Long fascinated with bird and animal communication, California composer Hugh Livingston thinks quite a bit about the "acoustic niche theory" — the idea that birds, insects and animals communicate with distinctive rhythms and timbres which vary according to their unique habitats.
For example, he said, city birds sing at a different pitch than country birds so that they can be heard over the noise pollution.
His main question: "How do I compose something that also interlocks?"
"What I'm interested in," he said, "is that empty space, what's left over, so that I'm not drowning out the birds."
Livingston has been busy at Caponi Art Park in Eagan, recording sounds, rehearsing and studying the landscape in preparation for his upcoming July 7 performance.
During the event, audience members will stroll through an outdoor soundscape, which will combine music from members of St. Paul's Zeitgeist quartet, Livingston's electronic compositions and the sounds of nature.
Livingston feels the park provides the perfect setting: meandering paths for a roaming audience, little clearings for a clarinetist or a marimba or toy piano player, rolling terrain for "bouncing sounds off the hillsides."
"It's quite varied in terms of really wild woods and nicely manicured outdoor areas," he said. "One of the things I often look for are, what are the unexpected parts of the landscape. There are plenty of trails where you turn a corner and a vista emerges."
This is the first time Livingston, a McKnight Visiting Composer with the American Composers Forum, has been part of the park's summer performance series, which features music, theater and dance on Sunday evenings from June through August.
Throughout the park, Livingston plans to set up what he calls "hypothetical birds," colorful bamboo birdcages wired with recorded compositions of found sounds — human voices, church bells, "the sound marks of the Twin Cities" — set to the rhythms of bird twitter.
"The bird cages are kind of a focus. They say 'come over here and listen'," he said. "Everyone is going to have their own experience."
A former concert hall musician, Livingston now chooses to be out of doors as much as possible, focusing on sounds and images of nature. As a cellist, he has performed in caves and alongside running streams. He creates permanent sound environments in public and private gardens, and this August, he'll put on "New River Opera," an outdoor opera on the Russian River in Sonoma.
During his 60-day McKnight residency, Livingston said he will host dialogues at the park with birders, landscape architects and young composers.
Some other new performances for this summer's series:
• Los Alegres Bailadores, a Mexican folkloric dance group, will have their first Sunday evening performance on Aug. 4. A troupe of about 25 performers, youth as well as adults, will perform with Mariachi Flor Y Canto. Los Alegres Bailadores will perform traditional dances of three different states in Mexico and will feature the traditional costumes of each state.
• On Aug. 18, Mixed Precipitation will put on "Agent Fidelio: A Picnic Operetta." The opera, an updated version of Beethoven's 1805 opera, tells a tale of revolution and liberation. In the opera, an idealistic revolutionary has been jailed for treason, and his lover embarks on a mission to liberate the jail and start a revolution. The performance will be accompanied by small bites of local food.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.