Before a composer can successfully shape sound, he must learn to listen. In the case of Nathan Hall’s compositions, the audience must listen successfully in order to find the music’s shape.
The Denver composer produces work that's ambient yet participatory, inviting listeners to commune with sounds both extraordinary and ordinary and then think about what they’re hearing on a new and adventurous plane. Hall’s gentle inquiries reach out naturally to an audience, demanding a shared experiential passage between composer and community.
The community part is what inspired Jaime Kopke, the Boulder Public Library’s program manager, to invite Hall to come aboard as a resident artist at the BPL; Kopke, who served in a similar role at the Denver Art Museum, had been impressed with Hall's stint there in 2015. After meeting with the library brass in Boulder, Hall was asked to serve a more complex, yearlong residency comprising a series of community-engagement activities throughout 2017. They saw it as a unique tie-in to other unorthodox community programs already in place there, like the BLDG 61 Makerspace.
“It was exciting to think how my music could refer to different aspects at the Denver Art Museum, but this is different,” says Hall of his lengthier stay at the BPL. “It’s more about what the community needs and how the library is a resource for Boulder. I have to think about how my music can serve the community in more ways than just people playing on a stage.
“It’s an interesting responsibility,” he adds. “I'm stepping outside my comfort zone a little, and that’s a good challenge for me.”
Hall began exploring that challenge in January, and has already led free workshops on graphic notation and musical-jewelry making. “I put out prototypes of what I thought people might want to make, but everyone went rogue and did what they wanted,” he says of the latter, which sprang from his own jewelry-making hobby. “It turns out you don't have to follow the IKEA assembly catalogue.” Next on the agenda, beginning May 6 and running through May 17, The Unfurling, an interactive gallery exhibit that demands thoughtful — and entertaining — public participation.
The centerpiece of The Unfurling is a “giant paper scroll, six feet wide and eighty feet long or so,” Hall says. “The community will draw on it over the time of the exhibition, and the scroll will continually be rolled up from one end to refresh the surface.” But, he continues, “it’s not just free-for-all graffiti time.” Instead, prompts will be provided to those participating in the mark-making, which will later be interpreted into music by live performers. “I’m curious to see what the Boulder community and the library value as issues in their town and city, and how that might be expressed through gestures interpreted in music. The idea is to put down community values on the paper and hear them flow out into music.”
Two performances are planned during The Unfurling, for which musicians will transform the scroll markings into sounds: “We’ll have one concert midway, so people can see its progress,” Hall says. “Then we’ll have a final concert with the whole piece.” Also scheduled in May is a concert of Hall compositions, performed by Denver’s Playground Ensemble.
Beyond that, Hall is looking forward to leading an ambient Boulder Sound Walk in June. “We’ll have a little instruction beforehand about what listening is and how, when we hear sound, we process what we hear — what is noise versus music, and what we take for granted, sound-wise.” Also in June, he’ll lead a related listening workshop. “I want to get participants to re-create sounds of Boulder using their voices — for a kind of mini urban chorale.” The takeaway from these experiential exercises, he says, is a heightened sense of place. “We’re very focused on how nature looks, but we don't appreciate as much how it sounds.”
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There’s more to come in the fall, including a musical audio tour of the library that’s still in planning stages. But all in all, Hall, bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm, feels up to the task. “The library’s been so supportive, so gung-ho about everything, so I really feel like I'm doing the right thing.” Drop by the Boulder Public Library and put him to the test.
The Boulder Public Library’s inaugural Meet Your Maker Maker-in-Residence program with composer Nathan Hall continues through the end of the year. The public is invited to participate in The Unfurling, May 6 through 17 in the Canyon Gallery. Related scroll performances are on May 11 and 17. Visit Nathan Hall’s website for a complete list of dates and times for future events during his residency at the BPL.