“If your home were on fire, what item would you rescue first?” In 2019, the top answer was the laptop. During the pandemic, we became even more attached to our electronic devices. It’s hard to imagine getting through our lockdowns without them. Like many of us, Cheryl E. Leonard spent a lot of time online over the past year. Unlike most of us, she emerged with an ode to her computer and to all computers. Miking the inside of her laptop, she discovered a secret world that crackles like a frenzy of brine shrimp.
But Leonard pushes “Schism” further than that. The electro-acoustic composition sounds alluring, at times like an experimental orchestra. One can sense “the world inside.” But after an electronic introduction, she sneaks in other sounds which may or may not stem from circuitry. Perhaps her pandemic time is spent surfing the net, watching nature videos, sampling the sounds of squirrels, bicycle wheels, mourning doves. Perhaps she is listening to the sounds of other musicians, as we do on this site. Perhaps she is imagining the live experience while interacting with the inanimate. At what point does recorded birdsong grow more compelling than the real thing? A year later, do we stay inside clicking on concert footage and nature videos while ignoring the call of a sunny day?
As Leonard adds woodwinds and subtle electronic tones, we become aware that she is playing live, dueting with the pre-processed. Her fascination with found sound and percussion is a hallmark of 2019’s Watershed. But as the piece proceeds, the natural sounds grow more intense, following the arc of lockdown: you have to stay inside, you can go outside if you’d like, you should go outside. But why? Why go outside when Netflix just dropped a hundred hours of new content in a single day? We’ve grown accustomed to additive entertainment, the copy rather than the original, the echo rather than the sound. We’ve created a schism.
In her second piece, Leonard records the world as it sounds from the inside of bottles: another parable of lockdown. As Kate Carr writes in the liner notes, “I think many of us have felt the last year, a little like life was lived inside a bottle.” “Eremozoic” is muddled, claustrophobic, producing a feeling of something heard, something missed. This was true of political discourse over the past year, although this may be reading too much into the piece. The world inside the bottle becomes the whole world: the glass the ground and sky, the cap the sun. After a while, one can no longer remember the larger community; one acclimates to the limitations of what one can see and hear.
As lockdowns and restrictions ease, much attention has been given to those springing forth from their cocoons, living life to its fullest (in some cases, too full, too soon, too much). But at the same time, another forgotten populace remains, lonely in their houses, afraid to emerge, terrified of the outside world, still worried about the virus and more worried about the people they might meet. Leonard scores this pandemic agoraphobia with empathy, eventually sprinkling in the sound of the shore, a quiet invite. Outside the bottle the beach still beckons, the gulls still cry, the sun still shines. Have we become ships inside bottles, and if so, how might we escape? (Richard Allen)