Story by GARY FERRINGTON
Photos and Videos by DON LATARSKI
Don Latarski is fascinated by how easily people can distract themselves from today’s human-created cacophony by adding layers of sound — from a TV, radio, or ear buds. The Eugene-based composer/guitarist suspects most people have become quite uncomfortable with silence. Even he, like most musicians, has listened to hours of recorded music as background. “Is this why the TV is on in many homes 24-7?” he wonders.
A more rewarding respite for Latarski comes not from adding more human sounds, but instead from the soundtrack of life that nature once provided. And he’s found a fruitful way to bring those sounds to the ears even of people disconnected from nature — by combining them with original music. Latarski’s new album,Wind Water Wing: Nature Voices of Oregon, blends the sounds of Oregon’s birds, frogs, flowing streams, and other environmental sources with the musical drone of his unique wind and water guitars. The result, he suggests, will remind listeners of a hike through the wetlands, up a forested mountain trail, or along a lake or flowing stream — a soundscape experience that he believes will be “good for the brain and soul.”
Latarski’s embrace of nature transcends its sounds. Recently, he has also found in photography another way to explore its wonder and mystery.
Wind and Water
Don Latarski is an institution in Oregon music. He has worked with Mason Williams, Bobby McFerrin, Charlie Baty, Paul deLay and the Eugene Symphony Orchestra. He is a music educator who retired in June, 2017 from the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance, where he was the head of guitar studies. The author of 18 published books, to date, about guitar techniques, he has also released 14 studio albums.
Latarski’s interest in attentively listening to nature came about through experimenting with instruments that acoustically responded to the blowing of the wind or the flowing of a stream. He’d been interested in naturally occurring resonances ever since he viewed the famous film footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. In the mid-1970s, while attending the University of Oregon, he discovered the Aeolian harp, an instrument that generates sound when the wind passes across strings strung over a sounding board. This led him to experimenting with the passing of air over the strings of his guitar. What he found was how unpredictable the sounds could be.
“Unlike a plucked string, wind excites the string’s full length resulting in a ‘whistling or howling’ drone-like quality,” he observed. Over the years, he has experimented with strings of different lengths and many different tunings, and (as seen in this video of one of his first musical uses of this instrument), with different wind velocities.
One day, about three years ago, Latarski saw a stick oscillating in the flowing water of a creek. “Water can be the force which excites objects to vibrate just as hammering, blowing, or plucking,” he realized. He modified an old guitar into an instrument that could be submerged into a stream, and let the water vibrate its strings. Thus was born his water guitar. An early use of this instrument is heard in his River Speak part 1 and part 2 on his Heart Dance Records release, Frozen Moments.
Wind Water Wing: Nature Voices of Oregon is Latarski’s first attempt to combine the sounds of nature with the subtlety of both his wind and water instruments. The inspiration for the album came not only from nature’s soundscape, but also the sights, textures and smells that he wishes he could bottle. “My senses can become so stimulated by all of these forces that a flow or dialogue emerges with the environment,” he explains. “I feel this connection physically, and something inside of me opens, and perhaps for a time I feel fully connected with the natural world.”
Collecting field recordings in nature has been filled with many challenges for Latarski. He notes that before Covid-19, airplanes were the biggest source of unwanted noise. That acoustic irritant has subsided with fewer scheduled flights. But cattle, tractors, sirens, horns, yelling, chainsaws, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, gun shots, weed whackers, and other “audio flotsam and jetsam” remain a problem.
From Sound to Vision
Latarski began exploring photography in earnest in 2013 when he bought a fancy camera for shooting video — then discovered it to be a pretty good still camera as well.
“My work as a musician has greatly influenced my photography because I’m an improviser and I often conceptualize photos and make them happen,” Latarski explains. “I also have an eye for the subtle and I’m not put off by how difficult it may be to get an interesting shot.”
A long time friendship with the late Pulitzer Prize award winning Eugene photojournalist, Brian Lanker, has been an on-going inspiration to Latarski. “I met him in the early ‘80s and we became fast friends. He loved my music and I loved his work and personality.” Latarski found Lanker’s many stories about how he made certain photos inspiring.
Much like his innovation with the wind and water guitar, Latarski has also experimented with photo techniques such as attaching a camera to a 12 foot pole and connecting it to his kayak to get the camera high above the ground — like a poor man’s drone. An example of Latarski’s video, photography, and music can be seen in RIVER Suite part 1, Into the Clouds.
Many of Latarski’s still photographs, as viewed online at Picfair, reflect what he calls “looking for the miraculous in the mundane” with images of seed pods, leaves, tree rings, patterns, textures, barkscapes, and all sorts of macro details that most people just never see.
For Latarski, searching for the visual, aural, tactile and olfactory in nature can give us a deeper connection with nature. If we choose to pay attention and become engaged without distraction, our lives are much richer for the effort.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.
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