The gentle rustling of leaves in the breeze, the crunch of twigs underfoot, and the eclectic mix of birdsong are the sounds one typically expects to hear while walking through the forest. The harmonious voices of a chamber choir—not so much. This makes the juxtaposition of iForest, a nature-inspired choral work that is currently on view at The Wild Center in the Adirondacks, all the more intriguing.
Created by British composer Pete M. Wyer, iForest is one of the first site-specific “immersive sound experiences" to combine music with nature. For more than a decade, Wyer has been working on the idea of incorporating sound with the natural world. So several years ago when he had the opportunity as part of a fellowship program to visit The Wild Center, a nature center and museum set on 81 acres of woodland in Tupper Lake, New York, he knew it would be the ideal setting for arguably his most ambitious project to date.
“It was very much a response to nature,” Wyer tells Smithsonian.com. “I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places in my lifetime, but I’ve never been anywhere quite like [the Adirondacks] before.”
Inspired, Wyer approached Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director of The Wild Center, about his idea to merge music with nature.
“I remember walking out in the woodlands with [Ratcliffe] and saying, ‘I can hear voices in my head,’” Wyer recalls. “I immediately began thinking about the people who had once lived here hundreds of years ago and what they would have been saying and how their voices would be echoing out throughout the forest today. We agreed that the idea of using voices made sense, especially since The Wild Center is part natural history museum.”
From there, Wyer recruited vocalists from The Crossing, a chamber choir based out of Philadelphia, to record “I Walk Towards Myself,” an original piece comprised of several movements he had written specifically for iForest. To make the project even more challenging, he had the vocalists sing portions of their verses in Mohawk, a language spoken by the Mohawk people—an important step that helps solidify the connection between the forest today and the people who once called it home.
“It’s a beautiful language,” he says. “I worked with translators to ensure [the verses] were accurate. It felt entirely appropriate to bring the language back to the woodlands.”
Next, he began the tedious task of recording 72 individually recorded voices, which he then piped into the forest using 24 strategically placed speakers along a 1,000-foot looped hiking trail.
“Imagine if we replaced the speakers with actual people, and imagine if those people were standing in the woods and singing from a single piece, all about 40 feet apart from one other,” he says. “That’s the experience you’re having. If you stand in a different spot, you’ll have a different experience. Every time I walk through I find something different. [iForest] collaborates with nature—the wind, the leaves, the birds. It’s all part of what you end up hearing.”
One aspect of the project that was particularly important was ensuring that it wouldn’t disrupt the birds and mammals living in this swath of forest.
“We were concerned with that from the very beginning,” Ratcliffe tells Smithsonian.com. “We had an ornithologist look at the site, which is right next to [The Wild Center’s] museum, an area we reclaimed from an abandoned sand and gravel pit, so the woodland had been disturbed years ago. It’s not old growth forest and its footprint doesn’t take up more than an acre. The ornithologist concluded that it was already a disturbed site ecologically.”
In fact, as an extra layer of protection for the birds who do reside there, The Wild Center has decided to limit iForest’s hours of operation during the month of June for any nesting birds occupying that particular acre of land. It’s only appropriate considering that it’s their patch of forest, after all. And ensuring their wellbeing results in a more pleasant experience for all species on the property, both human and animal.
“If visitors walk through and it inspires them and gives them a deeper connection with the woods, I’m happy and I have achieved my goal,” Wyer says. “Fundamentally, I have a philosophy of using technology to bring people together, but that can often wind up being divisive. The experience you as a human have as a part of nature makes you feel that you yourself are a part of nature.”
iForest will be open now through Columbus Day.