The Sound of Touch: ‘Branches’ Is A Prairie Collaboration

by Abby Aresty and Eden Marek

  • Essay
decorative header image from Volume III Issue 1 · Fall 2016

“Branches” is a joint work, joining the media of sound artist Abby Aresty and visual artist Eden Marek. Their partnership yielded “sound sculptures” which they created at Grinnell College during the 2014-2015 academic year from found organic materials. The artists said that their sculptures are inspired by the relationship between sound and touch, “one that is particularly powerful in the prairie.”

“One’s sense of touch is particularly important in the prairie,” Aresty said. “Without the ability to reach out and touch, it is all too easy to overlook the tremendous variety of grasses, flowers, and trees which make up the prairie. And yet, prairie can be hard to come by these days. Branches, a collaboration of artists Abby Aresty and Eden Marek, are what they refer to as sound sculptures: interactive works that allow participants to engage with the complex textures of the prairie from a distance. Combining handmade paper and custom electronics, the artists transform ordinary branches into art objects which bridge sound, vibration, and touch to create a truly immersive experience.

Each sculpture consists principally of a branch, chosen for both its visual aesthetic and acoustic potential, hand-made abaca fiber paper, and a surface transducer that converts an electrical signal to the vibrations made audible by the branches. Audio cables, small mono amplifiers, and a sound source, such as an iPod, are also used. The soft, subtle, pattern of creaks and groans that emanates from the sculptures evokes the sounds you might hear if you held a stethoscope to a tree trunk on a windy day.

Photos on pps. 2- 6, courtesy of Abby Aresty

Photos on pps. 2- 6, courtesy of Abby Aresty

In these images, Eden Marek is lifting sheets of handmade paper off their frames, and draping them over branches to dry. She made the paper from prairie grass and overbeaten abaca fiber, using them to create what she and Abby Aresty refer to as sound sculptures.
Here, Abby Aresty is setting up a small amplifier to increase the audio signal which will be sent through the piezo disc attached to each of the branches.

You can hear a “Branches” audio excerpt in SoundCloud by following this link. To capture this recording, Abby Aresty played the left and right channel from the audio file from her work “Arrangements” (next page) through two different branches, recording each branch with a contact microphone and a shotgun microphone.

the completed 'Branches' installation, (detail) 2016.

the completed ‘Branches’ installation, (detail) 2016.

Various components used in the speakers including amplifiers, a piezo disc, and a surface transducer, which sometimes replaced the piezi elements, depending on the available space on the branches.

“The soft, subtle pattern of creaks and groans that emanates from the sculptures evokes the sounds you might hear if you held a stethoscope to a tree trunk on a windy day.”

Listen to the Podcast

The icon links to a 20-minute podcast in which Abby Aresty and Eden Marek explore the inspiration for “Branches,” and their own personal experiences of the prairie. Produced by Abby Aresty, the podcast includes field recordings by Aresty, Marek, Elizabeth Hill, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts.

'Arrangements', Water, microphone and prairie materials, by Abby Aresty

‘Arrangements’, Water, microphone and prairie materials, by Abby Aresty

'Echo Symphonic Board', by Eden Marek

‘Echo Symphonic Board’, by Eden Marek

“Branches” is by no means the only work in which Aresty and Marek have explored the intersection and relationship between sound and touch. In “Arrangements” (top, above) and EcoSymphonic Board (bottom, above), they explore and invite participants to interact with organic materials gathered on the prairie. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

About Author Abby Aresty
Portrait image of author Abby Aresty.
Photo courtesy of Abby Aresty
Dr. Abby Aresty is a composer and sound artist who uses technology to facilitate unexpected interactions between people, the built environment, and the natural world. Her work has been featured locally and nationally in such outlets as NPR and the Seattle Times.
About Author Eden Marek
Portrait image of author Eden Marek.
Photo courtesy of Eden Marek
Eden Marek’s true passion is sculpture and papermaking. She likes working in repeated, modular units and in ways that examine the structural and tactile qualities of the material.