New Brunswick

Cellist makes music by reading the grain of pine wood

Born to a family that loves the outdoors, a Fredericton woman is combining her love of nature with music. 

Emily Kennedy transforms non-musical information into musical compositions

Emily Kennedy has been playing the cello since she was 10 and she's always enjoyed spending time outside with her family. (Cassidy Chisholm/CBC)

Born to a family that loves the outdoors, a Fredericton woman is combining her love of nature — with music. 

Emily Kennedy, 28, grew up in Hampton but now lives in Fredericton. She's been playing the cello since she was 10. 

"I've always been pretty passionate about the outdoors," she said. "My family, we were always spending time outside.

"And maybe, because being a cellist, so much of the work that you do is inside that I've wanted to find ways of bridging the two worlds."

Kennedy traced the lines on a piece of pine that determine what sounds she plays. (CBC)

To do that, she's transforming non-musical information into musical compositions. 

Kennedy is using grain lines from a piece of pine wood to create music. She used acrylic paint to trace the lines onto a piece of acetate, which she's turning into lines of music — the higher the line, the higher the pitch, and the thicker the line, the louder the sound.

"I'm really interested in process," Kennedy said.

"So what I mean by that is, taking something that you wouldn't normally think, like say a tree or a grain of wood and finding ways or methods that you can convert it into sound or music."

Kennedy has been working on the project for a week as an artist-in-residence with the Fredericton Arts Alliance. (Cassidy Chisholm/CBC)

This method called graphic notation, or graphic scoring, was developed in the 1950s. It allowed musicians to use visual symbols, including abstract art, hand-drawn spirals and even the orbital paths of planets, to determine what sounds they would play. 

Kennedy determines what sounds she will play on her cello based on how thick the grain line is and how high it is on the register, which leads to a sound that deepens, rises and falls in a melody.

Last year, Kennedy did a similar project using flood levels of the St. John River. She associated certain sound pitches with measurements of the flood, which she translated through her cello. 

But she wasn't satisfied with the result.

"I wasn't very happy with how the specific notes were interacting. I had absolutely no control."

By the end of it, once you're done and you go through the work of putting it all together, it's a bit of a surprise, even for myself.- Emily Kennedy

So this year, she's allowing some interpretation into her work. 

"In this, I still don't have control but it gives control to the performers, so they can use their ears and judgment."

Kennedy said the music she is creating is meant for four performers. Performers will each select one of the four coloured lines to play and then rely on their own improvisation and interpretation. 

But even people who don't play music can interpret the lines how they want, Kennedy said.

"It makes it more accessible, so that you don't need to be able to read music in order to actually participate in this, which is a great thing because all you could do is verbally give people cues on how to interpret it," she said.

Kennedy printed the lines from the wood and cuts them up so she can mix up the sounds in a way that sounds pleasing to the ear. (Cassidy Chisholm/CBC)

Part of the appeal for Kennedy is that a person doesn't need years of training to participate in the music. 

Kennedy spent last week working on the project as an artist-in-residence with the Fredericton Arts Alliance.

She's primarily a performer and said having a week to work on personal creative work is a luxury. 

"I just really enjoy composing and … doing graphics score work is very new to me," she said. 

This Fredericton cellist makes music by reading the grain of pine wood through a method known as graphic notation. 1:27

"So I just wanted an opportunity to sink in … I want to experiment with how I can use this material and see the different ways that I can make music out of it."

Despite spending a week on the project, Kennedy said she's not sure how the final product will sound because of the different variations and interpretations there could be. 

"It's very conceptual and you're very in your head," she said.

"By the end of it, once you're done and you go through the work of putting it all together, it's a bit of a surprise, even for myself."

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