Is it cold where you are? It’s 7F here, which makes the cold weather recordings of Cheryl E. Leonard a perfect accompaniment. Watershed is active and enthralling, existing on the invisible reef between field recording and improvisation. On the surface, this is a shore set, captured at various sites in California. Yet it’s not just oceans, but lakes, rivers, even caves; and the sounds are not restricted to water and ice. To quote Leonard, the instruments include “glass, driftwood, stones, shells, crab claws, bird bones, feathers, kelp, Japanese bowl gongs, Nepalese bells, water, and sand.” How can we not be intrigued?
One of the pleasures of walking the shore is searching the wrack line, something that exists near every body of water but that changes rapidly wherever there is a tide. One may find all manner of instrument, sea glass or garbage from another country. Leonard brings some of her tools to the beach (one might find a Nepalese bell washed up, but it’s more likely one will find a bell jellyfish), but others she encounters along the way, testing their sonic properties. One hears the backdrop of waves throughout “Confluences,” while Leonard contributes scraping, dragging and rubbing, in one extended sequence imitating the sound of woodwinds. It’s a reminder of the beauty borne on waves, as well as the ability of water to make some objects jagged and others smooth. But there’s a scientific angle to the recording as well, as it includes sounds captured during winter storms and historic high tides, leading to beach and cliff erosion and the loss of natural animal habitats.
As one might expect, “Frozen Over” is the sound of ice pinging and reverberating across the inner sections of Yosemite. A friend had contacted Leonard to inform her that the lakes were “making weird sounds” and she should get there as soon as possible! Fortunately (although again due to climate change) the area was easily accessible, an anomaly in winter. She returned to a California drought, one that exposed the vulnerability of the area. The state was ravaged by wildfires in 2018, making this recording particularly prescient, the bells and gongs a prophetic elegy. The final six minutes of the composition are especially active, filled with wind and the impact of colliding objects.
The title track begins in a cave, then traces the journey of water from stream to sea, akin to the work of Annea Lockwood. While listening, one remembers how much water can sound like glass, and vice versa; but of course glass is made of sand, while sand increasingly contains glass. By using percussive sounds to offset the dripping of stalactites and the rocking of ripples, Leonard creates a pleasant contrast that culminates in a middle section as rhythmic as the sea.
We can listen for beauty, we can read for knowledge, or both. We recommend Leonard’s album not only as a lovely duet between landscape and artist, but as a means of raising awareness. Enjoy these sounds now, before California falls into the sea; may it inspire a smaller carbon footprint in the sand. (Richard Allen)