You may not have heard of Ruth Boden before, but once I saw the video of her hiking through Oregon ("Andante") with a cello strapped to her back, I knew I had to find out more. Ruth is a professional cellist with experience in many genres, who is also a professor at Washington State University. In addition to her more traditional teaching and performing work, she backpacks with her cello and performs outdoors.
KAYLEIGH: What's your background as a cellist/educator/performer?
RUTH: So, to start. I started playing cello in fourth grade through the public school system of East Valley in Spokane, WA. I had wonderful educators throughout, and a cello teacher who pushed me to apply for conservatories when the time was right. In the end I decided on The Cleveland Institute of Music where I studied with Stephen Geber. While at CIM I completed both my BM and MM degrees in cello performance. Upon his recommendation I moved down south to study with Carlton McCreery at the University of Alabama, which is also the place I first started teaching. Since then, I have taught at a number of places but now live in Pullman WA where I am an Associate Professor at Washington State University where I teach cello, bass (my secondary instrument), music theory, and coordinate our string/piano chamber music program. I've played with a bunch of orchestras throughout the country both as section member (cello and bass), and as a soloist. A couple of years ago I released my first solo CD "Off the Cuff" which features music of a quasi improvised nature. The big feature on the CD is the Solo Cello Sonate by Kodaly.
K: Have you always hiked/camped/etc?
R: I haven't always hiked or been a huge outdoor person. I was a pretty heavy kid (most would have probably just referred to me as a "big girl") and wasn't all that keen on physical activity. Our family went on a number of hikes and had a huge adventurous spirit, but I had never really tackled anything very large. This all changed pretty dramatically after a few summers in Colorado at a music camp called Rocky Ridge. There I had the opportunity to do quite a few hikes, and to play my cello outdoors. The first time I ever went backpacking was just a few years ago when I tried to launch the first ever project for Music Outside Four Walls. Honestly, I was so under prepared for what I was doing that I am luck I didn't get seriously injured. Now, after a lot more experience and successful miles, I feel very comfortable and at home in the woods.
K: What is the "goal" of performance for you and what does performing mean? (Whether in concert setting or otherwise)
R: The only goal I ever have had in performance is to pursue a transformative experience--both for the audience, and for myself. I practice hard and like a weird little maniac in terms of the analytic process of problem solving. Mostly slow, thoughtful, deliberate practice with metronome, drone, or tuner--lots of recording, lots of note taking, and high focus and patience. This is all so that when I get to the stage the mechanics are completely set and ironed out so that my only thought is of music making--which I equate to story telling. In the end, performance is about a shared experience, whether this is between you and your instrument, you and nature, or the music and the audience.
K: What inspired you to perform outdoors in such an unconventional setting and how does it change the psychological experience as a performer?
R: In terms of the concept behind playing outdoors, and especially in wide open places (like mountaintops)--it really kind of changed performance for me forever. The first time I played on a mountain I was awed by the fact that the music didn't bounce back. Without reflecting walls, ceilings, seats, etc. the music just leaves and goes. Something about this seems just so right somehow. The change of the soul for me in this was that I came to realize that this is what performance is--it's not about perfection, showing what you can do, or proving anything to anyone. It is simply about that transformative experience, which it turns out for me didn't require an audience at all--just the experience of playing to the universe. It's interesting to bring this feeling back into traditional performance venues--I can be more relaxed, more contemplative, and less bound up by the minutia of chasing a 'perfect' performance, in lieu of simply sharing this one snapshot of my musical journey. In teaching, I focus far less on the performance outcome and far more on the learning outcome. I feel that teaching my students how to practice, how to think more globally about the music they are learning, and how to rigorously control the technical aspects of playing gives them the freedom then to process their own journeys through repertoire and enjoy the destination more.
K:What are the usual responses from passerby and other hikers?
R: Other hikers largely have been really friendly and encouraging. Once I stop for the night and the cello comes out, other hikers listen, sing along, make requests, and share their own stories. I haven't experienced any animosity out hiking, nor have I had anybody request that I not play at a campsite. I do try to be respectful of others' space and hikes--
There is often a lot of disbelief that what I'm hauling is indeed a cello, but this is usually followed with questions about when they might get a chance to hear it. I know many long distance hikers think I'm nuts, but there really is such a wonderful spirit of 'hike your own hike' that while they think it's crazy they support that crazy!
The strangest phenomenon between other hikers and myself occurs when I've been hiking for quite some time by myself and I stop to play by water or on a mountaintop. It turns out that acoustics carry the sound for miles--so when folks actually run into me on the trail there is that relieved/awed moment when they realize they aren't crazy or hearing things.
K: Where have you hiked/played thus far, and where do you hope to go?
R: To date I've backpacked over 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail with my cello, including Mount Washington, Mount Katahdin, parts of Georgia, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. I've also backpacked much of the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon (where Andante was filmed). This summer I will be tackling the Pacific Crest Trail through Washington State. This project through Washington State is part of Music Outside Four Walls (my ongoing project), and will be a documentary about my life's journey so far-- "Walking Washington; A Cellist's journey home."
K: I'm impressed not only with Ruth's projects but also her strength and endurance for managing a heavy pack and a cello for extended periods of time. All still images from this blog are taken from the mini documentary "Andante," which was filmed by Gavin Carver. Check out their interview here at Backpackers.org andCheck out her website Music Outside Four Walls, as well as her facebook page for more updates on her upcoming adventure!