By VITTORIA BENZINE, July 2021
Award-winning artist, composer and curator Paul Walde has cultivated a thriving harmony within his own practice. While he’s best known for audio and visual installations translated from site-specific performances, Walde’s formal training actually lies in more traditional media. The artist earned his BFA in Visual Arts from the University of Western Ontario before starting his MFA in Studio and Environmental Art at New York University in 1994.
Walde has been playing in rock bands and punk bands since adolescence. Upon moving to NYC he began auditioning for groups and playing around the city. He also spent a short time working at Jay Gorney Modern Art in Soho, where the director told him, Whatever you do, don't tell anyone you're a musician, because no one will take you seriously as an artist.
“I think he was honestly giving the best advice that he could,” Walde laughed. “I think people thought it was impossible to be good at two things.”
Thus, the fledgling Walde kept his music and visual arts practices separate until he returned to Northern Ontario around the turn of the millennium, working out of his parents’ cottage without running water or electricity. “While I was living in New York, I started thinking about the difference between that environment and the environment I grew up in… the access to nature and the relationship with nature,” Walde said. “That really became the fulcrum within my practice.”
In 2001, Walde created his first artistic sound project, his first heave towards unifying his practices. Northern Symphony is a string quartet based on a tree felled by a beaver in front of Walde’s cottage studio. He and his assistant made a cast of the beaver’s teeth marks, intending to turn it into an abstract painting teeming with textures and luminosity from old master glazes. However, when they brought the cast inside, its notches reminded Walde of music notation. He adapted the marks through music notation software, arranged it for a string quartet, and invited DJs to remix the work. In the moment, Walde wasn’t thinking explicitly about making sound art. He was experimenting with new ways to communicate information found throughout the forest.
Since then, his sound and visual practices have been unified, but never constrained. He dabbles more in ideas than forms. “What I do is occupying territory between disciplines,” Walde said. “There's a certain expertise in that.” He finds one creative tributary feeds another. Would Einstein still be the same scientific powerhouse if he hadn’t also played the violin?
The rapid democratization of AV equipment in the decades since has crucially supported this practice. During the pandemic Walde began an ongoing project called Weeks Feel Like Days, Months Feel Like Years where individuals submit their own material to be plugged into instructional scores. The programming language organizes these submissions in a specific manner dictated by the artist. Every iteration, every “track” of Weeks Feel Like Days, Months Feel Like Years features different sounds, but its format stays the same. The format itself, here, is really Walde’s art, enabled by audience participation.
“You can recognize the patterns,” he said. “Any sound can start operating like music once you start hearing it in a certain context.” By removing focus from the sound itself and focusing it into the form that sound organizes itself around, the project activates unfamiliar portions of the listener’s mind. “We know from neurological studies that different information is picked up by different parts of the brain, depending on what you're doing… Sometimes what I do in my work is try to fool the brain into using that other part to receive that information.”
Since Northern Symphony, Walde has embarked upon an escalating agenda. Requiem for a Glacier ranks amongst his most ambitious and successful projects to date. This installation and sound performance gathered over 100 volunteers, activists, musicians, amateurs and artists to memorialize in song Jumbo Glacier, “an ancient feature of the landscape left over from the last ice age, now under immediate threat from global warming and resort development.”
Walde and his collaborators didn’t know if they’d have access to the site, because climate change has caused landslides as permafrost continues melting at higher altitudes. "The week leading up to it, the road was completely washed out and impassable,” Walde said. “It only became passable two days before we went and did it.” While their cadre took all necessary precautions, Walde knew he bore responsibility for risks innate to the project’s execution.
Requiem for a Glacier also carried technical risks. It was Walde’s first time writing for an orchestra and working with more than one camera person. “Pretty much every time I set out to do something, I'm doing something I haven't done before,” he said. “The way that I've learned to counteract that kind of risk is really allowing things to happen, not trying to force my will onto the projects, and leaving gaps for chance.” His practice now accounts for new urgencies—increased focus on climate change and indigenous land rights. “As someone working with nature, landscape, the environment, these are things that I’ve felt compelled to deal with somehow in the work,” he said.
He recently joined a research trip to the Great Bear Rainforest organized by Rande Cook—an artist and hereditary chief of the Ma’amtagila people whose territory the rainforest inhabits. “It's been logged almost to death, there's less than 3% of the large standing old growth trees,” Walde relayed. Extensive protests are currently underway, especially around Fairy Creek, due to the growing sense that this forest could be lost forever.
“We need to find a way to reinvent our culture, to make a culture that is more in tune with the environment and our place within it,” Walde noted. Forest ecologist and author Suzanne Simard joined the research trip as a lead scientist, bringing her holistic understanding of mycorrhizal networks. Inspired by these peers, Walde added, “I’m hoping to raise the stakes within my own practice. I've gone from this area of self-discovery and insight to becoming more informed about what I'm doing.”
In 2010, Walde lost the hearing in his left ear suddenly, and worried he might lose hearing in both ears. The fear drove his practice into hyper-productivity, though it fortunately never came to fruition. “I can’t hear in one ear,” Walde pointed out, “but I can still listen.”
Listening is, of course, different from hearing. Listening can help locate that necessary new culture.
He cited Pauline Oliveros, who developed the practice of ‘deep listening,’ which fosters mindfulness and deeper connection with the world. Beyond exploring her work, Walde recommended anyone interested in developing their listening simply take the time. “People seem to want these longer, invested experiences,” he observed, pointing out the prolific propensity to binge a 12-part miniseries. “Yet in our day to day lives, we push them aside.” Listening can feel like nothing because it’s formless but omniscient, like blinking. “As long as you consider listening not nothing, you’ll be surprised what information is there.” WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // email@example.com // vittoriabenzine.com
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