Sonification of Landscape

Today we started in on a collaboration with visual artist and musician Burke Jam wherein we read his panoramic photos as if they were sheet music.

Each instrumentalist is assigned either the bass, tenor, alto, or soprano voicing and as the photo pans by, we respond to visual cues from the landscape. It’s not “scoring”– we’re not responding to or emphasizing emotion– rather, we’re reading the various colors, horizons, clouds, and shadows in the photograph as signifiers on the musical staff, then playing what we see. That said, it’s almost impossible for the conversation between sight and sound to not create some sort of emotional space. This work is of Montana. Burke’s photos are stunning, and the intense listening required of our group seems to beget an alchemy that goes beyond just “reading” the landscape.

It looks like there will be 3 or 4 movements, each a panoramic image taken here in Montana– some on the Rocky Mountain Front, some in the Beartooth Range. Our instrumentation will change with each movement: so far we have upright bass, cello, musical saw, banjo, pedal steel, Bloogle resonator, oscillators.

We will perform this sonification one time only as part of Burke’s larger “Shadow of Polaris” project on March 1 in the Recital Hall at University of Montana School of Music. It’ll be free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

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A few days ago we had a year-end Stellarondo lunch.  We celebrated 2012, checked in with the present, and envisioned what we’d like to do in 2013.  Also, we consumed many beets and all but one of us cried.

Celebrating 2012

Looking back, I think the undeclared motto for 2012 might have been “toss out the map.”  What weird, wonderful things we got to do!  Live-score films at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.  Record an album with Rick Bass.  Sing for our rooms at Cannery Pier Hotel in Astoria, Oregon.  Play at The Vera Project during Northwest Folklife Festival.  Stage a defection at the Canadian border.  Discover that “Parents of Decemberists” might be the most accurate description of our demographic.  Release our collaborative album with Rick Bass at Humanities Montana Festival of the Book.  Score a short film by Vincent Ma.  Open for Pearl Django at Dennison Theatre.  Help send Whitefish Review Issue #12 out into the world.  Score Rick reading “Goodnight Moon” on the sidewalk outside The Wilma.

Checking in with the Present

I think we are all grateful and a little shocked at the amount of support we feel from so many directions.  With apologies to anyone we might leave out, we would like to thank Big Sky Documentary Film Fest, Tom Webster, Mayor John Engen, Doug Hawes-Davis, Patrick Cook, Caitlin Hofmeister, Mike Steinberg, Mike Jones, Ginny Merriam, Cherie Newman, The Wilma crew, Yaak Valley Forest Council, The Dennison Theatre crew, Debbie Joyce, Get Lit! Festival, Adam Selzer, John Askew, Amy Martin, Nate Biehl, Cannery Pier Hotel, Blind Pilot, Bob & Becca Yost, Paul Lestock, Tom Roberston, Kim Anderson, Brian Schott, Montana Radio Company, The Bovey Trust, Vincent Ma, Brooke Swaney, Joe Nickell, The University of Montana Excellence Fund, The Naked Noodle, The Good Medicine Lodge, Montana Arts Council, The Whitefish Review, Humanities Montana Festival of the Book, our families, the sponsors of our shows, and all who backed the creation of our album.  The message we hear from you is “keep going.”


Looking at 2013

This week we will start in on a sonification-of-landscape project with local visual artist and musician Burke Jam.  This piece will be performed at the Music Recital Hall on campus at University of Montana on March 1.  More on that as it develops!

Instrumentation for the Sonification-of-Landscape project is still up for grabs

At the end of January, we will travel to Great Falls with Rick Bass to participate in the Montana Performing Arts Consortium.  We’ll play a 12-minute showcase with hopes of securing future bookings around Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

There was talk of recording a double album: 1/2 songs, 1/2 instrumentals.

One identified Stellarondo need: a cat-free rehearsal space.

In mid-March we are planning a CD Release tour with Rick Bass and Stellarondo– so far it’s looking like we’ll hit Seattle and Astoria, Oregon.  Let us know if there’s a place you’d like to see us play?

As always, we love hearing from you.

