Composer spends lockdown installing 72 speakers in a forest. The result is magical.

10 September 2020, 17:04

The trees are singing in Descanso Gardens
The trees are singing in Descanso Gardens. Picture: Instagram/Pete Wyer

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

If you go down to these Los Angeles woods today, it won’t just be the dawn chorus or rustling of leaves you’ll find yourself turning your ear to.

A composer spent his time in lockdown installing 72 speakers in Descanso Gardens in Los Angeles, surrounding whoever walks through with a constant hum of choral beauty.

Each speaker plays out a line of The Sky Beneath Our Feet, a new work by British composer Pete Wyer for 72 voices and orchestra. Wyer wanted to create music like the birds at dawn. Music to surround you, that you could walk through.

He sat in the woods, writing scores and imagining sounds in his head. For one track, ‘Mannaz’ (hear it below), he transcribed the songs and sounds of birds for choral singers.

Every experience in the woods had to be unique. At one point in time, the person might hear a trumpet 70 feet to their left, which might be echoed just after at 30 feet to their right. But at a slightly different time, or with differing weather conditions, they might hear something completely different.

Wherever you walk, it’s as if the great oaks are singing.

Read more: Venice canals run clear, dolphins appear in Italy’s waterways >

After recording some of the work in London, Wyer planned to go to LA to finish, and set up for the grand opening. But then, a global pandemic hit.

The gardens closed completely, when the virus was at its peak. During that time, Wyer and his singers and musicians woke at dawn to record the music when they could guarantee the gardens would be completely empty.

They did so, not really knowing how many people would be able to experience it.

When restrictions finally eased, Descanso Gardens started to open up again. People slowly emerged from lockdown, having spent months trapped indoors. They found the garden’s forest of coast live oaks, which they once knew to be silent but for the sounds of nature, scattered with 72 independent speakers (have a listen in the videos below).

Read more: 10 delightful times the natural world was inspired by music >

Wyer, who has written scores for both the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Opera House, was inspired by an experience he had as a teenager, during a walk up Cleeve Hill in Gloucestershire.

“It was before dawn, with the first light creeping in at the horizon,” Pete recalls. “Later on, I was walking back alone, and I became acutely aware of the birdsong.

“I was struck not only by its extraordinary beauty but by the fact that each bird had its own individual song which formed a part of the whole chorus. And as I walked, so one song became louder and another became quieter.”

Pete’s musical interest, until then, was rock music. But the sounds of nature opened his ear to something new and beautiful. He spent 40 years trying to recreate that experience, eventually succeeding in the American forest.

“It was a music that was very different to the rock music I listened to which typically had a single melody line and accompaniment, and a defined rhythm,” he says.

“This music entirely surrounded me, and I could choose my own path through it. And every part was beautiful and unique.”