Paul Walde: Music Of The Glaciers

Author Catherine Lacey said that when she was younger, she wanted to be a photographer because she wanted “to capture the most perfect pictures of nature so that they would be proof for everyone of the existence of God.”

When artist and musician Paul Walde was young, he wanted to be a rock musician in the vein of Pete Townshend, David Bowie, or David Byrne of the Talking Heads. His exhibition, Glacial Resonance, at the McIntosh Gallery until March 16 may just be proof of how humanity is destroying God’s Creation.

The two installation works, Requiem For A Glacier and Glacial are not only sonic, visual and poetic meditations on human complicity in the destruction of the planet – the environment we depend on for survival – they’re also a prompt towards how we might focus on this intersection of climate and the complexities of human activity, and how we might redeem our seeming lack of respect for the grace and beauty of Nature’s handiwork.

“Presenting the glacier as a central protagonist, Glacial Resonance brings the stark reality of otherwise distant mountain ranges to the forefront,” writes curator Helen Gregory. “Best known for his interdisciplinary performances staged in the natural environment, Walde’s work often involves music and choreography. His immersive installations materialize from projects on mountain sides and from deep in old growth forests that involve myriad volunteers and performers, and technically – and geographically – challenging logistics. The splendor and sense of awe evoked by these landscapes, emphasized through the embodied sound experience of Walde’s installations, offer alternative modes in which to traverse the overwhelming scale of climate change.”

I ask Walde how Glacial Resonance came to be.

Glacial, 2022. Still from 4K video. Credit: Artist, Paul Walde. Camera: Laura Gildner Courtesy of the Artist.

You studied Visual Art at Western U from 1987 to 1992. Why art instead of music?

I was playing in rock bands, and I was looking at other musicians. A lot of them went through the art college system in the UK, although some of them in the US as well. John Lennon, David Bowie, Brian Eno and members of The Talking Heads, all studied art.

I had an interest in art, I was painting. I thought it would be a great thing to learn more about art, it would hopefully expand my horizons in a way that would help me become the musician I thought I could become. In that process, I became way more interested in art and for quite some time gave up being a musician altogether.

I came down from northern Ontario with a band called Rumble Fish and we gigged around quite a bit in London for the first year that I was there.

Is it possible that you guys could have gone on to be a big thing if you invested all your energy in that?

Well, one never knows. I did also play trombone and I studied some classical music when I was younger. It wasn’t something that I immediately wanted to study and I wasn’t really encouraged to study it either. But I don’t think my parents expected me to go into art either.

I know somebody who was a trombone major at Western; but, what kind of gigs are there for a guy who studies trombone? You either perform in an orchestra or teach. And all the orchestras are mostly dead now. Orchestra London’s gone.

It’s tough. There was a recession in northern Ontario then, and I saw folks that had good jobs and then all of a sudden they didn’t have them. I didn’t know what the economy was going to look like. But I thought I might as well study something that I like and make my own way.

I thought at the time, if I can wake up every morning doing something that I like, then I’m going to be better off than somebody who’s doing something that they don’t like for money when they didn’t follow their dreams.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I wanted to be Pete Townshend. He wrote his own material and it seemed like an interesting lifestyle. Interestingly, Townshend studied with Gustav Metzger in the UK, and Metzger took part in what was known as The Destruction in Art. When Townshend started smashing his guitars he had known Metzger and that kind of art practise of destroying things to create something new. Townshend was definitely influenced by the avant-garde of the day. So that art college influence is there whether people know it or not.

Who else would you say were major influences on your approach to art coming from your student days?

Joseph Beuys is one of the artists that I discovered as a student. What I liked about Beuys was that he wasn’t tied down to one particular medium. If he wanted to do a performance he did a performance. He wanted to make a sculpture? He made a sculpture. If he wanted to make woodcuts, he made woodcuts. And that really fascinated me, because before that I thought that artists only worked in one medium.

At Western we had to study all of the mediums and I think because of that, I became enamoured with artists that worked across different mediums like film, photography, painting, whatever. The idea that there’re no limits to your creativity.

A case in point would be London artist Jack Chambers. Jack was making paintings and films, and one of the things I saw as a student in first year was The Hart of London. Bob McKaskell showed us that and I was one of two students that stayed and watched the whole thing to the end. Chambers also illuminated for me that idea of making work about the things that are around you, your immediate environment.

Wyn Geleynse was an influence in those years?

