San Francisco musician Cheryl E. Leonard finds her inspiration — and instruments — in the world that surrounds her. Leonard makes music by bowing, tapping, rubbing and otherwise manipulating objects she finds in nature. Spark checks in on this innovative young composer as she prepares a series of five new works entitled “Ziran,” which is Chinese in origin and is used to mean the concept of naturalness.
Leonard begins her process by collecting objects with which she can produce unusual sounds. Though Leonard often includes man-made objects in her performances, for “Ziran” she amassed items only from the natural world, such as bark, rocks, pine cones and twigs. Experimenting with the possibilities of these objects, Leonard composed five pieces inspired by different Tang dynasty poems dating as far back as 1,000 years. Leonard has designed each piece to be performed in conjunction with a recital of its corresponding poem.
As Leonard and her musical collaborators prepare for “Ziran,” they struggle to find the right pitches and textures in each of their created instruments. Because of this unusual instrumentation, which produces sounds outside conventional tonal structures, Leonard has devised a unique system of notation capable of communicating the composer’s intentions to the performers.
Cheryl E. Leonard received a B.A. in music composition from Hampshire College in 1991 and an M.A. from Mills College in 1996. In 1999, Leonard’s “The Underwater Flying Machine” was exhibited as part of Lincoln Center’s Day of Homemade Instruments. Recordings of her music are available from Great Hoary Marmot Records, Apraxia Records, 23 Five Inc., Old Gold Records and The Lab. She has received a commission to design sounds for a new exhibit in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.