Nashville-based sound artist and Mount Vernon native Aaron Doenges turns Kokosing River into music in new footbridge installation

Growing up in Mount Vernon, Aaron Doenges would often spend summer afternoons playing on a rocky beach alongside the Kokosing River. Sometimes he would make little wooden boats out of 2-by-4 scraps from his dad’s workshop and float them down the river. Later, in high school and college, Doenges cycled on the bike path that runs along the river. 

Up until Doenges graduated from Mount Vernon Nazarene University in 2003, the Kokosing River was a constant in his life. These days, the river remains an integral part of Mount Vernon’s rejuvenated downtown, particularly the South Main Street footbridge that crosses the river and serves as part of the Heart of Ohio bike trail. At night, the bridge and neighboring viaduct are illuminated, matching the lights atop the nearby observation tower and becoming a focal point of Mount Vernon, which is about 50 miles northeast of Columbus.

And through Sept. 8, when pedestrians walk along the bridge, they’ll be greeted by ever-changing atmospheric music courtesy of Doenges, a sound artist now based in Nashville. The installation on the bridge is called “Wade: Music for River and People,” and the music playing through mounted speakers is composed by the river itself and from the people moving across the bridge. 

Using sensors that pick up motion along the bridge, along with real-time U.S. Geological Survey data about the depth and flow of the Kokosing, Walhonding and Muskingum rivers, the pitches, tones and dynamics of the music changes. On a recent weekday morning visit, the electronic drones washed over the sunlit bridge and river, creating an alternately soothing and eerie experience that seemed to meld with the surrounding sounds of traffic and cicadas buzzing. While walking across, Mount Vernon resident Ashley Gillespie said the bridge and the river felt “more alive.” 

“The data only updates about every 15 minutes, and so because of that, it could end up being a pretty static piece, so that's part of the art and the composition that goes into it: How do we take this pretty static data and turn it into something a little bit more alive? … The atmosphere changes from moment to moment, and especially over days or after a big rain it changes pretty significantly,” Doenges said recently by phone from Nashville, where he first premiered “Wade” last year. “With this type of work, there’s a limited number of things that I can do to guide people to respond to it in one way, and I don't know that I really want to. When we had it in Nashville, I heard everything from ‘aliens’ to ‘whales’ to ‘the voice of God.’ There was a wide variety of responses to it. I find a little bit of mystery in it.”

For Doenges, who used to work in corporate data analytics, the electronic music of “Wade” combines his love of technology, music and the outdoors. “I’m pretty interested in the ways that you can mirror something as organic as a river, but also leave a little bit of a digital edge to it,” he said. 

The spark of the piece came from a “remix” assignment in a religious history class at Vanderbilt University. “I took the theme of baptism — a ritual that several kinds of religions use to welcome people into their group — and I wanted to bring that kind of welcome onto a more civic level: What happens if we welcome everybody who walks through this space into our community?” Doenges said.

In Nashville, Doenges pivoted a bit from the vision, partially due to civic funding that restricts religious expressions. “It became more of an environmental focus at that point. It’s another form of community and welcoming and connecting ourselves to the environment, and recognizing that we are part of it and we have an effect on it,” he said. “In larger cities like Nashville, we get so caught up in just city life and the busy-ness of that. And even though there's this huge river that flows right past us, and that provides us with our drinking water, most of the time we're not even really aware that it's there, or that it’s our drinking water source. To help people reconnect with that was a big goal of mine.”

To see the effect of “Wade” on others, Doenges also used his artistic anonymity to his advantage in Nashville. “I would sit on the bridge for hours and just watch people,” he said. “They'd stop and read the sign, and then they'd walk considerably slower. They'd look around a little bit more and look at the river a little bit more.”

Doenges said the town of Mount Vernon and its city officials were excited about “Wade” from the beginning and welcomed him back to his hometown with open arms. “In the conservative circles that I grew up in, Mount Vernon was a little bit of a strange place for me to grow up as a gay man,” he said. “Coming into Mount Vernon with this strange artwork that I created — that's very much about welcoming people — was really liberating for me in many ways. It’s a statement of, ‘Here I am. I'm part of your community, and I'm proud of who I am, and I'm proud to be part of your community.’”