At Western, the faculty and support staff all gave lectures on their work. One day Wyn presented his work and I was blown away. He was doing experiments with photography and video, and film projection at the time. Some of them were very small-scale projections into little glass houses, like the piece for the Calgary Olympics where he’s a stand in for another character, scratching through the glass. I’d never seen anything like that before. My idea of film was going to see a movie in a theatre. At the time Wyn’s work was so different from what I was doing. It wasn’t immediately influential, but what was influential was this idea that here’s this amazing artist who is working at the school, and who isn’t a professor but he’s showing all over the world, in the Sao Paulo Biennale and places like that.

As a young student that was absolutely inspirational! There’s also an economy of means to what Wyn was doing. One of the first projections he did was a self-portrait that he projected onto the window of his house from the inside and people just walking by would stop and watch. What I love about that idea is not having to deal with galleries, doing things outside of official spaces. That you don’t necessarily need to have permission, and that reminded me of the kind of things that I was doing as a as a young musician in in northern Ontario. We would rent halls and put on our own shows. There was and is DIY aspect to what Wyn was doing.

All that has translated, eventually, into the glacier work. Requiem for a Glacier really was a DIY production. It’s a big production, but it was a group of people that wanted to do something that got together and it wasn’t solely a professional undertaking. It was very much a kind of scrabbled together production – low-budget, most of the people were volunteers. There were students. The youngest person was 12. The oldest person was 84. There were environmental activists. It took place on a glacier not in a gallery. It really had this DIY aspect to it and so Wyn’s work, I think for me, spoke to me in that way that you could make art in the world and it can have an impact.

You went to NYU for a Master’s Degree, and you ran into John Cage?

When I went to New York to look for an apartment. I went down with David Brandon a fellow student at Western and NYU, we drove overnight and arrived in New York as the sun was coming up. We parked the car at the airport and rode the subway into town and I picked up The Village Voice. In the section called Cheap Thrills, it would tell you what you could do for very little money. One of the things happening that night was a concert of John Cage works at the Museum of Modern Art. That evening, after looking for an apartment all day, we rode up town on the subway, went into the MoMA sculpture garden, and there’s this amazing concert of John Cage work going on. I was obviously blown away. I looked over and Cage was just sitting there. I walked over and introduced myself – though I was way too intimidated to talk about John Cage’s work because I didn’t know that much. But I’d heard that he was into mushrooms, so we talked about that.

Magic mushrooms?

No. I grew up hunting mushrooms in northern Ontario and we talked about just regular mushrooms.

But he said, “you’re moving to town, we should stay in touch. You’re studying art. I’m interested in art. Let’s get together when you settle in.” Unfortunately he died a week later, but one of the first people I ever met in New York was John Cage.

From that moment on, I wanted to learn more about John Cage and over the years he has become one of my biggest influences. I’ve made many works responding to his work, referencing his work, and in approaching music in an experimental way. When I was playing punk rock, I thought of that at the time as being quite experimental, and of course it’s not really, it’s just another form of rock’n’roll. But at the time we thought it was pretty radical compared to the popular music of the day.

Punk hasn’t gone away entirely.

Yeah, and there’s also the idea that things that are not all musical, like noise, can work its way into the work, and Cage was instrumental in bringing that about in the classical music world, opening the parameters of what music is. I’m interested in the gap between art and music and this other discipline called Sound Art, which has emerged in that gap. Cage is one of the proto-sound artists. He’s one of the artists that started working with sound as a medium and allowing chance operations to happen. That’s something else that’s influenced me – not trying to control everything. When you’re doing a project like Requiem For A Glacier, there’re a lot of things that could go wrong. But if you’re prepared to accept whatever happens then you can be a little more ok with what comes out. You’re accepting things that you didn’t expect instead of trying to eliminate them. There’s so many things that Cage said over the years that are influential to me, and one of them is about beauty. He said, “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”. Ideas like that can get you really questioning things.

When you were in London, you stumbled into the position of artistic director of the London Ontario Arts (LOLA) festival. What was the takeaway of that for you?

Andrew Francis who was the director of LOLA had just done the first iteration as a one-day street festival and wanted to grow it the following year. He came to talk to Brian Meehan, then director of Museum London saying he wanted to grow the art side of things. I was invited to a meeting with the two of them and Brian asked if I could do something with this. And I said yeah, but to be honest, it was really Andrew. He was one of the first people that I met that had that New York swagger that I was used to, with a larger perspective on the world and I really appreciated that. We became friends almost immediately. I said, to him, if we’re going to do this, I want to go big. We need to elevate the programme.