Happy New Year!



ps- fabulous photos by Tom Robertson


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Top 10 Things We Learned on Our First Folklife Trip

10. We are part of something much bigger than ourselves
9. Best to gas up in Idaho
8. Picnicking within earshot of 2 stages and a community drum circle might cause hallucination
7. Must plan to stick around longer next time
6. It’s definitely worth a stop to pick roadside sage with Blind Pilot
5. Folklife is not Weiser
4. It feels very good to have audience members sing along when you’re 475 miles from home
3. Gibson is a driving machine
2. We CAN busk our own material
1. The folks who run the Festival really know what they’re doing. Can’t wait for next year!

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Thank You From Caroline

Today we played together for the first time since you helped us reach our Kickstarter goal. The back porch was breezy and Patrick the cat caught a mouse in the compost bin. There was talk about performing some sort of ceremony to show our gratitude for your support. We are so grateful. Don’t really know how to type that loudly enough! We raise our tea mugs to all of you who have joined us on the Road to the Ryman so far by coming to a performance, feeding us, spreading the word, housing us, by your in-kind donations, the sharing of your precious time, and backing the production of our album via Kickstarter.

Thanks to your help, Adam Selzer begins mixing this week. We can’t wait to hear what he does. We look forward to the next steps and really can’t wait for September when you’ll be able to visit Rick’s stories and Stellarondo’s music in their new home.

Last month on our first tour with Rick we rolled along the same downhill route that water takes when it leaves Missoula. Near Sandpoint, Idaho we passed by the site of the ice age dam that once locked millions of gallons of water into our valley home. Along the Columbia River Gorge we looked up at abrupt shorelines that formed when the ice dam broke and the water surged out to sea. We coasted along the top of the Gorge where open van windows let in the scent from orchard rows of cherry blossoms nourished from the roots by water washed down from the mountains.

In Astoria, Oregon, at the farthest part of our journey, we found ourselves in a hotel perched at the end of a pier that juts out into the finish line of the Columbia River. The Cannery Pier Hotel let us trade songs and story for a night’s stay. Fowl rested outside our window in eddies created by large bridge supports. The main current flowed around the stilts beneath our hotel pier as it hauled ass to the Pacific. Days earlier, bitty parts of that great volume of water slid into Rattlesnake Creek as droplets of water a couple of blocks from where we rehearse. Gibson did a little bit of math and figured out that, indeed, the Montana droplets surrounding us on the pier had left Missoula County just about the same time we did. All gained momentum, partnered with many others, and are making the transformation from river to tide.

Thank you.

We’ll keep in touch.

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From Rick Bass: For Lack of Better Phrasing, Thank You

It’s hard to make the language of gratitude be anything near the language
of poetry. The phrase Thank you, uttered both too-often and not-enough, is
phonetically graceless, a murmured white noise compared to what we feel
about the community that has come together to support the Road to the Ryman
album and video trailer, and our first solid steps toward that great
auditorium. We set out on the initial leg of what will be a long journey:
performed in Missoula, then crammed into the van and went on to Portland on
faith, eating lots of kale and drinking no small amounts of kombucha and
staying with friends and friends-of-friends, and booked three studio days
at Type Foundry, where, in a long swirl of intensity, we got the sound we
The debt-clock, meanwhile, was ticking, and the five of us would have been
in a world of hurt had we not received your support. We leapt, and y’all
caught us.
Now we will mix and otherwise engineer the album, possibly as soon as
June, and place the order for the printing of the CDs, which should be
available by September. We can’t wait for you to hear them.
We’ll also hope to put together a film trailer to go with our CD, and use
it to try to find sponsorship for a full performance at the Ryman in
Nashville. We’ll continue filming the documentary, and pursuing unusual
gigs. No dream is too large or small for us.
All this is business-talk, and surface stuff. What we’re not communicating
yet is what it felt like at every step of the way: the first pledges coming
in, the thing made real, and then, with the clock ticking, a fear beginning
to rise, What if people don’t believe in this project the way we do, what
if they think it’s nuts, or dumb, or lame? What if they don’t see or can’t
hear the beauty—the effervescence of spirit—that wreathes this project?
Each of you traveled with us on all of those days, and it was so amazing,
after so much worry, to first feel hope, and then the thing beyond hope—to
see this made-up community accepting largely on faith the vision of this
collaboration. It was a singular and singularly intense experience. As with
the privilege of reading and playing and listening to the scored stories
themselves, there’s nothing quite like it–to see each day’s new
supporters, particularly in these hard times: more and more supporters
coming through the gate to help put this thing in the world.
Congratulations, and—for lack of better phrasing—thank you. We will never
forget this support.
And a postscript: To thank anyone specifically would be to leave out the
fabric of the whole, but it should be pointed out that Patrick Cook and
Caitlin Hoffmeister not only dreamed up but then daily executed the
Kickstarter campaign, keeping it current and shooting video and posting
notices. The campaign moved slowly at first and some of us had a bit of
that aforementioned worry. Don’t worry, Caitlin and Patrick said, this is a
great project, people will want to support you. They were right. How did
they know?
We can’t wait for you to hear the album. We’ll keep you updated on its
progress. And it might seem cheeky to ask for more, after having been
delivered so much, but given the magnitude and vitality of this
Road-to-the-Ryman community—which is in some ways new and in other ways
very old; in some ways quasi-formal now, and in other ways totally ad hoc
and improvisational—we would love for y’all to keep sending us ideas and
connections about how to get where we’re going. The journey to Nashville
will be long and winding and sometimes we will go north to reach the south,
west to reach the east. It’s exhilarating. Know of our gratitude. Part of
it is the joy and relief to realize that you believe the same dream we do.

