This Mighty River: Connections to the Riverside Park Sound Garden

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Artist / Organizer Shanai Matteson interviews composer / director JG Everest about his ongoing Sound Gardens project and recent creation and research fellowship at the Akiing (Welcome Water Protectors Center) near Palisade, MN – where he composed a new large-scale sound + performance installation, and where the Line 3 Oil Pipeline crosses the Mississippi River.  Everest’s latest work, The Riverside Park Sound Garden, premieres this weekend in Minneapolis on the banks and bluffs above the Mississippi River, at historic Riverside Park. It’s part of the People’s Center’s “Because Your Health Matters” community wellness initiative, funded in part by the City of Minneapolis’ Creative Response Fund.

Shanai Matteson: I think it’s so strange that our paths did not cross sooner. There seem to be so many similarities in what we’re pursuing with our artistic work, and we’ve even had many of the same mentors and collaborators. Could you talk a little bit about some of the influences leading up to your ongoing Sound Gardens project?

JG Everest: It’s interesting – and I’m just making this connection now – one of the most impactful experiences and influences on my current focus towards outdoor, site-specific work also took place on the Mississippi River, in Minneapolis, back in 2005. I participated in a large-scale site-specific event called “Landmark: 24 Hours on the Stone Arch Bridge” created by a collective of six artists in different disciplines called “Local Strategy”, led by playwright Lisa D’amour and director Katie Pearl, and including video artist Eleanor Savage, composer Joel Pickard, choreographer Emily Johnson, and Sculptor Krista Kelley Walsh. They had all spent a year collaboratively researching and developing the piece, creating a 24-hour immersive, durational experience of several intersecting layers of installation, performance, history, ecology, weather, and community that featured 80 musicians, at least 50 dancers / performers, and a constant unfolding of collaborative spontaneity.  

What was so striking to me was that this historic, recently converted pedestrian bridge, across which I bike-commuted to work nearly everyday, and which had this central place in my daily life, was suddenly and forever transformed in this powerful, magical, and meaningful way. And similarly, my relationship with my hometown and its history, geography, and ecology was transformed and deepened. And the event built community across disciplines and demographics – there were other artists who I first met there and who I went on to have deep, meaningful friendships and collaborations with afterwards, including Joel Pickard, with whom I formed BLACKFISH and who created the Thank-you Bar with myself and Emily Johnson in the years that followed.  Both Joel and Emily have been huge influences on my work and approach, as have Lisa and Katie, to a lesser extent. 

And a more recent influence and direct inspiration for my Water Suite (Four Seasonal Sound Gardens, 2018) was visiting Standing Rock in 2016 and witnessing the power and sacrifice and bravery of the Water Protectors and the intentional communities that formed around them. People coming from all over the world, from so many tribal nations, to stand up for water and stand against the colonial, extractive, short-sighted and exploitative greed that is driving so much destruction and degradation. In the face of such dark developments, and increasing isolation and contentiousness, I just felt compelled to pour my energy into work that I felt could bring people together in ways that could transcend all of our widening divisions, our culture of constant distraction, of increasing distance from the natural world. 

And in terms of my own compositional approach, I’ve been working with spatial scores for many years now, it really got started with Catalyst, and I’ve just wanted to continue to explore the possibilities – creatively, neurologically, spiritually – of what spatialized sound and music can offer us – especially the ways it allows for an integration with the natural world -we are so in need of deep healing and transformation – our survival literally depends on us being able to transform and transcend – and I’m trying to focus my work and energies in that direction. 

SM: That really resonates with me, why and how I’m so eager to work with other artists at a site of resistance like this. I can’t remember exactly when or where the idea emerged, but could you talk about why you were interested in coming up north to install a sound garden on the Mississippi here at Anishinaabe Akiing?

JGE: Well I had heard from my friend and collaborator Ben Durrant that our old friend Zak Sally had wanted to get in touch with me about a project he was working on. So I reached out to Zak and invited him to a “pop-up” installment of the Fall Sound Garden that we did on West River Parkway in Minneapolis in early October, and afterwards we had a long phone conversation in which he described the site at Akiing and the rough idea of the Fall Gathering event that he was helping organize. He’d been trying to figure out what would be an appropriate way to have sound art / music be a part of the event, and really appreciated the spatial, immersive approach I’d been developing. He wasn’t asking me to bring the whole Sound Garden up, as it’s quite a logistical and technical challenge, but once I heard him describe the site and circumstances of the gathering, it was clear to me that this was something I had to do. It felt like everything I’d been working on up to that point had brought me to this particular opportunity, without knowing it.

