mortice

Inuksuit is meant to be staged outdoors, in any kind of landscape. Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen.

For her landscape art installation in Houston, the landscape architect and artist Falon Mihalic, ASLA, drew inspiration from a musical score as much as she did the live oak trees on her Rice University campus site.

Her installation was the setting for a performance of the composer John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit. The Inuit title is loosely translated as “evidence of human presence” and commonly refers to Arctic wayfinding markers such as cairns of stacked stones. Mihalic’s installation is also concerned with wayfinding amid wildness.

Her work contains three main elements. The origin point is a circle of white crushed limestone gravel 30 feet in diameter that surrounds a live oak tree. At its perimeter are CNC-milled pieces of plywood painted black with triangular acrylic patterns applied on top, pointing outward, shimmering and reflective as water. A thin line of crushed gravel dotted by boulders forms an ellipse around the origin point, which the musicians use as waypoints to track their movements. Up above, a dark aluminum “ribbon of smoke,” as Mihalic calls it, is hung from a tree’s branches. “It looks like a kind of ghosted branch,” she says. “I wanted it to be almost invisible.” This ethereal gray calls to mind the home and hearth that come with human settlement (or inuksuit), but Mihalic sees it as conjuring wildfire and cyclical landscape processes.

A shroud of dark aluminum follows the contour of the central tree’s branch. Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen.
The origin point circle is rimmed by black plywood and triangular acrylic patterns. Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen.

Through these elemental references (water, smoke, and stone), musicians radiate outward from the origin point. Inuksuit—an amorphous and mercurial landscape of sound—is meant to be performed by nine to 99 musicians on drums, cymbals, gongs, conch shells, piccolos, sirens, glockenspiels, and more. Each musician has a loose score. An event map (which Mihalic drew on to make her installation) guides movement across every landscape in phases that are roughly coordinated. Audience members are also encouraged to wander about the site as they listen, determining their own experience of the music and landscape.

A drone’s-eye view of the performance. Photo by Brandon Martin.

Forty-five musicians from Rice’s Shepherd School of Music and elsewhere spread across a live oak grove at Rice for Inuksuit’s February 16 performance (Mihalic’s installation remains in place through March 16). The musicians moved in three groups, guided by the installation. Shaped by a basic soft/loud/soft dynamic structure, the music starts with the breathy tones of conch shells. “It’s so slight and quiet that it takes you a minute to even understand that the piece has started,” Mihalic says. Rising action is dramatized by gongs and other metal percussion. “It feels like a festival or a rock concert,” she says. “It’s kind of overwhelming.” The composition, produced at Rice by Brandon Bell, finishes with piccolos tweeting like birds. Offering a clue to Adams’s commitment to what’s called the music of the place, the event map advises, “[Musical] figures chosen should be those of birds that occur at the performance site.”

 During the performance’s intense middle section, Mihalic noticed that audience members tried to find the best aural vantage point. They began flocking to the spot where the musicians had decamped from, as if the landscape itself abhorred a vacuum. “That was a very happy surprise for me,” Mihalic says.

Listeners gather in the central origin point. Photo by Brandon Martin.

As the piece wound down, the piccolo and glockenspiel echoed each other as Adams’s music decelerated. “Everyone took a deep breath together and stopped where they were,” says Mihalic. “It was such a beautiful way to end the piece.” In this stillness, all that was left were the birds singing in the trees. “That’s my favorite moment,” she says, “because the whole audience was suddenly attuned to the music of the place by experiencing the place.”

A percussionist performing Inuksuit. Photo by Brandon Martin.
Each performance of Inuksuit is intended to be wholly shaped by the landscape in which it takes place. Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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