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Note from Caroline

“Train on the island, thought I heard it squeal,” goes the first line of the song we’ve been invited to re-imagine for a tribute to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle. “Go tell my true love: I can’t hold the wheel,” the second goes.

Could there be any vehicle more powerful and impractical than a train on an island? All that fire and steam just to huff around in circles? Beautiful. And then there’s a declaration from the person in charge: this handsome bulk of flying greased parts and kinetic energy is a thing far too powerful for me to steer. I can’t hold the wheel.

After those long ago-written lyrics came out of my mouth at rehearsal yesterday I had to put down my banjo, round end on the ground. Too familiar a sentiment: I can’t hold the wheel.

Stellarondo could be a sort of a train on an island. We are beautiful, powerful, impractical, unlikely. A band of musicians who have (mostly) come up playing in bars, yet we have created work that is virtually undeliverable in a bar. On paper we might be mistaken for a country band, the kind of band that could be on a track to big earnings. But those are not the rails we’re riding.

This band works. Man, do we work. You have likely seen Travis play upright bass and drums at the same time. But have you seen the frenzied Tetris game that is him packing the van, somehow remaining sensitive to the vulnerable necks of stringed instruments? To watch Bethany get her bearings on cello in service of finding just the line she’s listening for on saw is to catch a momentary glimpse of the unknowable. Likewise unknowable is how she manages to play a late bar gig and then show up at an 8am meeting with the Missoula County Public Schools to convince them to let Stellarondo visit local classrooms. Gibson’s wallet would likely survive a couple extra meals while we’re on tour, yet he puts in calls to restaurants and secures sponsored meals for our entire lot and has been caught cheerfully awake– hours before any of us—txting inside jokes to the band from an auto garage while having a strange van noise checked out. And then he sits at the pedal steel and somehow chooses a path of surprising notes that combine into a revelation of the human spirit.

I had no idea two years ago when I started assembling the group what a force it would become. It would be foolish to even try to hold the wheel. The energy created and exerted at Thursday rehearsals could power the Rattlesnake Valley. You should see the mountains of food the team tears through. Sort of counter-intuitive that the music itself is so quiet?

