Sammi Stone ’17 spent her summer digging through dumpsters. She didn’t do it to find a salvageable TV set or recover a lost earring (two things this writer may or may not have experience with), but rather, to make music. Stone created five string instruments out of found objects and trash, as well as recovered several other objects that work as stand-alone noise-makers.
The instruments creatively use various unconventional materials. “One is a piece of styrofoam I found down by the railroad tracks,” Stone said. “Styrofoam is really resonant. I took a curtain rod or something similar and used it to make a bridge, and then strung rubber bands over that. So it ended up having a very bass-like sound.”
Stone, who hails from the small town of Baker City, Ore., worked this summer as the artist-in-residence at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives. As Zilkha Center Assistant Director Mike Evans put it, the artist-in-residence internship is designed to “have [a] student view sustainability through the lens of their respective art medium.”
While past student artists in this position have explored sustainability through drawing or poetry, Stone created the instruments and composed sound installations, most of which centered around noise pollution on campus. “There was a lot of construction going on,” Stone said of her time at the College this summer. “I was just kind of noticing that the sound climate of Williams is really a lot of loud machine noises, if we really stopped and paid attention.”
Evans noted that “people are used to being challenged in their art,” and the goal of the Zilkha Center’s internship is to bring that same sense of challenge into sustainability. In her noise pollution composition, Stone, a music major, aimed to make listeners consider the influence of sound on our community. The work raises questions like, “How does noise pollution affect how we think, how we act, how does it affect our health?” she said. “[I was] thinking about sound and mechanical sound as this constant reminder of systems, like all of the systems that are constantly keeping us lit and fed and warm, and how that relates to sustainability and resource usage.” Stone hopes in the future to continue making art pieces that contain these types of broader messages.
In addition to her machine-centered installation, Stone recently composed a piece that will be installed in the Bernhard Music Center, hopefully in the coming months. This work, which she played for me, samples Western classical and jazz music and brings them together to imitate the sound of a flock of birds. Stone noted that there was quite a lot of build-up in the piece; it begins with the more upbeat mimicking of bird calls in a forest and escalates into something far more chaotic and grand. For these electronic compositions, Stone uses the free open-source digital audio editor Audacity. “I kind of just took all of these little samples and arranged them all together in ways that sounded cool. This [one] took me definitely about a week of [concentration], working on it a lot,” she said.
Stone has also composed instrumental pieces in her College courses, including one for a string quartet, and this semester she will be writing for either a small orchestra or a wind ensemble. She appreciates the difference in media between her electronic sound compositions and her musical compositions for traditional instrumental groups. “The cool thing about writing for live instruments is that you get to have other people expressing this idea that you made, whereas with electronic there’s less of a human element there,” she said.
When not constructing her own instruments or writing her own pieces, Stone plays the saxophone in the College’s Jazz Ensemble and the oboe both as a solo artist and as part of the Berkshire Symphony and the Student Symphony. Starting this year, she will also be performing as part of the Williams Percussion Ensemble.
“I’m kind of curious about a lot of different things in music, and it’s hard to choose one area,” Stone said of her diversity of musical interests. “I like performing and actually playing instruments because it feels very good. I feel like I get to share something in a very immediate way. Composition is something that’s new to me within the past couple of years, so I like it because it’s exciting and it’s this new skill that I’m developing. It’s a very blank slate in terms of what you can express, what kinds of materials you can use. There’s a whole universe of stuff you can use, which is both overwhelming and very cool.”
How does Stone know when one of her compositions is finished? “Sometimes just when it’s due,” she said, laughing. “But I think that every time I look back and listen to the things I’ve made, I hear things that I would like to change, and I think that if I had infinite time I would constantly be changing everything I’ve made.”