I had originally composed the Fall Sound Garden for Manomin Park, in Fridley MN, where Rice Creek flows into the Mississippi, a powerful confluence with deep history, a floodplain ecosystem right on the banks of the river. So the score was composed with and for the river, and for the Fall season; and then having just presented a version in the Cities, it was all loaded up and ready to roll, so I really felt like things were aligning, opening to this opportunity. And when I asked a few of my crew / collaborators if they’d like to join me pro bono, they all said yes, which made it actually possible. 

SM: Of course it was Zak! I love how these kinds of collaborations evolve organically. Zak had been to visit us here at Akiing before and during the Stop Line 3 camp, and we’d been thinking together about ways to bring his community-focused printmaking work – and his love of music and his own sound practice – together with some organizing I was doing with artists and activists. I remember him calling me right after visiting your Fall Sound Garden and saying, “You have to hear this…”

That first event, back in October, was so profound. I mean, for me it was a real turning point in how I thought about my role as an artist organizer, and a witness. What were some of the things about that gathering that still stick with you?

JGE: There was so much, you’re right – really profound. And it revealed and confirmed so many seemingly obvious things that hadn’t been as clear or apparent before. It was an opportunity for the work to just be a gift and a means toward healing and transformation – it wasn’t a “show” or an “arts event” – and that was so striking and so liberating. I remember I had brought along signs that we usually post, giving credit to all the collaborators and contributors, as an “artwork” and all of those conventions, but I quickly realized that it made no sense to post them – putting any names or credit out there seemed wholly inappropriate. And similarly, when we tried to have a “schedule” or a “plan” for the event, it felt completely pointless – we had to let go and let it unfold on its own – trust in the gathering and our intentions and each other, and listen for what we needed to hear. This feels so much more aligned with how my practice needs to operate, as an exercise in listening and recognizing where things are flowing, and letting go of conventions of presentation. I remember we crossed paths at one point that day, and we both commented on our learning curves in this regard – it kind of helped me let go of some of the confusion and even shame I was feeling for not recognizing the moment for what it was at first. 

SM: That letting go of control, and of convention, has so many lessons layered into it! And some of them are really uncomfortable. I’m used to running around at these kinds of events, making sure everyone has what they need and knows where to go, or when things are happening – it keeps me from really immersing myself in the moment. And it was hard for me to say to myself, and to others, when they would ask for that kind of direction, “I don’t know.” And when people ask, “What are we doing this for?” That’s really a very personal question, or should be. One answer we heard back from the land and water itself was that this is all actually a gift. We are here, giving and receiving these really profound gifts – in the face of destruction and disregard, that is a kind of resistance.

For me, the opportunity to provide this installation experience in this way – as a gift to the river, the trees, the water protectors, the ancestors, and ourselves – was what the work had always called for, been built for, but too often it was getting caught up in the trappings of needing to be an attraction, needing to justify itself through marketing language and grant applications. But the gathering at Akiing drew out the deeper, ritual / ceremonial possibilities for these approaches – It was a real medicine – for those of us installing it, and for everyone gathering and spending time in it. And I didn’t realize how much it was needed there until it was happening, until you and others began sharing your own experiences, the effects it was having.  

the Fall Sound Garden installed at the Akiing Water Protectors Welcome Center for the Fall Gathering in October 2021.

SM: Yes, exactly. It was powerful for everyone to have this experience together, of letting go of some things, and immersing ourselves in a familiar place at such a tender time. I heard from so many people who were here during the destruction of the pipeline corridor – when so many trees were cut, and we witnessed such violations of land and of our spirits and our relationships – that this was a healing day for them too. That night I was lying on the ground in the dark forest, looking up at the trees and listening to the soundscape you’d created, and I started wondering if the trees or the animals around us were also relieved to hear this expression of care for this place, as opposed to the sounds of earth movers and saws and pipeline workers… I felt very close to them all in that moment.

It’s always really fascinating for me to see artists in process – and as a host, and as part of a sprawling (and ever changing) cohort – I get a lot of joy from seeing other artists deepen their connections and grow. What are some of the ways you are growing as you expand this series of Sound Garden projects?

