Chuck Palmer has been a drummer for two decades, but said it wasn't until he started recording the sounds around him that he really learned how to listen—not just to music, but to everything.
"When I would hit record on the device, my awareness level would elevate," he explained. "And everything became sacred."
To give an example of that experience, Palmer paced the length of the 36th Street Bridge, a rust-red structure that carries the Greenbelt over the Boise River, connecting Veterans Memorial Park to Garden City's Live-Work-Create District. He has visited the regularly bridge for the last few weeks, as it's mere blocks from Surel's Place, where he's the August artist in residence. He doesn't make the trip to watch the river—instead, he turns the bridge into a huge, walkable drum set and carries an old iPod to record its music, part of what he called "the beauty of all this theoretical cacophony."
The iPod's screen was already cracked, and maybe that's why Palmer didn't bother to hold back when he used it as a drumstick, tapping and sliding it across the metal struts of the bridge. Back at Surel's Place, when he played the recording, the crunch and grind of each contact was visceral, the kind of music that makes your palms itch and your feet remember where you've just been walking. That, Palmer said, is the point: His forays into the outdoors with the cherry-red iPod and his Zoom H1 handheld recorder are like photography missions, but the impressions he captures—of bikes passing by, kayakers volleying comments, tree branches colliding—are aural rather than visual. And he constantly keeps an ear out for more.
"The concept of the piece is very much, first of all, to tell a story about my experience here and just to sort of create a subtext," said Palmer. "I sort of look at it like I'm writing a screenplay ... The intention is a very visual experience, for myself and for the listener."
It's easy to capture some sounds, like the roar and tumble of the river or the hollars of swimming children. Others, like the sound spiders make while spinning their webs—Palmer is fascinated by their multiplicity in the undergrowth near Quinn's Pond—he has to create.
Palmer's stockpile of recordings will eventually become a single 45-60-minute track called Anonymous Elder: Boise, ID, that encapsulates his time as an artist in residence in the City of Trees. Before he heads home to New York, he'll perform a version of Anonymous Elder live at Garden City's Audio Lab Recording Studio on Thursday, Aug. 23, accompanying the recorded snippets on the cajon, a Peruvian box drum that's his instrument of choice when traveling. Decisions about which recordings he plays, and how they'll fade and meld together, will be made moment-to-moment, "reverse engineered," as Palmer put it, in an electronic mimicry of jazz scatting.
"Every time it's performed, it will be a unique performance," he said. "...But I'll try not to change the story too much."
Anonymous Elder has already seen other incarnations. In 2016, Palmer collaborated with his brother, sculptor Matthew Gray Palmer, to create a soundscape of the San Juan Islands that became the background music for an art installation focused on conservation efforts for Orca whales. It was called "Liminal Currents: Exploration of an Empathic Umwelt" and Palmer released it under the name Anonymous Elder. His debut solo album, Waiting on the Rain (Frontside 180 Group, 2013), also features a track titled "Anonymous Elder" that uses some of the same sounds from the islands, including the crackling of a campfire and Palmer's drumming on his brother's metal fire pit.
The name is rooted in Palmer's family, in the same way the recording project was the product of working with his friends—foremost among them world-renowned cellist Dave Eggar, who brought Palmer to Boise in when he was Artist in Residence at Surel's place back in January—to find his personal sound. (Eggar isn't the only lauded musician Palmer has worked with, either. His credits include collaboration with Foreigner, Zayn Malik, Phillip Phillips, Amy Lee of Evanescence, and members of OAR, among dozens of others.)
Palmer explained that his stepfather, upon retirement, had toyed with the idea of opening a business offering his services as an "elder" to the community, for consultation on everything from law to personal matters. This, in addition to the fact that his stepfather once played the Tibetan singing bowls for one of his recordings and requested to be credited as "anonymous," gave rise to the name. His brother's support of the found-sound project cemented the family connection. They've always learned from each other, and now Palmer is paying it forward, learning from the world's everyday hum and striving to pass on that awareness.
"When it comes to Anonymous Elder stuff, my intention has been less environmental and more trying to inspire people, as I have been, to listen more critically, to listen more passionately, be more aware, be more present in their lives," he said.