And then there’s Rick. Politely throwing a blazer over my psychotic cat when it attacks him during rehearsal. Responding to doubt or caution with a txt “WE DIE SOON!” Missing a turn on a 6-lane Portland street, bringing the van to a dead halt, honking the horn rhythmically as if it were a back up signal, taking a look behind us, and throwing the rig into reverse. Rick hauling our amps up the stairs to Type Foundry. Using gaff tape to reserve the front-row of the Panida Theater for the wife and young daughters of Scott Daily, a dear friend who passed away last summer, then reading a eulogy for Scott during the show that not only changed the color of the air in the room, but transformed every song and story shared after into something crystalline. Rick, short-sighted enough to curse about shitty Portland waitresses, long-visioned enough to not be fazed by the hemorrhaging of money we experienced on the road. It is only money. This is just our first trip. Rick feverishly typing during down time, using all five fingers of his right hand and only two of his left. Before a meeting with an enthusiastic publicist, Rick coaching us to be sure and protect our “quiet artist lives.” Rick inviting us into his already-whole stories with faith that together our music and his words would create something bigger than either could accomplish alone.

We are making this record because the scored versions of Rick’s stories need a home. Giving habitat to Rick’s scored stories is a step on our Road to the Ryman quest, which is also about finding a home– if just for one night– for Stellarondo’s powerful and impractical sound.

The recording part is done. What was it like to record? Imagine being chased or making out for nine consecutive hours. Three days of highest arousal. We know that what we made during that time is remarkable, and we want you to be able to visit the stories. In order to make that possible, we need to let Adam Selzer mix them, have them mastered by Carl Saff, employ Yogesh Simpson for cover design, and have Crave Dog Manufacturers print and press physical copies. We have done our best. We believe that these people with whom we want to work for mixing, mastering, design, and manufacturing are the people absolutely best for the jobs. The cost for all this is $8,000.

We can’t hold the wheel. We are grateful to the friends, family, neighbors, students, and fellow musicians who have backed us so far. Really, you are all teachers, teaching us that it is OK to ask.

We can’t hold the wheel. We are asking, with great incentives, for you to help us. Only 4 days left.

Become a backer by visiting our Kickstarter and following instructions.

Thank you.


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A Note From Rick Bass

The tour is over, and I learned some things about musicians. I had thought they might be kind of like writers, in their habitual poverty, but I found out it’s much worse. As a writer you can’t get much more broke than broke: you write a story, a novel, or a lifetime of novels, or what-have-you, and either they sell or they don’t. Worst case, you’re out that investment of your time—call it a lifetime—and a few liters of ink, and some paper.

But to play music is to travel down into a pit of debt. Often—and I had heard that this was the case—the more you play, the poorer you can get, on the road. In this regard, the beauty generated by music carries quite a different price than that generated by literature. The smaller yet necessary venues in which off-the-top expenses for venue rental, sound engineer, lighting engineer, gas, van-wear, food, and drink lay waste to whatever number of folks wander in that night to listen to live music, and to living stories, and to this curious and unique thing we are giving breath to that combines the two in such a way as to make a whole that is greater than the parts. And then to divide that negative number then by five has the curious effect of making that debt smaller. It’s a curious paradigm. There is cost and safety in numbers. Thanks to your Kickstarter support, however, we have a real chance of climbing up out of that Abyss-of-the-Artist and seeing this project—completion of a CD/album ready-for-the-world—become a reality, and having these amazing CDs arrive, one day before too long, in your mailbox.

There is reward, however, in addition to cost. This just-completed tour has been the best ten days of my life, artistically. I can’t begin to fully describe any of it: ten days, 1778 miles, six great shows, some old friends seen and new friends met—too many to talk about here—and, perhaps more to the point of Kickstarter, three incredibly intense days of recording at Type Foundry studios in Portland, under the direction of Adam Selzer and his partners John and Dylan. Long, long live takes, what were essentially fifteen-minute-long songs, with any tiny slip by any one of the five of us—or anything less than exactly the way we wanted it requiring a certain kind of performing, and a kind of listening, the hypersensitivity of which exceeded even that degree of acute vigilance known to the hunter, where every step, every breath, every space between breaths, is felt with such intensity as to become incandescent.