JGE: I feel so grateful to have this model to work in – to be site-specific and outdoors / nature-based. So much of my process is researching a place – its history, ecology, community – which is constantly piquing my curiosity and also revealing new layers and connections, and interconnections that feel so rich. And the Sound Gardens are massively collaborative and yet deeply personal and solitary, creatively. It’s an incredibly vast canvas / palette to create with, constantly providing challenges and opportunities to experiment and explore. And now the last couple years, I’ve been able to really lean into the healing and transformational potential for this work, and that feels like the best way for both the work and myself as an artist to expand and continue to grow. So that’s become more the focus recently – seeking those healing opportunities and contexts for the work. 

SM: This past winter, you spent a little time at Akiing with me, Rory Wakemup, Jayanthi Rajasa, Zak Sally and a handful of others. We had planned to have an audience, another gathering, but in the end it was too cold. Still, you installed the Winter Sound Garden down in the woods along the river. What was that like?

JGE: It was so cold!! But also so inspiring! And it’s kind of wild how it all evolved. Back in October, at the Fall Gathering, I had been sitting around a late-night bonfire with Rory and John Kim and had mentioned that you were interested in having another gathering in the winter, which got me excited about bringing the Winter Sound Garden up and onto the frozen river,  since it had been originally created for frozen Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. And Rory’s eyes immediately lit up and he shared this idea for these ice sculptures, ice domes that he’d been wanting to create / experiment with for a while, but hadn’t had an opportunity. He said, “it would have to be insanely cold to work.” LOL. So when the event was coming together months later and the weather forecast was showing extreme cold, and everyone started getting worried and bailing, I was remembering that that was what Rory needed. And I didn’t know if I’d even try to put the Sound Garden up, but once Jayanthi and Zak showed up, and everyone got excited for it, I decided to go for it.  Even though it was getting down to -20! 

SM: Yeah, I was really torn about canceling that gathering, but also really glad to have that time with you all as a smaller group. And seeing Rory work on his dream project, which – he’s just such a force when it comes to getting something done even when he’s not sure how – that was inspiring to me too. And the way that all these connections formed around the fire is such a beautiful expression of what we do here and why. It’s definitely not something that could happen in the city, I don’t think.

Even though it was just a handful of us up there, I found it such a blessing to be able to install and sit with the sound garden for hours, wandering through, listening, noticing. It’s always shifting, evolving, and I’m always getting more familiar with how the shifting layers ebb and flow. And the thing is, it is SO quiet there – so little light and noise pollution – it is an incredible and ideal location for these sound installations. And it’s so rare to find places like that – increasingly rare. I remember Zak asked me if I had “turned up” the volume on the Fall Sound Garden at Akiing from when he’d come to the pop-up version in Mpls – and I hadn’t at all – it was just so much more quiet, there was so much less noise pollution – that the Sound Garden seemed three times louder. And so even though it was just a few of us out there in February, it was absolutely magical – it felt like I was doing it for myself, the river, the moon, the trees. I was freezing cold, but I couldn’t leave it. Trees Popping. Moon and stars reflecting off the fresh, deep snow. It was incredible. And working in parallel with Rory and what he was working on, working on the river, with water and ice – to have those domes glowing on the river while the Sound Garden was playing in the forest – it was so perfect, so inspiring. And to have Jayanthi there, too, one of my all-time heroes, I just felt inspired to go for it, see what might happen.  

Rory Wakemup working on his ice domes on the frozen Mississippi River at Akiing.
Artist Rory Wakemup
JG Everest making adjustments to speakers in the Winter Sound Garden at Akiing in Feb 2022.

Frostbite and all! After that, it made sense to find a way to bring you all back here, and to keep evolving these ideas in collaboration. I think you might have been our very first artist in residence, or research fellow? I still don’t have the language for it, but you spent some dedicated time here developing your work. 

Your new project at Riverside Park in Minneapolis premieres this weekend, and was mostly composed while on that residency at Akiing in March – can you describe the connections between the two places and how that has shaped this particular piece? 