I was working at Museum London as the curator of public programmes and one of the things I decided I was going to do was start to find those artists who were working in music and art. I started curating those artists, and that seemed like a natural fit for LOLA, right? How about bringing in artists that do both? Brian Eno was one of the first people I wanted to work with.

And Eno provided an intriguing installation for the Wolfe Performance hall? What was the name of the piece?

77 Million Paintings.

And you got in touch with Yoko Ono? I recall be pleasantly surprised seeing billboards in downtown London that brought a little of John Lennon’s spirit to my daily commute.

Yes, that was through London artist Jamelie Hassan whose work was also featured in the festival. That was a couple of years later for another iteration of LOLA and Yoko Ono is another person who works as a multidisciplinary artist, working in sound, film, performance, music and sculpture– someone who was really doing it all in an interesting way. The works we presented were two billboards: War is Over (if you want it), and Imagine Peace

So was LOLA a stepping stone in your career?

The way I got to work with all these interdisciplinary artists, observing how they work, learning about their work was very inspiring. Working with interdisciplinary artists like Michael Snow, Gordon Monahan, and Tony Conrad. All very inspirational figures. Really interesting folks, Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky as well.

Working with those artists provided some sense of validation in the direction that I was going in. That there were successful examples of artists who could work in that way. Also working on a large scale with projections and coordinating lots of volunteers, etc. Staging that work, that kind of experience made it possible for me to undertake something on the scale of Requiem For A Glacier.

Requiem For A Glacier site specific performance. 2013. From the site-specific performance of Requiem For A Glacier at Farnham Glacier.
Credit: Photo: Douglas Noblet. Courtesy of Douglas Noblet.

I recently saw a documentary about Krzysztof Wodiczko , and his work is fascinating. I looked him up, because he was in London at one point, doing a projection on our old Courthouse facade.

I was in touch with him when we were doing LOLA, about coming to reprise that installation project but the budget and timing and everything didn’t work out unfortunately. He was really interested in coming back to London and he considered that projection one of his early ground breaking projects. I believe he said he was inspired by Wyn and Murray Favro, the London artists who were projecting onto things rather than screens.

Let’s move on to your show. Why glaciers?

Yeah. I came back from New York and was really inspired by the natural landscape and it was something that I was thinking about while I was in New York, that my upbringing in northern Ontario was different than. I decided that was something I wanted to try to deal with as an artist.

I started thinking about, what are some of the issues that the landscape is dealing with? I got invited to write a curriculum for a programme in Dawson City, Yukon. When I was up there, which was over 20 years ago now, I saw how melting permafrost was impacting their infrastructure, and I thought, well, that’s interesting. I wonder, what’s going on there? So I went home and started reading articles about permafrost and discovered that permafrost contains all these greenhouse gases and that it’s getting warmer up there quicker than down here and, that’s going to radically change the environment . So what I first started thinking about was permafrost. But that also led me to glaciers.

In 2011, I was invited by Kiara Lynch who was the curator at the Langham Cultural Centre in Kaslo, BC, to do an exhibition there. She wanted to bring in an earlier work, and I asked her if we could do something new, to which she gladly agreed. I mentioned I was interested in climate change and while looking at a map suggested doing something about the nearby Kokanee Glacier. She recommended we look at the Jumbo glacier range – which is where there was a large resort development project being proposed. For the people in those communities, the development was highly contested and a lot of people were protesting against it. I thought, this sounds really intriguing, and I knew that she wanted to do something that related to music because the other work that she was interested in was my first work that dealt with music, which is called Northern Symphony. So based on all that, I came up with the idea of doing a requiem for that glacier.

Glacial (2022 )installation view at McIntosh Gallery,  Photo Credit: Dickson Bou, courtesy of the McIntosh Gallery

Why Mount Baker in Glacial?

I can see it from my house.

Right, in Victoria. My kid lives in Seattle and you can’t help see Mount Rainier from his house.

I can see Mount Rainier when it’s a really clear day, but I can see Mount Baker a lot of the time. Mount Baker’s like our Mount Fuji. Wherever you go around here, it’s in the background. We bought the house I live in the year after I did Requiem and I immediately started thinking about what I could do next to building on that experience.

You thought you could do a bookend to Requiem?

One of the things I like to do in my practice is consider the counter position. I’ll look at a problem or look at a work and ask, what is the opposite? And quite often the opposite tells you something else about the thing itself. In Glacial, field recordings of the Coleman Glacier at Mount Baker are activating musical instruments with sonic transducers that are mounted directly onto the instruments—which alters those sounds. So if we think about Requiem for a Glacier being a group of musicians going and performing for a glacier, then with Glacial, we can think about the glacier performing for the people.

