But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor… 

Breaking Earth began at DiverseWorks ArtSpace in Houston, Texas.  One Sunday afternoon in December, 2005, after a performance of SONA in the DiverseWorks performance space, Alfred Guzzetti and I walked into the DiverseWorks gallery space and were struck with the idea of filling it with sounds and moving pictures.  Newly accessible high-definition video gave us the hope that this idea could be realized.  We re-read Thoreau’s Walden in search of a starting point, then traveled together to Mount Desert Island in Maine, where, for ten rainy, overcast days we recorded sounds and images and talked about possible forms for the installation.  Wet and chilled, we luxuriated in the sounds of wind and rain, the lapping of the tidal water, the grays and monochromes of the landscape and sky. 

Breaking Earth, Multimedia Installation (2008), ca. 21’

for five large projection surfaces and eleven loudspeakers

Materials available from Trigon Music Press

Slides taken at DiverseWorks ArtSpace at Breaking Earth 
Photo credits: Eric Zapata & Jacqueline Jocson

From the outset we conceived of Breaking Earth in the terms of musical composition: there would be solos, duets, trios, and an occasional tutti, with the “voices” disposed in space like those of an ensemble.  There would also be movements: a fast intense one, followed by a slow, ruminative one, and a more fragmented incisive finale leading to a coda.  We experimented with groupings of screens and loudspeakers and with notions of leading the audience from one area of the gallery to the next.  In the subsequent months, we began to investigate the idea of the circle (and the cycle) as a way of thinking about the whole.  Successive images might move, though not in a consistently linear way, slowly around an array of screens disposed in a large oval, while sounds, in an independent and sometimes contradictory fashion, traversed the ring of speakers.  Time too has its cycle and we decided to mark it in the materials from which we built the coda and in the interval between iterations of the piece.  During this interval, the composed nature of the piece recedes: the image returns to stillness while the sound opens to admit the live, real-time environment outside the gallery walls. 

As we recorded and processed the images and sounds, we began to elaborate a polarity between contemplations of the real and transformations of it.  Images elusively changed into others and sounds embarked on a journey that took them far from their recognizable sources.  Our goal was to recover an experience of the natural world lost through familiarity and to restore the disconcerting strangeness of that experience.

In realizing Breaking Earth, we benefited from the assistance of many friends and institutions.   Matthew Fionda of Adtech Systems in Sudbury, Massachusetts provided invaluable technical advice, and Marion Stroud gave us the rich opportunity of two residencies in her Acadia Summer Art Program, where many of the sounds and images were captured. 

Breaking Earth was commissioned by Meet The Composer Commissioning Music USA and DiverseWorks ArtSpace, with generous support provided by the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Francis Goelet Trust, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, Target, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; grant support also from the Joseph H. Clark bequest to Harvard University.

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Introduction to Breaking Earth

In these excerpts, images in the top row represent screens at the gallery front.  Images in the bottom row represent screens in the rear. 

Henry David Thoreau,  Walden