Breathe, River

4-channel sound installation presented inside the Byrd Park Pump House, Richmond, VA. Run time: approx. 30 mins.

Breathe, River is a musical composition and 4-channel sound installation based on water quality data from the James River. It was presented at Richmond’s landmark Pump House, a derelict facility which housed the city waterworks from 1883 to 1924. The work is informed by conversations with aquatic ecologist Dr. Paul Bukaveckas of VCU Rice Rivers Center and reveals the drastic fluctuations of dissolved oxygen levels in the river due to algae blooms. These chronic summer-long blooms, caused by excess nutrients from wastewater runoff upstream, threaten the health of the river, harm wildlife and present potential hazards to human health.

The recorded piece features a remarkable performance on tenor saxophone by Jason Scott, University of Richmond instructor and Richmond native. Bouchard used data sonification software to determine the saxophone melody, which represents dissolved oxygen levels of the James River in 2-hr increments throughout the entire year of 2017. The 30-minute piece begins and ends with little variance in melody as oxygen saturation hovers around 100%. As the river warms in the summer months and algae begins to grow, photosynthesis activity increases, causing oxygen levels to rise during the day and fall at night. The fluctuations peak in late summer, when algae blooms reach their maximum and then die off, depleting the river of its oxygen. In 2017, dissolved oxygen dropped to a low of 3.9 mg/l, a level stressful to fish. The piano accompaniment was recorded by the artist and is based loosely on the river’s pH levels, which also rise and fall on a daily basis.

This project is made possible thanks to a grant from CultureWorks Richmond, the generosity of Friends of Pump House and the support of Sound Arts Richmond.

The Sound of a Stone

4-channel electroacoustic composition performed by the artist. Run time: approximately 30 mins.

The Sound of a Stone: Excerpts

The Sound of a Stone is an immersive exploration of song, language, ecology and locational listening performed by the artist in a 4-channel surround format. In the semi-improvised composition, the artist live-samples vocals, mandolin and natural objects she has collected on walks in the "urban wilds" of Richmond, VA, utilizing the software Ableton Live for looping and effects.

The three movements, "The Fall Line," "Shockoe Strata" and "Standing Stones: We Gaze Upon the Horizon," take for inspiration various rock formations. The work searches deep into the past of the local landscape and the James River, the geology of the area and the cultures which are embedded in its historical layers. The piece also considers the future in the face of climate change and the role of song and community as a stepping stone for action.

Bouchard gave the premiere performance of The Sound of a Stone on April 8, 2019 at Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall, Richmond, VA.

The Sound of a Stone: Full Performance

A Brief and True Report

Seven-channel sound installation created for Pump House Park, Richmond, VA

A Brief and True Report is a 7-channel sound installation created for the small quarry in Richmond’s historic Pump House Park. Speakers placed in the site’s natural amphitheater emit chromatic vocal lines and hammering sounds, evoking a simultaneously idyllic and unsettling atmosphere. To create these sounds, the artist recorded her own voice and the bridge in Pump House Park.

Woven into the musical piece are words from Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, a 1588 English manuscript which advertised the plentiful “merchantable commodities” and consumable natural resources of the New World, some of which are now endangered. This pamphlet was both an eyewitness account by a scientist and explorer and a marketing tool which played a significant role in the early English colonization of North America. Some of the words were written by Hariot in Carolina Algonquian, a Native American language which is now extinct.

Bouchard’s sound work evokes two landscapes that no longer exist:  the Edenic vision of Virginia from early European contact and the chunk of earth and stone that was removed from this quarry. In focusing on lost landscapes and lost languages, Bouchard’s work critiques the deep-seated history and ongoing practice of the overconsumption of American land and resources and the resulting displacement of peoples.

A Brief and True Report was presented in April 2018 as part of the Sound Arts Richmond festival.

High Water Mark

Mixed media installation with sound; dimensions variable. 2018.

A wall apparently stained by floodwaters doubles as a graph charting the highest level of the James River in Richmond, VA, each year going back to 1944. 

