Dan Harpole Cistern
The Cistern Chapel: Resonance from the Pacific Northwest

The Cistern Chapel: Resonance from the Pacific Northwest

Dan Harpole Cistern

Interior of the Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden State Park
Photo courtesy Centrum

In the northwest corner of the United States, above the arid Great Basin and just beyond the western side of the Cascade mountain range, lies Seattle. Houses built before 1950 are largely constructed of the ancient Douglas Fir trees that used to cover this lowland temperate rainforest. And, though there are still some of these huge trees around Seattle, one can drive north and hop a ferry to the even more remote and northwesterly Olympic Peninsula to see whole ancient forests still standing surrounding the Olympic Mountains. On the north end of the peninsula lies the decommissioned Fort Worden (now a state park and artist residency location), and underneath this fort is a 2 million-gallon concrete cistern, now empty, that has a 45-second reverb time: the Dan Harpole Cistern.

There has been a lively experimental music scene in Seattle ever since Cage first arrived at Cornish College of the Arts in the late 1930s. His early prepared piano works and percussion ensemble pieces were all created and performed here and, along with Lou Harrison, he launched West Coast and Pacific Northwest tours of percussion music in the 1940s. The torch of the Cagean ethos of silence, listening, and spirit of guided improvisation has taken many roads, but in the Pacific Northwest, these ideas have played out in a particular, site-specific way, thanks especially to this enormous cistern and its epic reverb and singular sound. The acoustic is so unique that dozens of artists have come to record here since the late 1980s.

The cistern was initially built in the early 1900s as part of Fort Worden to put out fires that could potentially break out if any of the many bunkers that overlook the Strait of Juan De Fuca came under military attack. After the fort was decommissioned in the 1950s, the abandoned, cavernous concrete bunkers and the empty cistern became popular places for people to explore, make music with friends, party, and even perform occult rituals. Inside the cistern, the famed 45-second reverb is created by several convergent factors. The entire cylindrical space is made of concrete—nearly 200 feet in diameter and 14 feet high. Holding up the massive ceiling are 89 concrete pillars, and the sound reflecting off the pillars and sealed off, save a small hatch one climbs though to enter, helps create the reverb—virtually cancelling out all harmonics and creating a smooth frequency response.

Dan Harpole Cistern

Entrace to the Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden State Park
Photo courtesy Centrum

On the grounds of Fort Worden State Park is Centrum, an artist residency founded in 1980. Arts advocate Dan Harpole worked as a director there in the 1970s and ‘80s, and helped arrange for Seattle trombonist, composer, and improvisor Stuart Dempster to access the cistern for educational workshops and Dempster’s own experiments and tests. Dempster was initially introduced to the cistern in 1978 by composer David Mahler. But, due to safety concerns on the part of the state park, it was not until 1988 that ten years of requests from Harpole, Dempster, and others finally paid off, and the first formal recording was allowed to be made in the cistern—or, as it eventually came to be known colloquially, the Cistern Chapel.

This seminal recording made in October of that year was Deep Listening, the beginning of a collaboration between Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros, and Panaiotis—a composers’ collective known as Deep Listening Band. Over the next 25 years, the ensemble made a number of recordings in interesting resonant spaces around the world, including one more in the cistern, The Ready Made Boomerang. The careful listening, collaboration, and spiritual sentiment that the cistern inspires encouraged them to continue exploring new locations to create site-specific composed improvisations, as well as to work with software and surround-sound systems to further explore what Dempster says is “like being wrapped up in a warm, fuzzy blanket. Reverberation in the cistern is like a supportive audience. The walls tell me to keep playing and the ‘audience’ (as it were) joins in.”

As one can imagine with a 45-second reverberation time, recording in the space is a singular experience. In, say, a cathedral with an 8-second reverb time, one has to listen and adjust to playing there—almost like learning a new instrument. According to Dempster, “playing in the cistern teaches two things to a musician: one is having a secure tonal center, and the other is intonation. If the attack is unstable, the reverberation captures all of that instability. If intonation is not accurate, the cistern lets one know. Make errors in either and one receives information back that is profoundly annoying. When one stops a mistake in a normal playing environment, the mistake has the decency to stop—not so with the cistern!”

