100 years of peonies sounds like…

UM PhD Student Creates Sound Interaction With Legendary Flower Garden

The new WE Upjohn Peony Garden celebrates 100 years of peonies and is nearing the end of their season at the University of Michigan’s Nichols Arboretum.

But now, thanks to Alexis Lamb, a UM Doctor of Musical Arts candidate in Composition, a visit to the Peony Garden not only engages the senses of sight and smell, but hearing as well.

“Hybrid Cultivars”, created by Lamb, consists of 27 single-pipe chimes installed throughout the garden. Each chime plays a similar tone, so as you walk among the flowerbeds, you are immersed in a drone sound of the collective chimes as they interact with different natural and human elements. It’s Lamb’s way of encouraging people to “open their ears to what’s already around them.”

“I love spending time outdoors and just listening to what’s going on around me, so I’ve been trying to find ways to use music to complement that, rather than get in the way,” she said. .

Gathering natural elements from the arboretum where the installation takes place, Lamb assembles what she calls an “orchestra of nature” made up of rocks, acorns, pine cones, pine needle brushes, sticks and even deer bones. These pieces are attached to the chimes amplifying the sounds that the natural world always creates with the materials around us.

“Using these forage materials is meant to help us rethink what it means to walk down to the river,” Lamb said. “You walk through the peony gardens and on all these other paths and our feet are making so many noises below, the birds are making noises around us, the trees are whistling in the wind; it’s all such a beautiful soundscape already, so with the chimes I wanted to bring out all of those elements and then add that man-made component with the chime itself.

Interact sonically with the legendary peonies of the Arb

More recently, Lamb led another nature orchestra in Alaska where his team searched the shoreline at low tide to collect crabs, clams and cockles, kelp, sea glass and other natural items. They put those pieces together, listened to the different sounds that were happening, and created their own music using that soundscape. To leave their mark, they created chimes that were left around the community.

“You’re not adding anything physically new to the space, but it’s a reframing of what’s already there and an appreciation of the sounds that are created with these instruments.”

The Nichols Arboretum is free and open to the public; the peony season is coming to an end but they are visible as long as they are in bloom.