A transducer attached to the wall, heard best by pressing one's ear against the wall, conveys the sound of the artist singing each year in pitches which correspond to the graph.

Songscape Drawings

Series of works on paper. Dimensions vary.

Digitally printed, hand-bound booklet. 9"x 6". Open edition.

Digitally printed, hand-bound booklet. 9"x 6". Open edition.

“Songscape” drawings represent observed sounds of the James River as language phonemes on a spatial plane.

Songscape Performances

Series of performances with voice, found natural objects and electronics.

Songscapes are semi-improvised compositions exploring language, ecological networks and locational listening, informed by solo walks in the urban wilds of Richmond, VA. Through live sampling and manipulation of sound in a 4-channel surround format, the artist creates immersive song environments which reimagine the local landscape and reveal moments of personal ritual in the midst of global climate shifts.

This Is the Sound

6-channel fixed audio, 3 mins 51 secs.

This Is the Sound is a meditation on indescribable sounds: sounds of silence, sounds that exist in memory and the imagination. The piece also embodies the elusive moment of creative inception, as the artist wrote and recorded the song in one evening, improvising the melody in a single take.

This is the sound you were born with.

This is the sound of an empty room.

This is the sound of time passing.

This is the sound of a cloud.

This is the sound of the sunlight.

This is the sound that made you feel.

This is the sound I mentioned.

This is the sound you remembered.

This is the sound that woke you up.

This is the sound of your fear.

This is the last sound you just heard.

This is the sound you didn't hear.

Catskills Songline

Digital print (11” x 8.5”), composition and participatory performance

Catskills Songline is a melody Bouchard derived from the shape of the Catskill mountains, as viewed from the highest hilltop in Clermont, NY. It is intended to be performed informally in an outdoor setting. One brisk fall day, the artist gathered a handful of participants to sing in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Instead of lyrics the group sang solfège syllables (fa, sol, la, etc.), a common practice in shape note singing.

Shape notes, used here, are a musical notation which originated in New England in the early 1800s as a teaching method and which has become closely associated with the tradition of American congregational singing known as Sacred Harp.

In its interpretation as a song, the observational data is infused with human idiosyncrasy and, in its communal performance, lifted into narrative. The singers take ownership of the piece and actively participate in this hymn to the landscape.

The News: Monday-Friday

10-part song cycle performed by the artist. Total run time: approx. 40 minutes.

Sara Bouchard performs "It Wasn't Even on Our Map" from The News at Rockwood Music Hall in 2014.

The song cycle The News: Monday-Friday is a futuristic folk tale of migration which Bouchard performs on acoustic guitar, mandolin and autoharp. Sara wrote the ten songs over two spans of five consecutive days, collaging the lyrics entirely from words and phrases cut from the daily newspaper. Through this intensive process a story emerged:

Uprooted from their homeland by a string of natural disasters, a fictional community searches for a new home amidst rising waters. In "It Wasn't Even on Our Map," we hear from a stranger who comes to town with big ideas, convincing the community to adapt to their new environment by constructing floating farms.

The News: Monday-Friday also exists as an album and a songbook of works on paper. The run time of the full song cycle is about 40 mins.

The News: Monday-Friday Songbook

Series of ten unique works. Pen, pencil and collage on paper; 17” x 11 3/4”

The ten works on paper in the series The News: Monday-Friday Songbook are transcriptions of the ten songs in Bouchard’s song cycle The News: Monday-Friday. Collages of the lyrics (cut from the New York Times on the date referenced in the title) are presented alongside the artist’s own system of musical notation, devised to emphasize visual patterns in the melodic line.

Song for Many Paths

Six-channel audio installation. 2 mins. 30 secs.

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The song at the heart of this sound piece is an original spiritual invoking the history of American migration. Bouchard recorded the song while walking alone at night through various terrain: tall grass, mud, gravel road, dead leaves. She then layered the recordings together so that the many iterations of the song begin in unison and gradually drift out of sync due to variations in tempo. Landscape and movement supply not only the inspiration for and subject of the song but the backing rhythm as well. With each speaker containing one walk, the installation itself creates its own soundscape within the gallery.