Sometimes I am prone to hyperbole—it’s often kind of my bread and butter—but I think that what we recorded in Portland—going into debt to get the album on tape, or rather, on the computer—is a significant and amazing work of art. I would not be so foolish as to make predictions for it but have not experienced any feeling like it since I finished the last story in my first short story collection, The Watch, roughly twenty-five years ago. People still come up and tell me those stories made them want to become writers, changed their lives, etc. I think what Stellarondo has put together here will be the same way for musicians. Stellarondo is daring, bold, magnificent. You likely already know that about them. When no less a stalwart than Gibson “Old Man” Hartwell, who has seen and heard a few things in his long career, describes the project as unprecedented and unique, then surely, it is. Gratifying, too, and reinforcing our belief that we are on to something wonderful, is to be found in the testimonials from the great bounty of Portland-area musicians, and, perhaps most gratifying of all, from Adam and the folks at Type Foundry, who are not given to hyperbole and who have been listening to all kinds of music for decades on end. It is no small thing for people to come up after a show, as some did at almost every show, and declaim that the performance was one of the most moving things they’d experienced in a longtime, and sometimes ever.

I have to confess, it’s a little uncomfortable, tooting our horn like this. But they say Kickstarter, with its melting time-clock, and with so much riding on your generosity, and the timing of your generosity, is no place to be modest, and I have to confess also, the end product is going to be so amazing that I would feel dishonest, like I was withholding something, to not make a claim of how exciting and powerful the work is.

Perhaps last night’s dream, the after-residue of the tour, has some meaning. Gone from the luminous dream-space of the shared intensity of making a beautiful thing and putting it into the world, and transitioning back into Regular Life, in the dream I was leaning over a giant upright bass, much like the one that I sat in front of—absorbing–in each show, while Travis kept rhythm of every song, and every story. In the dream, I didn’t know my name, or where I was, or anything else. Everything was new, and I did not want to leave. A dream as simple, really, as the album we’ve just finished recording is elegant and complex. Surely it was the residue of the tour and the recording—Crazed Genius Travis, Sweet “Great is Never Good Enough, Let’s Do Another Take” Bethany (I’m remembering now the delicate sound of each note when she plucked, rather than bowed, the cello, and of course her eerie saw), surf guitar/pedal steel “Lonesome Squared” Gibson, and the magic of hanging out with those folks, in some ways best typified for me by those exquisite moments at the start of each show when Caroline, strumming her acoustic arch-top tenor guitar, would appear amazed, momentarily betranced, by the beauty of what was coming out of that wooden box, that crafted ship.

Each time, she would seem to hesitate for a moment, waiting, and then would step forward to let the first words of the song come out of her mouth; and during the stories, sitting on my stool, listening and waiting for my cue to begin (“There goes your bogie,” Gibson would whisper), my heart would be pounding, as when in baseball and up at bat, or in football, leaning forward slightly and listening, with fiery waiting, to the snap count dwindling down—waiting for all longing and urgency to explode; waiting for the world, this different, made world—the one we are dreaming and trying to fashion, with your help—to begin.

We’ve laid off a bit in deluging you with daily Kickstarter appeals, but as the clock winds down, I regret to say that we’ll probably be deluging you, in the hopes of leveraging and taking advantage of existing generosities, and the ever-shortening shelf-life of those commitments. We really, really need to pre-sell a bunch of these amazing CDs, or what feels like a bunch to me. If 100 people buy two copies, or 200 people commit to one, we can get it—The Road to the Ryman—done. Alternatively, if two or three folks commit to purchasing a house party, it can still get done. It’s coming down to the wire.
Thank you.

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A Little Footage From City Symphonies Live-Scoring Event

Supergroup including Stellarondo, Butter, NextdoorPrisonHotel, Grandfatherglen, Josh Wexler, Andy Smetanka, Nate Biehl, and Tyler Knapp at Big Sky Documentary Film Fest.

City Symphonies from Big Sky Film Fest on Vimeo.

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First Live-Scored Film Project

One year ago, on the way out of The Wilma Theater after Yo La Tengo’s live-scoring of “Sounds of Science,” I passed by Doug Hawes-Davis.

“Whadja think?” he asked.
“I want to DO that,” I answered.
“You will,” he said.

And he was right.

Tomorrow night we live-score Paul Strand’s 1921 film “Manhatta” during the City Symphonies block at Big Sky Documentary Film Fest. (The music featured in the video below is not us)

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Montana Public Radio Special: Rick Bass and Stellarondo

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