A Chat with Mike Weis
Mike Weis is a Michiana-based sound artist, percussionist, photographer, and ecological activist. To an outsider, he seems to be juggling a lot, and even Weis admits he's "got a lot of pots boiling." Prior to this spring, I had heard bits and pieces of Weis' work, but wasn't deeply familiar with his various projects. His May release, however, titled Ring the Bell for the 10,000 Forgotten Things, just blew me away. A blend of field recordings and live percussion, the seamless piece of music documents humans' inseparable relationship with natural spaces. I was left with so many wonderings after hearing the album a few times through, and Weis was kind enough to thoughtfully and thoroughly answer a handful of my questions. Read our correspondence below.
Photo by Ricardo E Adame.
DC: First off, I'd love to learn a bit more about your most recent release, Ring the Bell for the 10,000 Forgotten Things. I visited Indiana Dunes National Park in winter 2019 - just a couple months after your residency there, and was struck by the strange, interrupted "jigsaw" nature of that protected space. Though there seemed to be pockets of wilderness, it was difficult to totally escape evidence of human impact. Your new album blends wild sounds with industrial noise and your own percussion, and I am wondering what you hope listeners take away from this sonic collage. Is there an underlying message or statement you wish to convey in this eerily beautiful nature/industry/music mix, or do you wish to leave any interpretation up to the listener?
MW: The Indiana Dunes is one of the few national parks that is within a major metropolitan area so that explains its fragmented property lines. Its western boundary is less than a half hour train ride from downtown Chicago so even though I wish it were a larger, contiguous property like it was in the early 20th century, I'm actually kind of surprised activists were able to preserve what we have today. That battle against the industrial land grabbers of the mid-20th century must have been a knock down, drag out fight and I'm deeply grateful to the forefathers/foremothers of that early environmental movement. Despite the heavy-industry, development and waste dumps of the Calumet Region there's still more biodiversity in those fragmented preserves than most national parks with many times more acreage, it's actually quite impressive. The reason for this high diversity is the location. The Indiana Dunes and the surrounding area sit at a sort of crossroads of major ecosystems. It's the intersection of the western edge of the eastern woodlands, eastern edge of the tallgrass prairie, and the southern edge of the boreal forest. This is known as an ecotone and it's where you'll find the highest concentration of biodiversity. My message with the photography and the sounds is to educate people on the high functioning system of this place despite the first impression of it as a post-industrial wasteland. We need to stop thinking of wilderness as some sort of purity of unspoiled terrain that is elsewhere in isolation away from where we live and work that is untainted from human hands. This kind of thinking sets humans apart from nature and it's the reason why we are in the climate mess that we are in now. As Douglas Tallamy writes in his excellent book, "Nature's Best Hope" we need to expand "wilderness" on our own private lands because public land preservation is not enough to reverse the extinction rate that we are pacing at the moment. This is the purpose of the business that I started last Fall called, Dropseed Native Gardens and Ecological Restoration.
DC: And while we are still on Ring the Bell, I noticed that the album comes alongside a book of photography you took while at the Dunes. Since you are an artist who works in multiple forms of media (and seems to be involved in many side projects), I am wondering if you have a preferred entry point when diving into a project. Photography first? Percussion? Perhaps you more often find inspiration via your work as a naturalist or through curating concerts at the Zen Buddhist Temple Chicago?
MW: Yes, I've got a lot of pots boiling! The Ring the Bell project grew out of the artist residency that you mentioned earlier. I didn't really have a goal when I began that residency because I wanted to see where each day's hike would guide me towards. My only agenda was to learn as much about Henry Cowell's research and process and observe how his studies have changed since 1895 when he was working at this same spot with his students. Cowell is known as the "father of modern ecology" and his groundbreaking work on ecological succession at the Indiana Dunes is the template of ecology work done today. I'm not an ecologist nor an academic, I'm just an observer, activist and an artist so I approached his work through that lens and my main take-away was the significance of anthropogenic sounds on the preserve, like you mentioned on your visit to the Dunes. So I meticulously recorded each stage of the succession (various ecosystems) from the beach to the stabilized dunes of the Black Oak Savanna during different times of the day and combined them onto one track. Later I improvised to this track in the studio but I would like to also release it as is because I think the recordings provide a stark impression of just how squeezed in nature is against man's interest and how this fragmentation may affect ecosystems.
