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Percussionist makes nature-based music during biking quest

"Sonic Divide" chronicles Payton MacDonald's bike trip and music making along the Continental Divide. Photo courtesy of Payton MacDonald. 1 / 2
There will be a painted bike available for playing during the "Sonic Divide" exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute. 2 / 2

In the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, Payton MacDonald kneeled in the dirt with a log to his left, large rocks in front of him, mallets in hand and a bicycle behind him. He performed "A Peace from the Action," by Travis Salim, with just percussion and a series of vocalized "ahhhs."

It was an in-the-wild concert that he performed 30 times as he covered the 2,500 miles of the Continental Divide in 2016. The athlete-musician-filmmaker commissioned pieces from 30 composers — works that could be played with rocks, sticks, the spokes of his bicycle. Then he set out on the month-long trip from New Mexico to Canada.

The project, "Sonic Divide: Art Meets Endurance," is one of three exhibitions that gets an opening reception — along with "Chholing Taha: Every Spirit Tells a Story" and Jonathan Thunder's "Suspension of Disbelief" — from 6-9 p.m. today at the Duluth Art Institute.

The exhibition will include a screening of the film that resulted from the trip and paintings by Kenneth D. Johnson of Duluth, whose work is featured in the film. (Johnson is MacDonald's father-in-law). Johnson, a local architect who was involved with projects like Amsoil Arena and the Kathryn A. Martin Library at the University of Minnesota Duluth, also painted a bicycle that will be available for playing music.

"The question is: Is the bike a bike or a musical instrument," said Johnson, who rode part of the way with MacDonald.

"Sonic Divide" happened organically over time, said MacDonald, who lives in New Jersey and has a 30-mile round-trip bicycle commute to William Patterson University, where he is a professor of percussion. He had been doing a lot of mountain bike trips and often stopped to sing or drum along the way.

"Over time, I started to realize it might be interesting to formalize it into a bigger project," he said.

Payton started in New Mexico and followed the route, averaging about 100 miles a day. He traveled with camping gear, food, recording equipment, mallets. Every four days or so, he would stay in a motel so he could restock and back up his footage.

He met people along the way: cyclists headed in the opposite direction, or a troubadour with a flat tire. At one stop, MacDonald played percussion on pots and pans while a woman recited one of his haikus and another played violin.

MacDonald was most taken with the daily shifts in terrain, he said, and recalled a night pedaling through the Great Divide Basin.

"As I left this town, the lights faded away," he said. "I was really in the dark in the dessert. Then I looked up, and I hadn't noticed that the sky was full of stars, and this moon emerged. It was so bright, I turned my light off."

On his first night, he sat cross-legged at an empty campground as the sun was setting and performed a haiku by composer Michael Udow. He hit two rocks together to make beats. Some of the composers wrote pieces as traditional music; some created graphics. Udow had instructions: He wanted MacDonald to create a haiku-per-day.

"It was designed to spirit Payton's creativity — not just as an interpretive performer but as a composer," he said in an interview in the artist's feature-length film.

First, the project was athletically satisfying. Then, when he got the chance to sift through his recordings, he also found it artistically satisfying, he said.

MacDonald has created a TED Talk from his experience, and the film has played at six festivals. During a recent performance in Canada, a reviewer for the Telegram said his nature and bike-based percussion program "topped the charts for weird."

"I'm actually delighted that I got labeled as 'topping the charts for weird,'" he said.

Kenneth D. Johnson's painting of Wyoming is among the work featured in the "Sonic Divide" exhibition.

If you go

What: “Sonic Divide: Art Meets Endurance,” “Chholing Taha: Every Spirit Tells a Story” and “Suspension of Disbelief”

When: 6-9 p.m.  today

Where: Duluth Art Institute, 506 W. Michigan St.