Besides the musicians’ own inconsistencies, the cistern’s location also presents challenges. “Besides whatever mistakes one may make in performance, any performer is subject to the whims of the space, such as broken glass underfoot (that inspired a lot of cleanup of the cistern on the part of a Centrum crew of volunteers), a rumble of a container ship that may take an hour or more to pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the northern part of Puget Sound, or a group of children thundering across the top.”

Dan Harpole Cistern

Wall inside the Dan Harpole Cistern at Fort Worden State Park
Photo courtesy Centrum

Paul Kikuchi, another Seattle-based composer and performer who has worked there notes, “For me, site-specific work is a generative practice. While a project may be presented as an album or video, it’s really more about the process of experiencing my instrument within entirely new acoustic parameters, and how that affects my sensibilities as performer/composer. The cistern in particular has had a great influence on my sense of time (not just in a purely musical sense), my ability to critically listen, and my patience!”

And in the liner notes of Deep Listening, Oliveros finds that the experience becomes similar to collectively playing an instrument. “The cistern space, in effect, is an instrument played simultaneously by all three composers [involved in Deep Listening Band]. The instruments—which are being played without any electronic processing—are accordion, didjeridu, trombone, voice and found metal pieces. The tonal qualities produced by each performer are constantly changed by interaction with the cistern acoustics, making it seem as if many more instruments are present.”

Even audio engineers recording in the cistern are perhaps more engaged or certainly differently so than usual. Al Swanson, audio engineer for Deep Listening, illustrates:

But what kind of sound should I aim for? Certainly such audiophile concepts as “imaging” and “phase integrity” lose all meaning in a nearly uniform acoustic. Everything bounces everywhere with almost no loss (significantly, because of phase amplification, for almost all locations reverberant sound exceeds direct sound), so a sort of “phase wash” is created. It’s funny what this does to your head. As an engineer I tried to analyze all this objectively, but I found I couldn’t do it. In a kind of acoustic uncertainty principle, there was no way to simultaneously pin down both the objective audio parameters and the audible reality of the situation. That is, the actual act of listening influenced the cognitive result. In this situation, therefore, I, an ostensible observer, became a virtual performer.

That spiritual sentiment (or at least engagement with place through sound) invoked by resonance in the cistern that Dempster refers to seems to be one that humans have enjoyed since time immemorial. Studies by acoustics experts and archaeologists working in caves in France have noted that cave paintings from 15-25,000 years ago are almost exclusively in the most interesting acoustic spaces in the caves—places with particular resonances. And, although we can’t hear the music to verify, flutes are frequently found near the paintings, further suggesting an interest in the resonance of those places. On the Tibetan Plateau there are caves known for particular resonant properties associated with certain deities whose locations are kept secret. In Christianity, of course, many cathedrals and churches are known for their resonance and reverb time.

Not so literally religious folks such as Paul Horn have utilized resonant spaces for musical purposes. Horn released Inside the Taj Mahal (the Taj Mahal has a 28-second reverb time) in 1968. More recently, an electronic artist who goes by [User] has started a series of projects and recordings utilizing grain silos in Canada, and just back across the border in Buffalo, New York, a series of experimental sound happenings have been going on for the last couple years in some equally resonant grain silos. In Rangely, Colorado, a resonant 65-foot tall empty water tank (simply called The TANK) has grown from simply a place for a few people to record and experiment into a non-profit organization and center for sound exploration and performance.

But let’s get back to the Pacific Northwest, specifically Stuart Dempster and his involvement with the incredibly resonant cistern at Fort Worden. In addition to his cutting-edge work in improvisation and composition, as well as collaborations with everyone from Cage to Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, and many others, Dempster pioneered many extended techniques for trombone. He also played a seminal role in bringing other non-traditional wind instruments like didjeridoo and even segments of garden hose and conch shells into the realm of contemporary classical and experimental music. Dempster also worked with Merce Cunningham Dance Company—in fact, some of the music from his album Underground Overlays From the Cistern Chapel was used in one of the collaborations. He continues to leave a big impression on the musical community of Seattle, especially through his many students from the University of Washington, where he began teaching in 1968 and is now a professor emeritus.

