There’s no more magical way to spend an afternoon than wandering the paths of Lotusland, the sprawling Montecito garden full of exotic and familiar flowers, towering trees, and sculpted bushes that opera singer Ganna Walska developed during the middle decades of the 20th century. But with the eyes being treated to such bizarre blooms and luscious landscapes, it’s not too long before your ears start to feel jealous, with just the occasional birdsong and buzzing bee the only sounds around.
That’s all about to change—for three days, at least—when German artist Kirsten Reese enhances the garden’s sonic environment by strategically placing speakers around the property that will be playing a soundtrack of noises that are inspired by and were, in many cases, recorded at Lotusland. Called “Lotussound,” the audio offering will be part of the regular guided tours at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Wednesday, March 17 through Saturday, March 20.
To give us a better handle on what to expect, Reese recently answered some questions from her home in Berlin, where she teaches sound art and intermedia composition at the Universität der Künste Berlin.
What was the inspiration for this project?
The idea and the wish to create an environmental sound work for Lotusland arose during my first visit to the estate in 2005. My impression was that nature is composed like artwork there. The succession of the gardens seems to follow an overall dramaturgy. While other gardens can often be described as picturesque, an austere beauty prevails at Lotusland that has to do with the exotic and sometimes even harsh character of the plants. Also, plants are displayed like sculptures and are grouped together in masses of specimens. This form of sequencing has a lot to do with aesthetic approach that I, like other contemporary artists, like to pursue, namely focusing on taxonomy and on difference in similarity.
How does a German artist find her way to Lotusland? In 2005 my husband, the Australian composer Thomas Meadowcroft, was a fellow of Villa Aurora in Pacific Palisades, the same residency—sponsored by the German foreign office—that I had last year. An artist friend told us about Lotusland, so Thomas and I decided to visit the gardens and we were very impressed by its uniqueness and beauty.
Did you know of Ganna Walska before? No, I didn’t. But of course it was especially interesting for me as a musician to find out that she had been an opera singer. I read her autobiography and she often talks about her pursuit of perfection as an artist. To me, Ganna Walska achieved this with the creation of Lotusland.
What sort of sounds can we expect to hear? Maybe one could call it environmentally inspired sound art, but I still approach the work like a musical composition. Most of the sound material is based on recordings I made at Lotusland of the outside spaces as well as of objects in the buildings—for example, of glass vases that had belonged to Ganna Walska, or of the metal chimes of an old carillon that is stored in one of the sheds on the premises, or of water purling in the many fountains and water features at Lotusland. Many of these recordings were then processed electronically. So the sound world is both “natural” and “unnatural.” I tried to compose with these sounds in a way that they blend in with the ambient soundscape and at the same time transform it in a way that they make it even more unreal and beautiful.
What is your method for translating a place like Lotusland into music? I spent several days at Lotusland, soaking in the atmosphere and walking through the different gardens. In the end I chose seven gardens in which the installations will take place. All the installations are different, they refer to the specific garden sonically and spatially.
How important is sound to a sense of place? It’s very important. Through reflections of audio waves, sound makes us realize how big or small a space is. For “Lotussound,” I hope that the sound will transform the space, although of course it will not affect its visual properties.
So where does utter silence fall into the scheme of things? Silence is always very important for a composer. Most of the time, we don’t listen to silence. If we do, we realize that in a natural environment, there is no utter silence, as there are always small sounds and sonic variations. There will be silent moments in “Lotussound”—it is, in fact, one of the challenges to find the right balance between sound and silence. If this balance is right, I would hope that moments of silence will be just as interesting and musical as sound.
Listen to “Lotussound” at Lotusland during one of the 10 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. guided tours from Wednesday, March 17 through Saturday, March 20. Reserve a spot by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (805) 969-9990.