FOPHeaderColorLogoWhiteAndGreen
Search
portrait of jeff rice

Jeff Rice

Sound Artist

2022 Pando Artist In Residence

Jeff Rice Artist in Residency Work

Copyright Jeff Rice, 2022, Used with permission

“Invocation” combines an ambisonic recording I made of birds at Pando at dawn paired with a pitch follower. The pitches are created by the computer relative to the pitches of the birds. The pitches aren’t ‘one to one,’ but the birds create a sonic palette that the computer follows. The music can stand alone as an ambient work or it can be accompanied live by spoken word, chanting or art song.

“Making Contact” explores sounds in the Pando Forest recorded with contact microphones (the piezo mics and the hydrophone, which is a modified contact mic). It includes the sound of bark being pulled off a tree, ants walking over a branch, piezo mics attached to leaves that rattle in the wind, the sound of water, recordings of the tree’s underground soundscape and roots, and even sounds of a mysterious creature. There is some minimal processing of some of the sounds within the piece. 

“Basho’s Frog” is inspired by the famous haiku, “The Old Pond,” in which a frog is heard jumping into the water. The poem holds within it everything there is to know about nature sounds and the vital connection between cause and effect. I think the poem is about many things, but it makes me wonder in particular what it means to hear something. That is the question I have been wrestling with throughout the project. The music in “Basho’s Frog” is created by the reaction of an envelope follower to the sounds of the roots. The rumbling sound is mostly atonal (although maybe somewhere near a D on the scale) but changes in amplitude and intensity trigger the envelope follower to play different notes within a major pentatonic scale. The computer essentially plays a duet with itself. It hears the sound of the roots and feeds back the sounds in various patterns. It’s a live recording of the computer. The frog jumps into its own sound. 

“Soundscape” is a traditional soundscape of Pando’s leaves, animals, and weather.”

Pando Journal

by Jeff Rice, July 9 - 12, 2022

What does Pando sound like? For most people, the sound of an aspen grove is defined by its trembling leaves. For me, as someone who has been around aspens my whole life, this sound is instantly recognizable and almost impossible to describe. 

 

Even creating a working definition is difficult. “It is the sound of the wind on a perfect day,” is one interpretation I have heard. “It is the sound of the West,” is another. It is a “whisper” and a “shimmer.” Some people think it is like “the sound of rain.” There does not appear to be much general agreement. The frog ribbits, the bird chirps, and the bull bellows. What is the voice of Pando?

 

If the sound is hard to describe, Pando itself is even more mysterious. My impression of Pando on my visit there this summer is that it is very different from other aspen groves I have seen. Many of the aspens are huge. They are tall trees, in some cases more than 100 feet high. Hiking the steep hillsides through the grove is often an obstacle course of downed branches and prickly junipers. The place feels as ancient as it is.

 

As with all aspens, what appears to be a sprawling forest is a single tree tied together at the roots. All the stands are genetically identical, and Pando is the largest such grove anywhere. By extension, at 106 acres in size, that makes Pando the world’s largest tree, dwarfing the giant sequoia and most other living organisms to boot. (It was once thought to be the largest organism of any kind until it was supplanted by a giant fungal mat in Oregon.) It may also be the heaviest and oldest organism on earth. It has watched over the world for an estimated 9,000 years.

 

Facts like these have made Pando famous, giving it a certain roadside novelty that draws people (including me) from all over. Who can resist having their photo taken with the world’s largest and oldest tree? But more than other roadside attractions — like, say, the world’s largest ball of twine — Pando challenges our basic understanding of the world. The idea that this giant forest could be a single organism defies our concept of the individual. Its vastness humbles our sense of space. At 9,000 years old (give or take a million years) it is beyond our sense of time. There may be nothing more fundamental than the questions it forces upon us.

"...when I put on my headphones, I am instantly surprised. Something is happening. There is a faint sound. I take off my headphones and look up at Lance in disbelief. 'What is that?' I wonder."

It is the middle of July, and I am here as an artist in residence for the non-profit group Friends of Pando. The group has generously paid for my plane ticket to Utah and has allowed me to stay in a comfortable Forest Service cabin during the duration of my trip. I am using my time to make sorties into the heart of “the tree,” as my guide Lance Oditt refers to Pando, and to set up various recording devices.

 

I have brought a suitcase full of microphones, including stereo and ambisonic rigs for capturing lush soundscapes, and more experimental gear like stethoscopes, hydrophones and contact mics.  My goal is to “record the sounds of Pando,” and what that means will be up to me. I am here because the sound of Pando is much more than just the sound of its leaves. I am here to find out what Pando “sounds like.”

 

I start by collecting several excellent dawn choruses of birds in the heart of the grove just above the road. Documenting “the tree” through recordings will help create a baseline of Pando sounds at a given time. The recordings are beautiful, but sounds also measure the health of the environment. The density and types of bird calls can be compared with those on future July days, and the sounds of other animals — so far, I have recorded a fox and several small mammals such as squirrels — show the variety of species that live here. I have been told that there are also black bears and cougars.

 

I carefully mark the date, location and time of my recordings and will archive what I have collected with the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University . The Acoustic Atlas is partnering with Friends of Pando to support this trip, and through the archive, the sounds will be made freely available online and accessible to future generations.