You made an installation video that goes at a glacial speed.

I was trying to reference the speed of a glacier, but you know it’s hard to understand the speed of a glacier. The work is five hours long, but for a glacier, that’s like, a blink of an eye. For a human, it seems like a long time, but it’s really a short period of time. But since it’s also moving really slow, it allowed me to work with duration. It allowed me to think about how people experience this thing and also recognising that most people aren’t going to sit there for five hours.

You could spend five hours with a sculpture, but you probably aren’t going to. But if you walk away from the sculpture and come back you’re going to encounter it slightly differently. If you go to the McIntosh Gallery and you watch Glacial for a few minutes, it might not seem like it’s changing very much, but if you go in and watch Requiem and then come back to Glacial it will be completely different. It is constantly evolving the whole time.

When I made Requiem – it’s forty minutes long, I thought people would spend about five minutes and then they would leave. But something interesting happened, at the first opening people came and they sat through the whole thing, and if they arrived in the middle, they watched till the end and then they watched it again from the beginning. At the time I thought, well, maybe it’s because it’s where so many people participated in it that they want to watch the whole thing. But the next time we showed it the same thing happened. And then when we showed it in Port Moody and there was nobody that was involved with it, people still sat through it! I wondered, what is it about this piece? It invites you to slow down and people would talk about these transformative experiences they were having. So I started thinking about what is different about this than other forms of culture that we’re all consuming? With social media, you’re scrolling past information, and it’s very fast. You’re looking at one-minute videos. In Hollywood movies, there’s a cut every ten seconds or less.

I realized, that this work invites you to spend time with your own thoughts and so Glacial builds on that and says, okay, what happens if we extend this to instead of forty minutes, it’s five hours? What kind of experiences are people going to have with that?

Intentionally slow?

It’s still an experiment in that the work has only been shown twice, but people seem to be responding to it very positively. When it was in Kamloops last year, some folks were planning the day out: I’m going to bring some snacks, do some edibles and sit there for the whole day. To take in the whole work. That wasn’t a reaction that I was expecting, but it’s also a reaction that I’m not opposed to. I like the idea that someone might want to alter their state to try to experience the work, to get out of their everyday way of being, and mentally shift their perception.

Is this Conceptual Art? How would you characterise it?

I love Conceptual Art, it’s one of the types of art I’m interested in. I would say that my work has a conceptual basis, it comes from concept, but I think it manifests itself in a way that is more experiential. So it’s not just a concept that you can tell people about. I think there is a concept there that you could tell people about and you would get. Like if I describe Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, which has the photo of a chair and the definition of a chair and the chair itself. You know, if I describe that or say, show a picture of it. In a way, you almost don’t need to see it, or describe it.

Chris Burden, he has a piece called Shoot, where he got someone to shoot him in the arm. It’s a mind object. You don’t need to see him get shot. People can get the work immediately and they can carry it around their mind. I think there’s aspects of that in my work. It can function in that way. But I also think that if you really want to “get” the work, you have to go and plop yourself in front of it and experience it.

The other category box would be Performance Art? You really have to be there?

Sure, it is performance, the performance that we did on the glacier in Requiem. It’s performance and then the video, that’s for the gallery, meant for another audience. In Glacial, the fact that the instruments are being animated by field recordings of a glacier melting, there’s something performative about that, and it’s happening over and over again because the sounds that you hear coming out of those instruments aren’t the sounds that are going into it. They’ve been transformed by those instruments in real time.

So the transducers basically take the place of somebody with a human hand bowing strings.

That’s right. And in that way the glacier is able to play these instruments and these sounds that are naturalistic. They’re coming out of cello and the cello is a cultural instrument. It’s a cultural artefact, and it’s being animated by these naturalistic sounds, and it’s transforming these naturalistic sounds into something that is no longer natural. So what is it? Is it culture at that point? And so these are some of the concepts I’m working with– this idea of translation from the natural to the cultural, and issues of representation are wrapped up in that process as well. It’s no longer a glacier. It’s a representation of a glacier.

Why a press release in Latin?