Because of his active involvement with so many people as a teacher and performer, both students and colleagues began to work and make recordings in the cistern. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering his own interest in improvisation, many of the people who have recorded there are jazz musicians in the community. Pianist and composer Wayne Horowitz and saxophonist Greg Sinibaldi have both released music recorded there. Dempster’s colleague at the University of Washington, clarinetist and composer William O. Smith has created works utilizing the resonance of the cistern as well. Many University of Washington alumni beyond Dempster’s trombone students have recorded work in there, such as Ewa Trebecz.

Among a younger generation, Paul Kikuchi grew up in Indianola, Washington, near the cistern and spent a lot of time as a youth in the concrete bunkers near the cistern while wondering about the mythological underground space kept under lock and key. Eventually in 2008 Kikuchi began working in the cistern during a residency at Centrum and has released a number of recordings made there on the Prefecture label, including Flightpatterns (a collaboration with his ensemble Open Graves and Stuart Dempster).

Dempster and people like Paul Kikuchi have continued to search for more spaces in and around Seattle as well, in a way helping to create an aesthetic of this region. In 1989, Dempster self-published a pamphlet from a project called S.W.A.M.I. (State of Washington as Musical Instrument) that outlines a number of places people are encouraged to go interact with, including Seattle’s Georgetown Steam Plant, the rotunda at the capitol building in Olympia, and naturally created spaces such as Palouse Falls and an echo-ey canyon called the Blowout. Longtime Seattle composer and sound artist Susie Kozawa has been actively working with found sounds and engaging with space in places like the Wing Luke Museum. Kikuchi also continued performing in spaces with interesting resonances, often with Dempster and Kozawa, such as the Satsop nuclear cooling tower and the Great Hall at Union Station in Seattle.

Besides recording in the cistern, there have also been live performances both inside the cistern and on the grassy lawn above, with speakers piping out the music being performed below. The first of these concerts was in 2007 to celebrate the cistern’s centennial, and was titled the Cisternnial. At this event, the cistern was officially re-named the Dan Harpole Cistern to commemorate his tireless advocacy for its artistic use. In 2008 Dempster led an ensemble for just such a concert of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis. A five-speaker surround sound system was set up for the audience to hear the performance happening below and, according to Dempster, “as the music is constructed like constellations, so was the audience able to enjoy the clear sky and see the stars. We all received several comments about how special it was, something like accessing the ancestors through music and stargazing.”

In 1992, Dempster presented a copy of Deep Listening Band’s The Ready Made Boomerang to John Cage. Cage, “had contributed a mesostic for the liner notes with the above title. The night before he had asked me, ‘When do I receive my new pair of ears?’” Indeed, the type of listening, patience, and inquisitiveness that the cistern demands of musicians is in many ways in line with the spirit of John Cage. But as ideas are passed and change between generations, perhaps Stuart Dempster’s own compositions and ideas about music in this lineage are best summed up through this contribution of asking everyone to listen as with new ears, especially by his example of exploring new places in Washington like the cistern at Fort Worden.

In the end, one gets the sense that the cistern helped influence Dempster’s own compositional sensibilities. Though it wasn’t written for the cistern, his open-ensemble work Milanda Embracing seems to create a sort of feedback loop through instructions both for the performers and audience. From his performance notes for the audience:

Listen to the performance space: Let the space suggest sound and listening strategies. Send sound across space.

Indeed, just as the 45-second resonance of the cistern becomes its own audience-like presence when performing, so too does Dempster ask for a similar energy flow, a call for full participation, to be fully present when listening no matter one’s role.

Special thanks to Stuart Dempster for providing materials to assist me in writing this article.

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