Dr. Sara Fraker, associate professor of oboe at the Fred Fox School of Music, was one of the four recipients of the new Office for Research Innovation and Impact (RII) production seed grants, which funded a collaborative project involving oboes, woodwinds, composers, biologists and tree-rings.
RII has recognized that scholarly activity at the University of Arizona spans multiple fields and mediums and has launched these dedicated seed grants to aid in the production of original works and scholarships. Dr. Fraker’s grant-winning project Performing Dendrochronology: Tree-Ring Music for Three Woodwinds is inspired by methods and data sets from the Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research (LTRR) and involves the creation of a musical composition/visual art piece for live performance and digital media.
The project is a collaborative behemoth. Fraker is working alongside Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth, plant population biologist Margaret Evans, art professor and designer Kelly Leslie, and fellow woodwind colleagues Jackie Glazier and Marissa Olegario.
“We’ve only had one meeting with all of us together,” laughed Fraker. “We’ve decided that Lachlan will first collaborate with Margaret on creating the music first. Although she is a wonderful scientist, Margaret is also a dancer and has an artistic mind, making her great to collaborate with. Once the composition is completed, Kelly will then decipher the visual component.” Although the premiere format is uncertain due to COVID-19, this creative interdisciplinary approach to the arts and sciences will certainly be one to look out for.
The intersection between music and ecology is not something entirely foreign to Fraker. Her inspiration behind the current project stems from a previous commission. In 2015, she commissioned composer Asha Srinivasan to write a work based on plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Fraker was fascinated by Wall’s concept of the grammar of animacy – the idea that inanimate things in the natural world can be thought of animated in personhood – and how it connected to music, as music is simply sound animated through time. Performing Dendrochronology, as a result, grew out of that very naturally.
Although Skipworth is composing with the data sets provided from LTRR, Fraker stresses the importance of expressive music. “We are not focused entirely on data sonification, but more on the idea that environmentalism can converge into different art forms, whether that be in music, visual art, dance, etc.,” said Fraker. “Naturally he (Skipworth) is the composer and I never want to impose on him what my preconceived notions on what the piece should be, but we are not focused on the strict sonification of data.”
Funding for the arts has always been difficult, but Fraker is grateful for this grant that allows her to further her research and creative endeavors. She is especially thankful to Ellen McMahon, associate dean for research at the College of Fine Arts, who has been her guide throughout this process. Although her world premiere recording of ultra-modernist Johanna Beyer’s music has been halted due to COVID-19, Fraker feels fortunate to perform dendrochronology.