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Drums of 'Inuksuit' will create outdoor sonic sculpture

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Heather Barringer rehearsing
Zeitgeist co-founder and percussionist Heather Barringer rehearsing in Studio Z, the new music ensemble's performance space in downtown St. Paul, Minn on Aug. 8, 2014.
Euan Kerr / MPR News

Heather Barringer knows how to hit a drum, no matter where she is standing.

  That makes her a natural performer for "Inuksuit," an unusual percussion piece written for between nine and 99 musicians that the new music ensemble Zeitgeist will premier this weekend at the Caponi Art Park in Eagan.

  Barringer, a percussionist in Zeitgeist, has been rehearsing her part of the show alone in a downtown St Paul studio. But the piece is always performed outside — even when it's raining.

  Anyone who hears Barringer play alone would get a sense of the volume and resonance of "Inuksuit." But to understand the character of the piece, listeners will have to catch the Zeitgeist performance on Sunday, when she will be joined by more than 20 other percussionists.

  "Even though everyone's parts are spare at times, they are happening from many different people," she said. "And so the park is filled with sound. But not overfilled. It's not cacophonous."

  After pausing to reflect a little, Barringer changed her tune.

  "Well, it will be a little cacophonous. I lied," she said with a laugh.

John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams.
Evan Hurd Photography/Courtesy of John Luther Adams

  Alaskan composer John Luther Adams created "Inuksuit" in 2009. Since then, it has become a popular performance piece around the world. A critic for The New York Times declared it "the ultimate environmental piece."

  Adams was inspired to compose "Inuksuit" after going to a performance of a percussion piece he had written for indoors. He said he wanted hear his "big loud sound."

  "Within a couple of minutes I was humbled," Adams recalled.

  He was also "provoked" at how that big loud sound blew away in the wind.

  So Adams wrote "Inuksuit" specifically to be played outside, to survive, and embrace, the elements — wind, rain or birdsong.

Musicians and audience will move around the park.
During the performance of "Inuksuit" musicians and audience will move across the Caponi Art Park, in Eagan, Minn., experiencing the composition from different vantage points.
John Chapman / Courtesy Caponi Art Park

  The piece is named for the carefully constructed towers of rocks built by Alaskan natives as signposts and monuments out on the tundra.

  "So I thought it was a piece about solitude," Adams said. "It turns out it's about community. Sometimes the composer is the last person to know."

  Barringer, of Zeitgeist, said the rock towers are indicators the Inuit leave for travelers. They are reminders people have been there before.

  "This piece for me is a coming alive sonically of all of those statues that you might come across out in the wilderness, or in Caponi Park, where we have put them," she said. "Each one of our drummer folk that will be joining us is one of these sculptures."

  While some of the percussionists play drums and cymbals, others play conch shells and whirl flexible tubes. The players all start in one central location but as the piece progresses they move. Some go to elaborate drum kits set up on the landscape where they stay for the performance. Others wander for the whole hour-long show.

  Barringer said audience members can listen from one spot, or move with a musician.

  "You might be standing right next to somebody that is playing and that noise is going to be very present," she said. "You'll hear clanging, you'll hear booming," she said. "And then all of a sudden that person will quiet and you will hear two or three other people, several yards, a bit away from you. And then as they might quiet you become aware that in fact there are dozens, way off in the distance."

Cheryl Caponi
Caponi Art Park Co-Founder and Executive Director Cheryl Caponi says music has always been an important element of the place. Her husband Anthony Caponi, whose sculpture is places all around the park's 60 acres in Eagan, Minn., always listened to music while making his pieces, often playing the same piece at the beginning of a new work day to get himself back in the same mindset. While the park has offered classical concerts for some years Cheryl Caponi hopes the "Inuksuit" performance will bring new audiences to the park.
Courtesy Caponi Art Park

  The performance, which begins at 6.30 pm on Sunday, is a departure for Caponi Art Park. It has hosted a range of classical performances for several years in an amphitheater built into the landscape. But the "Inuksuit" musicians will spread out across the park.  

The performance is designed to broaden their musical horizons, said Cheryl Caponi, the park's co-founder and executive director. As each performance is unique and often takes on the name of the community, Sunday's show could become the "Caponi Inuksuit."  

"We are hoping that this kind of work will attract a whole new audience to the park and that we can keep doing more and more of this kind of thing," she said.