Needle Bed

Assorted pine needles and branches, wool felt. 12’ x 10’.

The artist collected 12 discarded Christmas trees and transformed them into a floor covering through the labor-intensive process of trimming, breaking down and de-needling the trees by hand. With the resulting mulch arranged in a 19th century patchwork quilt pattern, Needle Bed evokes an odd disconnect between the natural and man-made environment and contrasts the domestic comforts associated with textile art with the ruggedness of outdoor manual labor. Needle Bed also captures the decomposing trees in a transitional state as their role changes from celebratory, decorative household fixture to recycled garden mulch. These various distinctions literally blurred as visitors walked across the unaffixed greenery, erasing the orderly pattern and breaking down the plant material even further.

Deep River Blues

Video documentation of performance. Run time: 1 min. 22 secs.

Stills from single-channel video.

The artist used an underwater camera to film herself singing the folk song "Deep River Blues" into the James River.

Let it rain, let it pour,
Let it rain a whole lot more
Cause I got those deep river blues

Ain't no one to cry for me 
And the fish all go out on a spree
When I get those deep river blues.

Ocian in View!

Letterpress on paper. 11 3/4” x 14 1/2”. Edition of 20.

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Bouchard hand-typeset the lyrics of "Ocian in View" from her song cycle Songs of Lewis & Clark, arranging the text in a way that visually represents the melodic structure of the song. (As the melody goes up or down, the syllables are placed on higher or lower lines of type.) The resulting text treatment is reminiscent of a landscape. This letterpress piece was printed on a Vandercook press at The Center for Book Arts in New York, NY.

Songs of Lewis & Clark

17-part song cycle performed by the artist. Full run time: approx. 50 mins. Album released in 2008.

Performance of Songs of Lewis & Clark at The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, April 2009.

Performance of Songs of Lewis & Clark at The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, April 2009.

Songs of Lewis & Clark is a song cycle setting the journals of Lewis and Clark to music. With lyrics taken directly from the journals, the songs reveal moments of awe, reflection, humor and joy during the course of the 1804-1806 expedition through the newly purchased Louisiana territory.

Listen to the full album at music.sarabouchard.com. A special-edition CD is also available for purchase at Sara’s online store.

See also Ocian In View!, a letterpress print of lyrics from the song cycle.

Urban Plant Research

Collaboration with artist Leslie Kuo. Digitally printed booklet. 5 3/4" x 4".

Urban Plant Research is a collaborative project with Berlin-based artist Leslie Kuo, dedicated to investigating plants in cities around the world. A collaborative booklet Ein Lichtenberger Herbarium was published by Lichtenberg Studios in Berlin, Germany in 2014. It features hi-res scans of wild plants the two artists collected and pressed during walks in the Berlin neighborhood of Lichtenberg. Each specimen was paired with a snippet of text in German and English regarding the plant's potential use.

Holy Smoke, Batman!

Stereo sound. 9 mins. 40 secs. (Excerpted below.)

From "Cats Lap With Just Tip of the Tongue, Engineers Find," a New York Times article by Nicholas Wade:

What happens is that the cat darts its tongue, curving the upper side downward so that the tip lightly touches the surface of the water. The tongue is then pulled upward at high speed, drawing a column of water behind it.

Just at the moment that gravity finally overcomes the rush of the water and starts to pull the column down — snap! The cat’s jaws have closed over the jet of water and swallowed it.

This sound piece was named in tribute to Batman, the cat belonging to Open Source Gallery in Brooklyn, NY. Open Source's former building was destroyed in an accidental fire which occurred on November 12, 2010, just a few doors down from the artist’s studio. Disoriented, Batman - a black and white tomcat who'd been king of the block - disappeared for a few days. An article appeared in the Science Times that day with new information on how cats lap. Part of it was woven into this piece.

Holy Smoke, Batman! was installed in Open Source's exhibition ASSOCIATED which took place in April, 2011, throughout an adjacent building that had been severely damaged by the fire.