Seeking Harmony At River's Edge
by Mary Luthi
Through his latest endeavor, Norman Lowrey hopes people will learn to live within ecological limits
For over 15 years, Professor of Music Norman Lowrey has found music wherever his imagination has led him--in the ancient art of handcrafted ceramic and carved flutes and masks and, too, in the latest computer electronics. This traditionally trained musician has long sought to reconcile art and science, the past and the present.
It's not surprising, then, to discover that Lowrey is the inspiration for River Sounding, a two-year conceptual art project, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, that drew scores of people to the banks of the Delaware River last summer to connect with the timeless rhythms of the natural world.
Asked to hold a silence as long as possible (one lasted for two-and-a-half hours), participants "experienced the river's voice and song," Lowrey says. "We interacted with and celebrated the river and its life, learning from the river itself how human communities can live within its ecological limits."
After another series of soundings on the river planned for this summer, organizers of the two-phase project suggest participants articulate what they learned and experienced. The resultant works in various mediums and forms will be performed and displayed at the Maritime Museum in Philadelphia in the fall of 1996.
A collaboration among Lowrey, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network ( a non-profit environmental organization), and seven prominent artists, River Sounding has already been hailed as a prototype across the United States and abroad. Through the project, organizers seek to change the community's relationship to the natural world "from one of selfish, careless use to one of harmonious, responsible interaction," Lowrey says.
If it sounds like a tall order for a walk to a river's edge, it's the project's simplicity that makes it so powerful, Lowrey says. For this experimental composer, "listening is the basis for musical imagination." For all of us, though, "quiet is the basis for good mental health." In the late 20th century, he says, life is often a cacophonous buzzing. "It's really only on a vacation that we sometimes seek and find stillness. In our everyday lives we barely listen to each other, no less the sounds of the natural world that connect to the voices within us."
Noting that there are fewer and fewer places left on the planet where we can find quiet, the musician says, "If we realized how crucial quiet is to our well-being, we might take better care of our environment."
So it is that sound and silence and ecological concern are all part of the same landscape for Lowrey. Since the late 1970s, the music professor has been experimenting with the haunting tones elicited from singing and sounding masks that he crafted from ceramics and carved wood.
Incorporated into ceremonial art, music, and theatre productions across the country, Lowrey's masks have moved him and his audience's "to ask the essential questions about the origin and meaning of life. There is something in the association between the sound and the mask image that is deeper and more profound than everyday awareness." Searching for an apt description, he settles reluctantly on what he says mystics describe as "oneness."
He's right. Even in the noisy, distracting confines of a busy office, the flute-like sounds emanating from the holes in his lion-image ceramic mask provoke goose bumps. Donning the mask and actually creating the sounds amplifies the experience to something inexplicably primal.
Lowrey employed his sounding masks at the river's edge, but his emphasis was on listening. To that end, he brought to the ceremonies his "listening masks," which he makes from the same ceramic and wooden materials and equips with electronic amplification to pick up nuances of the river sounds. He also introduced to participants the simple and profound power of a "listening stick."
With one end placed gently in the ear and the other end in the water, the stick acts as a conductor of the multitude of sounds water makes when when it gurgles over rocks. "While each stick will have its own acoustic properties, reinforcing different frequencies of the aquatic vibrations," Lowrey says solid and dense wood makes the best conductor.
"I tried out my listening stick in one of the springs feeding a headwater stream; I was startled by the similarity of the spring's bubbling sounds to recordings I'd heard of stellar activity--pulsars and quasars. Here, at an origin of the Delaware River, were sounds like those emanating from the farthest reaches of the heavens."
Responding to skepticism that all this sounds a bit New Age, the University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music graduate says, "People are threatened by unfamiliarity; in this age, as in times past, change falls to the role of explorer. We desperately need to clean up our soundscape. It's not an esoteric endeavor.
Lowrey says that the dichotomy created by technological advances--sharpening our understanding of the universe while contributing to our ecological destruction--can only be resolved, for him, by creative expression.
"We can't simply ignore or eliminate technology. I'm interested in finding imanigative uses. There are lots of things I do and can do as a citizen to clean up the environment, but as an artist I am looking ... to understand what I have not previously understood about the rich and mysterious process of life."
--Mary Luthi, Drew Magazine, Drew University, Spring, 1995