With Meditative Attention
An Interview with Leanne Darling
by Colin Tucker
Violist/Composer Leanne Darling is a currently adjunct professor of viola at SUNY Buffalo and head teacher/mentor at Buffalo String Works. A classically trained violist with degrees from the Eastman School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music, Darling was assistant principal viola with the Florida West Coast Symphony and the Missouri Chamber Orchestra. In 2001 she moved to New York City where she studied with jazz violinists Julie Lyonn Lieberman and Rob Thomas, and classical Arabic music with virtuoso oudist/violinist Simon Shaheen and Bassam Saba. While in New York Darling collaborated with Cedar Lake Dance Company, and poets Robert Bly and Clarissa Pinkola-Estes as well as numerous other dance and theater companies. In 2008 she founded the genre breaking string trio Trio Tritticali, an eclectic rock/jazz/world group for whom she composes and arranges. She received two Meet the Composer grants and won the New York Innovative Theater Award for best original music in 2007. A prolific arranger for strings, Darling’s Arabic composition Isma’a for middle school orchestra has been published by Alfred Music. Darling’s speciality is composing original material for solo amplified viola and loops. She released a solo CD Spiral in 2007 containing all original looping compositions, and since moving to Buffalo has performed at Pausa Art House, the Elmwood Avenue Arts Festival, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, and the Music is Art Festival.
I. Techniques of Attention
CT: To start out, I’m curious how this project fits into your total musical activities, which are quite wide-ranging, but maybe have not included anything quite like this.
LD: The closest experience I’ve had has been not music but engagement with Zen Buddhism, especially silent retreats with extended periods outdoors not specifically practicing meditation but just being outdoors, fully present in the moment in the environment. I had a viola teacher in Austria who practices Zen Buddhism who led such retreats at his house. We didn’t play, there were not instruments, but he felt that meditation is helpful to overall musical development. He encouraged all his students to participate, and it was a very rewarding experience.
CT: Are there techniques of attention you developed in mediation that you were able to build on for PLACE, or did you need to develop completely new techniques to perform the piece?
LD: I definitely used the meditation skills I had practiced before: especially in taking in everything. I think the piece lent itself really well to the meditative process of emptying your mind, and whatever comes up comes up, but you’re able to focus the mind on the moment, being in tune with whatever happened sonically. There were long periods of time for which I was really present.
And I feel like I got better at it, going along. At [the second performance at] Artpark I felt like I was really jamming with it. We could wander about a wider space, and there was more stuff going on. There was a kind of Zen thing that I thought about: there is discomfort from sitting long periods of time. You think “I am that pain.” There is no difference between who I am and that thing. As a part of my process, there was a bit of that: that sound and me aren’t different. I am that sound.
As far as achieving that feeling… it was interesting to think about. In meditation, if you can focus 100% of your attention on this one thing, it no longer hurts. There’s a kind of resistance, “Ah, pain.” If you can eliminate that relationship, it’s like, “I own this pain, I am this pain.” It really does help.
Attempting that was helpful. Thinking, “Okay, I’m going to meet this sound right here. This is the volume.” It is cool to move towards it: one is meeting the sound, becoming one with the sound. That was helpful for me, at least in Artpark. It was really hard the first few times—finding the sounds and feeling like you could connect with them. I really wanted to connect with the sounds. I wasn’t feeling it so much at first. At the silos, there were not too many different ambient sounds, it was more challenging.
CT: You had a great comment about this in rehearsals. You mentioned that sometimes if one is sustaining a long sound that after a while one isn’t really listening to it.
LD: And that your brain wants to move on. Because you’re used to moving on: you pick up the viola and play one sound, then another, and another. In fact, in minimalist pieces, or in a repeating drum pattern, I find it really challenging to not change.
II. Revealing Location
CT: Were there particular things you appreciated about the performance locations after performing in them?
LD: Silo City is so varied. All of those textures, all in a kind of run down, dumpy place, it’s all quite interesting. I’d notice, “Here’s this train track, here’s the concrete crumbling away. If I step two feet back, I can get my voice to resonate in special ways.”