JGE: Well, the residency at Akiing was also a perfect timing, a perfect gift type thing. I had first brought a sound garden event to Riverside Park back in 2020, during the pandemic, as part of a community wellness initiative by my health clinic, the Cedar Riverside People’s Center & Clinics, in partnership with Springboard for the Arts. Back then, we had simply re-mounted the Fall Sound Garden there, in the park, as an offering to the neighborhood and wider community for gathering safely to find joy and build community after so much isolation and trauma. And I had never really known about Riverside Park – it’s the oldest park in Minneapolis, and has so many unique characteristics, including being a rare instance of being both a typical neighborhood residential park, with playground and soccer fields, and yet when you follow the trail down the bluff into the gorge, you’re entering a national park and end up on the banks of the Mississippi. It’s really profound. And so I wanted to dig in more, to do something more intentional for Riverside Park, and so I put together a larger scale project to create a wholly new sound garden for Riverside Park this spring.  But I needed some creative time and space to compose and develop the score and larger designs, and when the opportunity to work at Akiing came up, it felt like another serendipitous opening, and I just followed the path. 

SM: The interplay between these very different, but also very similar and connected landscapes is really interesting. How are you working that out, in terms of the relationship between sound and site? 

I’ve always composed each of my sound garden scores for each particular site while being immersed in that site, onsite. I compose there and then present it there. I have a remote / portable recording studio setup that I can bring on location to be able to respond directly to the place, and develop a flow back and forth between my creating and connecting to the site. But the project at Riverside Park and the residency at Akiing presented me with a wholly new possibility – of composing and creating in one place, with an intention of bringing one place to the other – of connecting the two sites – each on the west bank of the Mississippi, but hundreds of miles up/downstream from each other. It’s been really exciting and challenging to compose / create in this new way, and it feels really rich – I’m not sure how it will play out, but just engaging in the process, the practice of connecting the two places, has been really powerful and opened up a whole new realm of possibility for my approaches. 

For example, my residency time coincided with the start of the Sugar Bush at Akiing, the Ojibwe new year, with over 100 trees tapped for syrup, and so for one of the scenes, I ended up using field recordings of the Maple sap dripping into the metal buckets – each one clanging a different pitch, at a different meter and percussive patterning – but spatialized throughout the forest. It was amazing. And I built a scene around it, that will be installed at Riverside Park – so we’ll be hearing the trees from Akiing – the sap flowing and dripping – amongst the trees at Riverside Park. Trees on the banks of the same river, hundreds of miles apart. It’s not a huge section and it’s subtle, but it’s there – along with all the other elements that sprung forth while onsite at Akiing. 

But it’s also the more subtle and vibrational, resonance of the place that I’m interested in working with – I knew that by creating and installing this spatial score for and at Akiing, it would forever be embedded in the work, no matter where I brought it. And sure enough, as I’m walking around Riverside Park and mapping the site and measuring out how each speaker will be placed, I’m re-tracing my steps from Akiing, literally overlaying that place onto this one – in my memory and in my designs – the landscape at Akiing is fully present as I walk around Riverside Park, under my feet, pacing out distances and orientation. So my original idea is manifesting as I’d hoped or anticipated that it would – I’ve infused this new sound score with the place of its origin, and now it travels with the work, informs my relationship to the new site. It’s really fascinating, and I’m excited to have been given this new twist in my approach for this project. 

SM: Ha! And I’ll be bringing some of the maple syrup we made with that sap – so people will have a chance to taste a gift from the trees and the river too – and I plan to bring some of the poems I ended up printing (on Zak Sally’s old Risograph) of Lisa Yankton’s poem, which you introduced to me “Wahognugnu” – that poem, and Lisa, who also became part of this elaborating web of artists and land and water stories. I’m looking forward to what it will be like for me, and others who were here at Anishinaabe Akiing when some of those sounds were being gathered – to hear them in a different place. I love that part of Minneapolis, especially along the river – and have spent a lot of time there too, reflecting on some of the lessons from Dakota artists and teachers I’ve been so fortunate to know. Maybe we can resume some of this back-and-forth afterwards? I know there will be even more to that river.

Maple Trees tapped for sap during the Sugar Bush at Akiing, March 2022.

Shanai Matteson is a visual artist, writer, mother and cultural organizer. She lives in the rural community of Palisade, in northern Minnesota, which is where she grew-up. In her recent visual arts projects, Matteson explores legacies of resource extraction and their impact on our bodies and the land and water that sustain us. She is currently working to co-organize cultural and community space at the Water Protector Welcome Center, part of Anishinaabe Akiing, an indigenous land trust and community development initiative led by activist Winona Laduke and other Anishinaabe water protectors. As a non-native woman whose family settled in Aitkin County over 100 years ago, and whose ancestors labored in extractive industries, she sees her creative work and environmental justice organizing as a means of truth-telling and repair. Her personal website is shanai.work She also works as a cultural and campaign organizer with Honor the Earth honorearth.org