DC: Your formal training as a percussionist, various collaborative projects, and passion for native plants and ecological stewardship seems to indicate that you have an interest in learning about past traditions to inform not only your creative output, but also the way in which you move throughout the world. It might be difficult to name only a few influential individuals, philosophies, or movements, but who or what has impacted or stuck with you recently?
MW: I've actually never noticed that fact but you're absolutely right! I guess I do have a curiosity of the origins of the practices that I get into. I think it's super important to know the roots of all things, not only as a form of respect but also as a compass for progressive work. Aside from Cowell and Tallamy whom I mentioned earlier, I'm currently studying how the native people of the Americas managed the land for over 10,000 years before European settlement. It's fascinating because their work was quite the opposite of what the 20th century ideal of land preservation was, which was the John Muir school of unspoiled wilderness that is best left alone from human intervention. The Indigenous people worked with the land and had a very heavy hand, something we would call management today, but they did so in a way that wasn't destructive because as I mentioned earlier it was a completely different mindset - humans are an integral part of nature.
DC: I'm heading to Olympic National Park here in a couple weeks, and then completing a residency on the Pacific Coast later in July. To inform my own practice this summer, I'm wondering if you have any deep listening advice. I've read a bit of Gordon Hempton since I'm heading to the Olympics, but how do you approach listening in wild (or human-made) spaces?
MW: That sounds like an amazing experience! My only advice would be to not have any expectations. When I lead soundwalks I hear gripes from participants about how there are sounds that they like and there are sounds that they don't like and they wish that those sounds that they were annoyed by weren't part of the experience. Well, to wish for a stroll through the woods that is free of jet noise, or a motorcycle engine or some other anthropogenic sound is to wish for time-travel back two centuries! I do my own personal soundwalk every morning at 6 am in the preserve by my house and my method for keeping my mind within the environment that I'm in instead of wandering elsewhere is as follows: 1. Pay attention to the sounds that I'm creating as I walk - my breath, my footsteps, etc. 2. Pay attention to the sounds in my immediate environment - birdsong, the wind rustling the leaves, croaking of the bullfrogs, etc. 3. Pay attention to the sounds outside of the preserve - distant motor sounds, etc. This is a discipline to keep your mind focused but eventually through this practice the three "sections" of sound will smear into one and hopefully you even go beyond the naming and "liking/disliking" of sounds to simply accepting "sounds as sounds, without attachment" as John Cage (and Zen masters) taught.
DC: My undergraduate work was at Goshen College in northern Indiana, and I have lots of family still in that area. I'm in Portland, Oregon now, but I visit Indiana quite often, actually. To ask another selfish question, I am wondering if you have any special natural spots you'd recommend exploring in the Michiana area. Where are some of your favorite wild spaces, and why?
MW: Ooh, my favorite topic! I grew up in northwest Indiana and now live in southwest Michigan and I try to hit as many spots as possible. In NW Indiana I recommend Miller Woods in Gary for AMAZING botanizing in the various ecosystems, Cowles Bog in the national park for a great hike to a secluded beach, trail 9 in the Indiana Dunes State Park for a hike that looks very different from what you think of a midwest landscape, Tolleston Dunes in the Indiana Dunes National Park to observe a functioning Black Oak Savanna (one of the most imperiled ecosystems on the planet), Heron Rookery in Spring for the amazing spring ephemeral floral display, Pinhook Bog in early June for the native orchid blooms and carnivorous plants, and most properties owned by Shirley Heinze Landtrust . Oh, and you must visit a virgin prairie remnant in late July to early September to get a feel for what the midwest used to look like before agriculture dug it all up (Hoosier Prairie, Cressmoor Prairie, Dunes Prairie in the Indiana Dunes State Park and the enormous Kankakee Sands).
My (Nathan's) wife, Allison, skipping rocks at Indiana Dunes National Park in December 2019.
DC: Finally, what projects do you have on the horizon? Other residencies in national parks? More nature/"created" sound blends? Work with Zelienople or any of your other bands? Ecological activism? Something completely different and unrelated to work you've done in the past? Feel free to share whatever you'd like with readers.
MW: Currently my mind and body are immersed in ecology work - creating native gardens for my customers as well as ecological restoration volunteer work for Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy and the Stewards of Kleinstuck. The only time I get these days to create art is during the Winter. Hopefully, this upcoming winter we'll find some time to wrap up the new Zelienople album. Next year we have a Slow Bell Trio tape coming out on Dinzu Artefacts and I'm sure we'll book some more Zelienople shows because it's a blast to play with those guys.
Check out Mike Weis' work here, and huge thanks to the artist for his time.