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Columbia musician interprets water cycle at Congaree National Park with installation

Swamp Sounds

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Trees offer cooling shade inside Congaree National Park on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, in Hopkins. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

With his “Swales & Sloughs” installation, Greg Stuart wanted to create a surreal, immersive experience.

Stuart, an associate professor of experimental music and music literature at the University of South Carolina, created it to accompany “Water/Ways”, a Smithsonian traveling exhibition co-hosted by the Congaree National Park and Friends of Congaree Swamp. Held in the park’s Harry Hampton Visitor Center Auditorium, the main display takes a close look at water environmentally, culturally and historically — fitting since Congaree National Park is a floodplain forest, which exists in large part because of the regular flooding that occurs in this area.

Frequent flooding helps to create a forest rich with biodiversity, and Stuart, an acclaimed experimental music composer and percussionist, aimed to put people right in the middle of the park with “Swales & Sloughs” without creating a straightforward nature display. The installation combines 600 constantly shifting photographs that Stuart took in the park with natural sounds, bits of percussion and flashes of white noise.

“There are two components to the installation: sound and images,” Stuart described. “And each component has its own set of parameters it follows. ... Starting from scratch I wrote the code that produces the sounds and the images you see when you view the installation.”

Stuart said that the sounds one hears in “Swales & Sloughs” exist in three different layers, the first of which are field recordings.

“I made location recordings at 50 different sites throughout Congaree National Park,” he explained. “That involved hiking through the park, finding a place where I think there are some interesting things going on and making a recording. Most of the recordings were made using a traditional air microphone, but given that this was a 'Water/Ways' installation, I made a number of recordings using a hydrophone, which is basically a waterproof microphone that picks up the vibrations in bodies of water.”

The location recordings are mixed with recordings Stuart made playing various percussion instruments, and what he calls “sustained tones and bits of filtered noise the computer will produce.”

These sounds accompany Stuart’s images from the park, but this isn’t merely a loop of photos and ambient noise. The photos and sounds don’t follow a set pattern.

“It’s not a fixed media-sound piece,” he said. “It’s actually a kind of dynamic environment. It would never be the same thing going in a loop. You can have everything from a single image presented clearly to up to four images being mixed together. There are times in the sound where it will thin out to almost nothing, but it can very quickly become quite thick and then just kind of dissipate. Same thing with the images, going from something you can clearly recognize from the park, to something more impressionistic, a combination of multiple images.”

Thanks to the code that Stuart created, “Swales & Sloughs” is never the same experience twice, something Stuart did to imitate Congaree National Park itself.

“I wanted to make a piece that took the dynamic processes of the way the park floods as a kind of model,” he offered. “The park floods periodically, so you have long periods where nothing is really changing, and then all of a sudden flood waters can inundate the park and fill up various ducts and flues throughout the park. I wanted to make something that would be modeled on the rate of change you could experience in the park.”

Stuart said that making an unpredictable installation took a lot of effort.

“The images were totally new to me,” he detailed. “I hadn’t ever worked with images in this program before and I’m not the world’s most sophisticated programmer. I can just barely get it to do enough things that I find personally interesting. There was a lot of work figuring out how to get the images and the sound to run together and basically not crash the computer.”

“Mostly I’m trying to make something that allows for unexpected things to happen,” Stuart concluded. “It takes a lot of work to get it to be volatile in a way that’s compelling to me, and it’s my hope that others will find something in that.”

“Swales & Sloughs”

(Part of “Water/Ways”)

Through Jan. 13. Free (10 visitors allowed in at a time). Harry Hampton Visitor Center at the Congaree National Park. 100 National Park Rd., Hopkins.

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