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Breckenridge musician Russick Smith often plays concerts in nature, sometimes playing from high up in a tree. (Provided by Russick Smith)
Breckenridge musician Russick Smith often plays concerts in nature, sometimes playing from high up in a tree. (Provided by Russick Smith)

In the middle of Breckenridge’s Blue River, Russick Smith plays his cello on a small, grassy island. With the audience assembled on stones along the river banks, he gently adjusted the microphone away from the instrument. “I’m playing a duet with the river,” he explained so that people could hear both his music and the water as it lapped against the island.

While Smith does play music indoors in traditional settings, he is increasingly finding new ways to play concerts outdoors, too. It started on a whim a few years ago for this Breckenridge local, and his explorations are now part of the Breckenridge International Festival of the Arts. In addition to his river island concerts, he’s been joined by two other musicians in chairs set in trees, which he called a “Tree-o.”

“To greater or lesser degrees, all outdoor art is immersive,” he said. “To experience a piece of outdoor art, no matter what discipline, someone must pass through a dynamic and uncontrolled environment.”

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The 32-year-old’s exploration of immersive musical art began with a personal search out of cynicism and seeking its opposite: wonder.

I wanted to do something that would make me feel that blend of amazement, fascination, surprise, whimsy, etc., and then shape a moment where I could just climb inside that feeling and hang out,” he said. “Of course, as a performer, I wanted to bring other people into that same space and experience that wonder, to maybe combat their own cynicism.”

His first concerts were what he calls “guerilla performances” held during the Breckenridge Creative Arts (AKA BreckCreate) festivals such as WAVE. “During the inaugural WAVE festival, I just decided to wade out there and have a guerrilla cello recital in the middle of the river,” he said. Soon, dancers joined in, and people stopped and listened. 

Now, he’s a regular performer during the BreckCreate annual festivals.

“I play two sets each night during the festival, but I am still in such absolute awe when the swallows are swirling around the river at the evening set and the bats and foxes come out at the night set,” Smith said. “It makes me feel like a character in a Disney movie.”

In fact, his performances are becoming not just immersive art, but destinations.

On a few occasions this past year, I’ve been approached by people from both in-state and out-of-state that have told me they’ve specifically scheduled their vacations around performances of ‘Tree-o’ or ‘Through the Blue,’” he said. “Does that qualify those pieces as ’destinations’? I would be flattered if people thought of them that way. I never would’ve imagined I’d hear that the first time I waded into a river with my cello over my head.”

With winter weather coming, the outdoor performances are on hold because of how challenging it would be on performers and their instruments, but there is an indoor opportunity to see and hear some of Smith’s outdoor concerts. On Oct. 17, “Sound and Vision: Detour 360” a film by sound artist and musician Bruce Odland, will premiere at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery

Smith said he’s continually delighted by the combination of nature, the awe in the faces of audiences and playing with musicians who agree to perform a concert from up in a tree.

Each show, I’m so amazed to see two other musicians sitting up in the trees beside me and then look down and see hundreds of people looking up at us, sharing the moment,” he said of working with violinist Karen Lauffer and mandolinist Kevin Larkin. “Every time, it fills me with wonder. There’s no room for even the smallest bit of cynicism. I think, with all of us out there in the woods, the feeling is the same for everybody that shares that moment. At least I hope it is, because I’m an adventurer at heart — and there’s a whole world of places where I haven’t played my cello yet.”

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