Connected \\ February 17, 2021

Safe and sound

On some level, most people are familiar with the healing properties of music. The right song at the right time can make us feel better. Pretty simple. Yet brain research suggests greater complexities are at play and that specific sound frequencies have the power to elicit a sense of calm and well-being or, conversely, can trigger headaches and nausea.

Ruth Mendelson is an award-winning composer who teaches at Berklee College of Music and she understands this reality better than most. If you need further proof, spend a few moments listening to the magical, multi-layered soundscape she wrote for Where The Questions Live: An Exploration of Humans in Nature, now open on weekends and holiday Mondays in The Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center.


LISTEN TO A SECTION HERE
From The Swamp/Sunrise: A New Day


“Ruth’s score stands on its own as a work of art, but it also captures the soul of Where the Questions Live and feels quite personal,” says Jane Winchell, The Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center. “Our visitors have said the music is unexpectedly emotional.”

From the beginning, artist Wes Sam-Bruce set out to create an exhibition experience where people felt safe and empowered to explore, and perhaps go deeper inside themselves in the process.

“Wes’ intention from the get-go was to create a healing place, and that’s my intention with any project that I am a part of: Does this really serve?” says Mendelson. “We were very much kindred spirits in that way.”

A view inside Where the Questions Live. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

A view inside Where the Questions Live. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce, Ruth Mendelson and filmmaker Ryan Shoemaker collaborated on the meditative film that plays continuously within the exhibition. Photo by Jane Winchell/PEM.

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce, Ruth Mendelson and filmmaker Ryan Shoemaker collaborated on the meditative film that plays continuously within the exhibition. Photo by Jane Winchell/PEM.


Before any writing of music began, Mendelson spoke at length with Sam-Bruce about the exhibition’s storyline and his creative vision for the gallery and an accompanying original film that would be a central feature of the space. The conversations continued as they spent a spring day exploring together in nature, bonding in an intentionally undisclosed “mysterious, mystical place” somewhere in Massachusetts that Mendelson had never been to before.

The great blue heron is a central character in the exhibition.

The great blue heron is a central character in the exhibition.


“What was amazing was these blue herons started circling right over the area where we were and one flew to a tree right next to us and stayed with us this whole time,” says Mendelson. “As these herons were circling, they were squawking and it was this incredible, almost prehistoric, kind of sound that was filling the air. I have seen herons plenty of times but I had never heard them like that before and that experience completely inspired a certain sound palette for the soundscape.”

The role of any film score is to bring participants more deeply into the inner meaning of the story, explains Mendelson, which is how she approached her work for the exhibition. Her final composition contains more than 150 layers and includes a variety of acoustics and synthetic sounds. Recreating nature is complex. Water, for instance, is an element that needs to be represented by a variety of sounds. Consider the phonic differences between a babbling brook, a gentle rain and thunderous waves.

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce has called the space "a place for kids that's secretly for adults." Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


Mendelson sent Sam-Bruce each of the four movements as they were completed to solicit feedback. He loved all of them. “One of the reasons that the project worked so well is that Wes really trusted me. I have worked in collaborations where that trust hasn’t been there and nothing can douse out creativity faster.”

In addition to being the first woman to teach in the Film Scoring Department at Berklee in Boston, Mendelson has been writing award-winning scores for more than 20 years for a wide range of collaborators — HBO, A&E, Discovery Channel, Disney, Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, PBS, CBS, and NBC, among others.

My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall

She spent the last two years working with Dr. Jane Goodall, whom she calls a friend and “an incredible light on this planet,” for an updated audiobook of her famous children’s biography, My Life With the Chimpanzees.” It was released last February. Every animal and insect that Goodall mentions in the book, Mendelson illustrates with sound. “It’s like an old-fashioned radio show, on steroids,” she says.

Initially, Mendelson did not set out to write music for a career; she intended to play it. She was studying as a musician, playing the bass, when she experienced a debilitating wrist injury. Frustrated she was not healing, a doctor instructed her not to play any instrument for six months. It was during this time that she discovered that while she could not use her hands to create music she could rely on her ears to write it.

“Then the whole universe opened up,” she says. “I do think people can lament when things are taken away, and not to dismiss hardships, but a lot can be said for taking time in life to pause, just pause.”

When Where the Questions Live first opened, Mendelson came to Salem to visit the exhibition with Sam-Bruce and Winchell at her side and experience for the first time how the art and music aligned so beautifully.

Composer Ruth Mendelson explores the hidden spaces of Where the Questions Live. Photo by Jane Winchell/PEM.

Composer Ruth Mendelson explores the hidden spaces of Where the Questions Live. Photo by Jane Winchell/PEM.


“My very first thought was this is the kind of healing space that Wes and I first talked about wanting to create, and so I was really happy about that,” said Mendelson. “Any place that gives people the permission to explore who they are, to go inside themselves, is successful in my opinion. For anyone who is there to receive it, it’s right there.”

To watch a video interview with Wes Sam-Bruce and an online tour of the exhibition, go HERE.

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