SOLON — With a gentle thrum, a red kite catches the wind and flutters aloft over the water of Lake Macbride. Soon it is silhouetted against the sun, its shadow flapping on the gravel walkway below.
Iowa State University assistant professor of architecture Firat Erdim is at the end of the kite string, slowly turning the crank on a wooden instrument called a hurdy-gurdy, which he fashioned himself and has attached to the kite string. An eerie, haunting sound emerges from the instrument, which is picking up vibrations from the wind and water. The sound undulates as the string moves back and forth.
By recording these sounds, Erdim is building a “kite choir,” a musical art project that uses kites to record sound based on nature. His work is one of 20 art projects happening at 20 state parks across Iowa this summer and fall. The efforts are part of “20 Artists, 20 Parks,” a collaboration between the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs; and ISU.
The initiative celebrates the 100th anniversary of the creation of Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, which was dedicated on May 28, 1920.
Today, there are more than 70 state parks and forests in Iowa, and Erdim is creating his art at Lake Macbride State Park. He got involved with the project after teaching a course where he talked about air a material to consider in architecture. That led to an interest in kites, and then a friend who is a composer, Paula Matthusen, mentioned the traditions of singing kites in countries including Japan, China and Vietnam. She helped him create his own singing kites, and he’s hoping the sounds they create inspire people to see the park — and the natural world around them more generally — in a new light.
“I think of this project as a practice of attunement with the atmosphere,” he said. “We need these practices to get beyond ourselves and extend our horizons.”
As he flies the red kite, an eagle soars nearby. Erdim said eagles have sometimes appeared to be checking out the kite, as if wondering if they were some new species of bird.
The DNR is planning a yearlong celebration of Iowa’s state parks and their history, with the art projects as part of the celebration. The works created this year will be unveiled in an exhibit that will travel to at least three art venues across Iowa in 2020. The resident artists, all of whom are affiliated with ISU, also will return to the parks they worked in to share programs about their experiences.
“Both the DNR and the Iowa Arts Council really saw this as an opportunity to reach out to a broader audience and invite Iowans in a new way to celebrate the centennial. We hope it will connect with outdoorsy folks and also those who are interested in art,” said Michael Morain, communications manager for the Department of Cultural Affairs. “It’s a way to cross-pollinate a little bit and invite all Iowans to participate in these state parks that belong to all of us.”
For his project, Erdim purchased a Japanese hata fighter kite and added a long red tail to it. He also makes his own kites, and built his own instruments to attach to the kites, including the big wooden hurdy-gurdy. The hurdy-gurdy has a boxy structure he rests on one shoulder while slowly turning the wheel. The wheel causes the kite string to vibrate, producing sounds independent of the sounds caused by the wind vibrating the string.
“There are a number of harmonies that are kind of coming together,” Erdim said. “The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument, but with a resined reel instead of a bow. It’s almost like having an infinite bow.”
He also created sounding boards he can attach to kites, with polyester ribbon strung over thin plywood boards. Contact microphones on the boards pick up the vibrations from the kite string and record the sound.
Along with the kite vibrations, the recordings pick up sound from the surrounding park. He might pick up details like the splash of an oar from a kayaker, or children fishing on the shore, or the calls of birds and insects.
“It ends up being a combination of ambient sound and recorded sound,” he said. “The experimentation of it is part of the fun of it.”
All of this gives the project a unique sense of place, very different from the other location he has recorded singing kites, on Icelandic fjords, where he had a two month residency earlier this summer. “The air is different here,” than it was in Iceland, he said.
After being assigned to Lake Macbride State Park for the “20 Artists” project, he decided to record on the spillway that separates Lake Macbride and Coralville Lake, because it’s a rare open part of the park where he doesn’t have to worry about the kites getting caught in trees. The water also creates a unique soundscape.
“Across the water you get wider sounds, and sound travels across the lake,” he said.
He also films his work. The film and sound recordings together will help create the final art project. But the act of creating the music is also part of the art.
Because he’s working in a public park, people are constantly walking by and asking what he’s doing, creating opportunities for conversation and interaction.
He said when he’s creating the music, the kites are his brush, the air and the sky a sort of canvas, letting him reach beyond his normal boundaries to interact with the world around him.
“With flying kites, there’s this thing of extending somewhere you can’t go. Over water, that’s increased. It’s a kind of extension,” he said. “When you’re writing or drawing, you’re not thinking about your fingertips, you’re thinking about the tip of the pen and the paper and feeling the ink. It’s a way of extending your mind.”