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Composer Cheryl Leonard Makes the Rocks Sing

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Cheryl Leonard has always sought to push the boundaries of what people consider “serious music.” “I used to play found objects that were man-made,” the Bay Area-based composer, performer and instrument builder says. “I had a box spring mattress that I found on the street with no fabric on it. It had the best spring reverb ever.”

Leonard’s work combines field recordings she makes in outdoor environments like glaciers with her handmade instruments made of natural objects from the natural world such as rocks, shells and bones. The compositions don’t incorporate traditional harmonies, melodies and instruments. Yet Leonard considers her pieces to be full-fledged musical works. “There are little patterns in the field recordings,” Leonard says. “I try to highlight those and bring out the innate musicality of the original sound. And each instrument has its unique voice. So I make a piece that highlights that voice to show people, ‘hey, the rocks, they really can sing.’”

Leonard has a master’s degree in music composition from Mills College and her pieces are performed worldwide. Recently, the composer created a work about California’s watersheds to highlight the state’s drought issues. Her upcoming projects will address California’s threatened glaciers, as well as southern California’s extreme sea levels. Leonard says she hopes her work will make scientific data more impactful by connecting people to environmental issues in a visceral way.

Leonard performed the pieces highlighted in the above video as part of the closing event for the Vanishing Ice exhibition at the David Brower Center in Berkeley California. For more on that show, which addresses contemporary artists’ responses to climate change in polar regions, see the video below.


Listen to Rachael Myrow’s report on the Vanishing Ice exhibition. 

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