So that’s for Requiem For A Glacier. If you listen to Mozart’s Requiem mass, it’s in Latin. I had these Latin texts that I was referring to because I wanted to refer to traditional requiems and I also had the press release announcing the government’s approval of this year round resort community. I wanted to deal with that as well. One text is in English and one’s in Latin. I was wondering, do I make the Latin English or do I go back and forth between Latin and English? And at certain point, I came to the realisation that if I made it Latin, it would suddenly become less didactic… it would be more open-ended. It’s also the language of science, and it’s the language of the law. A lot of legal terms are in Latin. In a way, it took it out of the realm of being more prescriptive and because most people don’t speak Latin, it becomes more open to interpretation at the same time. It also makes it sound more scientific , legal, and religious or spiritual. On the other hand, it also renders it unintelligible, which I also like. It becomes, you know, for most people they’re hearing nothing that they recognise. So it becomes nonsense in a way. I liked all of those aspects of introducing the Latin.

Instead of asking why glaciers, for you, maybe I should ask, why climate change? Is that the most important thing that 8 billion humans should focus on?

It is the single largest existential crisis facing us all. We’ve already surpassed five of the major tipping points already. If we haven’t already come to terms with it, we need to figure out what we can do to prevent it from getting worse. We had just had the warmest February on record, worldwide.

Yes, I live around the Great Lakes and they didn’t freeze this year.

We are experiencing global warming on an unprecedented scale, and it’s causing all kinds of climate catastrophes. Some people think that it’s too late to do anything and that we should just forget about it and party until it’s over. But, if there’s anything that anyone could do, anything to make it better, even a certain percentage better, it’s still better than making it worse, and there’s been a lot of progress as well that’s being made. The transition to clean energy is happening a lot quicker than people expected it to.

I agree.

And there’re new technological breakthroughs that are happening. I think it’s something that’s really important for people to consider. In the case of glaciers, we’re seeing the effects of climate change happen faster. These things are becoming kind of emblematic of the change that’s underway. In my work as an artist, initially I thought, if I tell people about this, maybe enough people will find out about it and then we’ll do something about it.

However, this has shifted over the past ten years. I’m not so interested in warning anymore. I’m more interested in considering how can we imagine a new culture? A culture that moves beyond the systems and ideas that we’re caught up in right now, like late market capitalism. How can we move beyond that? And are there alternate cultural models that we can look to like indigenous cultures, where people were living on the land and stewarding that land in a generative way. For me, there’s a lot of optimism in looking at things from that perspective.

Is it fair to say that’s what you’re really up to here with this installation?

I would say that those works were important for me to do in order for me to move, conceptually in that direction towards my future works, so each time I feel like I’m getting maybe a little bit closer and a little bit closer, but it’s still a process. I think of my work as a way for me to navigate and understand the world, and then I hope that it provides opportunities for experiences for people to similarly have a kind of t transformational process of their own that will take them in their own direction.

A friend responded to your work saying, “It’s like things are slipping away. For all of us, not just the glaciers. The detachment from what our focus should be.”

I think a lot of people feel detached from the natural world. When in fact the air that we’re breathing right now is part of the natural world. The things that we consume are part of the natural world and you yourself are part of the natural world. The micro-biome that exists within your belly is part of the natural world. We are ecosystems. We’re not separate from the environment. We’re breathing in part of the atmosphere and breathing it back out again and what we breathe in and breathe out is the opposite of what trees breathe in and breathe out. So we’re all deeply connected, but for many reasons people have lost a sense of that connection. If we can collectively find a way to have that realisation that we’re constantly in relation to the world around us, then maybe we’ll understand that it’s an extension of us and we’re an extension of it.

We need to find that relationship and restore that balance, and if the work can bring people in that direction then I think it succeeds.

My friend noted that the music encapsulates the whole atmosphere in the video installation, so it’s not just the visuals.

One of the things that I discovered in doing Requiem For A Glacier is that there’s a power in the human voice. It has a transformative effect on audiences. In orchestrating that, I don’t think I was completely aware of that when I made the work, but it’s an effect of the work. It’s something that I felt was important for me to weave the audio and visuals together so they become inseparable. It really is one unified piece. So I think, if you’re thinking about them as separate things then you’re maybe not quite getting it.

Portrait of Paul Walde taken below the Farnham Glacier summer 2022. Photo credit: Pat Morrow

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on an opera, entitled, Forestorium, that deals with the primary forests of Vancouver Island from human perspectives and the struggles that are ongoing with them, as well as the ecological importance of these diverse and unique ecosystems. I plan on staging it in a remaining old growth stand and will then present an indoor concert version in the coming season.

* * *

Vincent Cherniak is a writer in London, ON

On Glaciers: a conversation with artist Paul Walde and environmental scientist Emmanuelle Arnaud can be streamed at McIntosh Gallery.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *