Composing peace

Burroughs artist-in-residence teaches children to listen

It's midday at Burroughs, and composer Steve Heitzeg presides over a roomful of silent 5th-graders, their eyes shut and their pencils poised over journals made of recycled paper, grass and twigs.

"Okay, now keep your eyes closed for two minutes, and write down as many different sounds as you hear," Heitzeg says.

One of five artists-in-residence at Burroughs, Heitzeg composes "ecoscores" - meditations, he says, on the many voices in nature. The simple act of being still and listening, he emphasizes, leads to respect for other people, other cultures and the planet.

"If you are calm, patient and centered enough to listen, you can learn respect for people," he said. "We think that by doing more, we're adding value to our life, and that's not true."

With their eyes closed and their mouths shut, the children look decidedly un-childlike. The atmosphere in the classroom feels meditative, almost Zen-like.

You hear the bang of a locker in the hallway, the scraping and squeaking of students' feet, the furious scribbling of a chorus of pencils. The sounds, when isolated, seem almost sensual - except for the familiar sound of airplane engines roaring overhead.

When the two minutes are up, the students read off the numerous sounds they recorded in their journals, from yawning to crackling paper to whispering. It's striking how much they've actually heard - the point, Heitzeg says, of the exercise.

"If you want your voice to be heard," he said, "you need to listen to and honor other people's voices."

First movement Heitzeg grew up on a dairy farm in Keister, MN with music-loving parents, he said.

"We'd listen to everything - older recordings, popular rock stuff, country, some jazz, classical," he said. "And, I took piano and guitar."

After graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College with a degree in music and a K-12 teacher certification, Heitzeg said he was torn between whether he should become a composer or a teacher.

"I had been composing since I was 14 years old, and a professor said I should go to graduate school and study composition," he said. "In the end, I was OK because I always felt like composing was teaching."

It was after graduate work at the University of Minnesota, Heitzeg said, that his interest in nature and peace was sparked.

"I found the direction I wanted to go with my music," he said. "You can create whatever music you want - I'm not going to say one type is more important than another - but, for myself, I need to do as much as I can for the world."

Ecoscore cards To that end, Heitzeg composes ecoscores to honor music, nature and peace. Influenced by the nature works of John Cage, R. Murray Schafer, Eric Stokes and Maya Lin, Heitzeg first composed ecoscores as holiday peace cards that he sent family and friends.

"The intent of an ecoscore," he said, "is to keep the size of the score small to emphasize the inherent value of even the smallest of species on earth."

Heitzeg's most recent installation -"Ecoscore Peace Flags" - can be seen in the trees around Burroughs and along the West Minnehaha Parkway. It will be on display through May 2.

Inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, Heitzeg composed five ecoscores and silk-screened them onto 5"-by-7" colored squares of fabric threaded together on a thin rope.

A yellow square represents "freedom" and has on it a manifesto of sorts, "The Universal Declaration of the Right to Music." The white square signifies "peace" and shows various translations of "peace" - "la paix" (French), "kaj siab" (Hmong), "amani" (Swahili) - as representing actual notes on a sheet of music. A green square that symbolizes "earth" sets a quote attributed to John Burroughs - himself an environmentalist - to music.

Each colored square is different in the way it honors music, nature and peace, Heitzeg said.

"Music is not just what I do," he said. "It's bigger than me. It's a larger metaphor for humanity."