The other thing was the distances. Getting a sense of the vertical versus horizontal space: it was a pretty long space horizontally. I got an almost kinesthetic sense, a sonic sense of distances. I liked how the shapes and angles worked visually too.
CT: What about Artpark?
LD: It’s so varied, with coves and huts, and then a long field, the percussion garden, the theatre. It’s not a normal park. There’s an intentionality in the design. Everything was on different levels, less vertical than the silos, more of a roundness, more trees, more “natural” things, a river, the boats, the water sounds, vultures. More of an organic feeling environment. And rain.
III. Stringed Instruments in/as Environments
LD: And, at Artpark, the fact that you said that these [cheap, second-hand] instruments [utilized in Part 10) do not need to last beyond this performance. There was a little bit more of a no holds barred, “Let’s destroy things!” quality that was let loose in Part 10 at Artpark more than at Silos, since it was the second performance. The first performance was like “Okay, let’s experiment with this and see where it takes us,” and the second was like “We know where it takes us, let’s just go for it!” Really, it is this kind of playful thing where you have the opportunity to find sounds with this tool that you’ve been told your entire life to treat with utmost care, and it’s entirely breakable, and you can only do so much. Especially with bowed stringed instruments that are hollow: in my solo work, I like to do percussive actions, and I’m always thinking “I’m slapping the fingerboard too hard,” some violin maker is going to tell me, “uh oh, your fingerboard is warped.” The opportunity to discover that and not care about what it will do to the instrument long term is really super freeing.
Leanne Darling in Null Point’s rehearsal of PLACE part 10 at Silo City (June 2017)
CT: You never had the opportunity to do this before?
LD: No. For all of us string players it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure.
LD: But it really is discovery, finding new sounds, which I am all about. The bowed strings are so flexible and so versatile, especially the strings. One of my favorite moments in the Silo City performance occurred when I was scraping the violin against the corner of a cement platform—a rusty, corroded corner—and I was getting the string’s pitch to go up and down at the same time. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing what the string can do!” I could have sat there and done that for a long time. And I did—for maybe 15 minutes—trying different strings, and different places.
IV. Improvisation and Limitation
CT: You have a fair amount of experience with free improvisation. In making moment-to-moment decisions, did you draw on your free improvising experience, or did it feel different?
LD: It felt different. The directions were pretty specific. The sounds that we had to draw from were pretty limited. For me, that made it pretty structured.
With the vocalization section [Part 8], there was more there to work with, but this is just a vehicle for resonance, not music. That was challenging. I was really tempted to go to a musical place with that, so I had to hold myself back, and just make the sound and see where effects the environment.
V. Thresholds of Perception
CT: I’m curious about your experience performing Part 6.
LD: I thought of it like a game. My mind just goes there. I’m thinking about the relationship I have with this other thing, this other performer carrying this other sound. I was carrying a speaker playing white noise, while Zane [Merritt] was carrying a speaker projecting a 10 kHz square wave. His sound was so piercing, it carried in a different way. There was one point in the back of my head where I couldn’t hear him so well, so sometimes I would turn my head to ensure I could pick up his sound. It would disappear a bit. My perception of his sound changed with distance and motion, I thought it was really interesting.
CT: I’m curious about the dynamics of attention in that part. On one hand, you didn’t have any “notes” to play, but then there are all kinds of places your attention could go. How are you dividing your attention between your sound, Zane’s, and environment?
LD: Roughly equally. But the physical element of walking took up as much of my attention as listening. I was also thinking about how Zane’s sound changed. I thought, “it must be really hard for him to hear my sound,” which was much more diffuse. If our sounds were exchanged, I would be thinking much more about listening to the white noise if he were carrying it.
CT: What was it like performing for seven hours?
LD: I found the whole thing to be very relaxing, with the way it empties the mind, and it allowed me to enjoy the outdoor space. It was nice in that I didn’t feel like I had to be doing one particular thing when I wasn’t performing.
Leanne Darling and Zane Merritt in Null Point’s realization of PLACE part 6 at Silo City (June 16, 2017). Photo by Null Point.