 

As I record, I also take the time to experiment. I capture the sound of bark as it rips off a dead tree. My contact mics pick up the subtle stridulations of an ant walking over a leaf. And then I hear something that I have never heard before, and perhaps no one else has either.

 

It is the monsoon season, and thunderstorms have been moving through the valley almost every day. Each storm announces itself with a rush of wind that causes the entire forest to tremble like the giant single organism that it is. This is the iconic shimmering sound of Pando’s leaves, and I work to capture this from as many angles as I can. I use ambisonic microphones that record a holographic sound print and I tie smaller mics onto the branches to get close to the leaves. Then I bring out the hydrophone, which I think will give me another perspective.

 

Hydrophones are typically used to record the sound of underwater environments. I’ve been playing around with one in some of the nearby creeks, but now I want to try it in a completely different way. I hope to use it to link into one of Pando’s most important features, its massive root system. I wonder what one of these intense July monsoons will sound like under the ground inside the tree.

 

My advisor and spirit guide Lance, who is also the executive director of Friends of Pando, has offered to take me around to look for exposed roots. He says there are quite a few that can be found in the lower part of the grove, so we head there. We look for downed trees where the roots stick up above the ground and we might have access. This yields several candidates, but there is one that stands out. It is a hole at the base of a medium sized aspen. The hole appears to be formed by dry rot and is filled with a bed of mulch that has either been chewed out by beetles or has simply crumbled down from inside the tree.

 

I dig through the mulch and lower the hydrophone until it rests on the tree’s roots about a foot below the surface. Hydrophones don’t just need water to work. They can pick up vibrations from surfaces as well, and when I put on my headphones, I am instantly surprised. Something is happening. There is a faint sound. I take off my headphones and look up at Lance in disbelief. “What is that?” I wonder.

 

We start double checking the hydrophone. Could it be picking up sounds from another source? Is there some sort of electronic interference? Where is the sound really coming from? Lance walks about 50 paces away and bangs on a different tree with his fist. I can hear no sound coming through the air, but when I listen to the hydrophone, there is a low thump. The sound is moving through the ground, tree to tree.

 

I settle in and start listening more intently to Pando’s underground soundscape. Occasionally, there is a low moan or rumble in the headphones, and it seems to grow in intensity as the wind rises. Lance confirms that he hears it too. After more observations, it looks like we have discovered something.

 

It turns out that Pando’s root system — or at the very least Pando’s dry soil — is a great conductor of sound. We listen as millions of trembling leaves on trees throughout the forest pass their vibrations into the ground. As the afternoon’s thunderstorm blows in, I leave the hydrophone in what I have now dubbed the “Pando portal.” After the storm, I gather up my gear and head home. I will not be able to hear the sound until I return to my studio several days later, but when I am finally able to listen, it is like I have made contact with an alien being. The voice of Pando is expressed as a single, low note that rises and falls with the intensity of the wind.

 

Pando’s roots are one of its great unknowns. They are what ties the 106-acre “trembling giant” together, serving for all intents and purposes as a huge brain that lies beneath the soil. Are they also Pando’s ear? 

 

What is the sound of Pando? And what does a tree hear?

Listen to Jeff Talk About His Pando Experience on NPR's Science Friday

In early May of 2023 Jeff spoke about his Pando experience with NPR’s Ira Flatow for Science Friday. The Sweet Song of the Largest Tree On Earth aired on May 12, 2023.

Bio

Jeff Rice is a Seattle-based sound artist with a long-standing interest in natural soundscapes. His work as a field recordist has been featured in Outside Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and, National Public Radio, and in 2018 his recordings of the Pando aspen grove were part of The New York Times Magazine’s Ellie Award-winning issue “Listen to the World.”
 
His recordings have appeared in film, television, and theater productions as well as multimedia exhibits by artists ranging from Maya Lin to Ann Hamilton (in videos for the common S E N S E) and Karine Laval (Trembling Giant).
 
In the summer of 2022, Jeff visited Pando as part of Friends of Pando’s Artist in Residency program to explore the sounds of one of the oldest and largest organisms on the planet.
 
In recent years, Rice has been working with Ambisonic microphones that capture three-dimensional sound prints of natural environments. He used Ambisonics and other recording techniques to document Pando’s sonic beauty, but also its place in time. His project contemplates what audio recordings might tell us about Pando’s past and future and why humans need to pay attention.
Sound artist Jeff Rice working in the field

"In some ways, Pando is defined by its sound. Its species name, ‘quaking aspen,’ refers to the trembling of its leaves, but the resulting sound is inseparable from that. Pando is also very personal to me. I grew up hiking around Utah and whenever I hear an aspen grove I know I am in a good place, usually somewhere high in the mountains or far enough away from the city to hear the earth again."

Friends of Pando is dedicated and working to educate the public, support research and preservation efforts and inspire stewardship of Pando, the world’s largest tree.

 

Friends of Pando is a proud partner of Pando’s public land stewards, Fishlake National Forest of the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture. Learn more about our partnership.

 

Friends of Pando and its partners are equal opportunity employers.

fopemblemfooterwidth

Just $14 a month supports work to ensure Pando can be enjoyed for generations to come. Make a one-time or, recurring tax deductible donation today.

Friends of Pando
PO Box 12
Richfield, UT, 84701
Phone: 435-633-1893
IRS EIN: 87-3958681