Instead of meeting at his studio or a cafe, saxophonist Patrick Cress suggests our interview take place at Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, a wooded area of the Oakland hills where hiking trails snake through ferns and oak trees, giving way to impressive views of green, rolling hills.
When Cress, who now resides in a different part of Oakland, lived in this neighborhood, he used to hike in Huckleberry three times a week to stimulate his creative process and get some exercise. Music and nature have long gone hand-in-hand for the artist, who is a member of nearly a dozen Bay Area ensembles, including funk band the Humidors.
Cress's latest project is a series of lectures and concerts with ecologist and TED Fellow Eric Berlow about the ecosystem in Yosemite National Park, and particularly, one of its endangered species: the Yosemite toad. The duo comes to City College of San Francisco on Apr. 19 as part of a campus Earth Day celebration, where Berlow will present some of his research, followed by a performance by Cress that infuses saxophone improvisation with live looping and field recordings from Yosemite.
The unusual collaboration came about when Berlow previously served as the director of the University of California’s first science institute inside Yosemite, where his research focused on creating data-driven approaches to the park's conservation efforts. In the late 2000s, he ran an artist residency program there, where he invited artists to create work that spoke to the richness of Yosemite's ecology in a way that science alone couldn't.
That was when Berlow and Cress, a longtime friend, began to collaborate. In 2008, they hiked up to 10,000 feet with Cress' saxophone and a boom mic to make music and observe the Yosemite toad for Berlow's research. From his recordings there and, later, in the studio, Cress created his meditative, instrumental 2017 album Yosemite Soundscapes, which serves as the basis for his and Berlow's lecture-performance series.
Cress says that, at first, he felt unprepared for the undertaking of hiking through the woods with an experienced ecologist and outdoorsman like Berlow. "I distinctly remember getting — I don’t know if you’ve ever had altitude sickness before," says Cress. "By the end of the day, [Eric] was carrying my saxophone and microphone for me. But we finally got there and it was this amazing spot. Snow-capped mountains all around.”
Once they arrived, Cress improvised on his saxophone in the "theater of the mountains," with its reverberant acoustics, and recorded Yosemite toads breeding, streams burbling, fish jumping, birds squawking, and planes flying overhead. He paired those sounds with the rich tones of his alto and baritone saxophones and bass clarinet, creating a whimsical, melodic tapestry that conjures the sense of wonder Cress felt during the unpredictable journey through the mountains.
"The part that I convey is the really raw human connection to nature that we all have,” Cress says.
So why devote an entire album — and years of research — to an obscure species like the Yosemite toad? When I reach Berlow by phone, he explains that its genetics could shed light on how organisms evolve to survive brutal conditions. "It's a cold-blooded species that burrows in the mud and sits out winters under 30-feet of snow, that is traveling across rugged terrain to populate different meadows," he says. "The DNA of this species holds the keys to how to do that. If they disappear off the face of the earth, we've lost that information forever."
He also adds that the Yosemite toad's population levels are an indicator of whether California's water supply is healthy. "Those meadows are at the headwaters of the water supply of all of California — at least in the Central Valley and San Francisco. And most of that farmland that feeds most of the nation relies on those alpine ecosystems to slow the trickle of snowmelt so they have water in August when it hasn't rained since May or April."
That explanation might sound technical to a casual nature enthusiast, which is precisely why Berlow recruited a musician for amplify his research. "To have an artist work with us could help communicate the emotional side of why we do what we do," he says.
As Cress put it, “My idea is to either A, attract people to [Yosemite] for the first time or B, remind people how amazing Yosemite is through the sound of music and those field recordings, which have a certain tonic to them.”
Patrick Cress and Eric Berlow's 'Yosemite Soundscapes' comes to City College of San Francisco for an Earth Day celebration on Apr. 19. More information here.