ALBUM REVIEW: John Cage’s Music for Speaking Percussionist by Bonnie Whiting

by Michael Schell

One of the more esoteric musical subgenres that emerged in the 1970s is the “talking instrumentalist” piece. Frederic Rzewski composed and performed many piano works where the performer recites a text while playing, and thanks to the contrabass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, we now have a number of talking double bass pieces in the repertory. Even wind players have gotten into the act, including Seattle’s own Stuart Dempster, who in Robert Erickson’s General Speech recites General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech through a trombone.

Now we can add Bonnie Whiting to this distinguished list. Head of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, she has made a specialty out of commissioning and performing speaking percussionist pieces. In her debut album from Mode Records, she turns her attention to John Cage (1912–1992), famous both for his witty creative writings and for his groundbreaking percussion compositions.

The centerpiece of the album is a 51-minute track titled—appropriately enough—51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist. It’s a personal showcase for Whiting, who has been performing it since 2010, including at Seattle’s 2016 John Cage Musicircus. Since Cage did not write any compositions that explicitly call for a talking percussionist, Whiting combines two chance-determined “time length” pieces from the 1950s that Cage suggested could be performed simultaneously.

Whiting performing 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist at the John Cage Musicircus, Town Hall, Seattle, November 2016. Photo by Lee Goldman.

The first, 45’ for a Speaker, was built by Cage out of randomly selected excerpts from several of his contemporaneous lectures. These mostly come across as juxtaposed humorous vignettes, rather like his later Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), which Second Inversion profiles here. The pacing of the words varies, so Whiting’s vocal delivery is sometimes rapid, sometimes sparse, and there are many long silences. Cage supplied a fixed script, which is published in his collection Silence.

By contrast, the score of the accompanying piece, 27’10.554” for a Percussionist, is open-ended, specifying only the timing of notes, their relative loudness, and whether their sound source should be wood, metal, drumhead, or “anything else.” It’s up to Whiting to assemble a suitable battery for the task, something that she does with aplomb, using both conventional and “junk” instruments. As with 45’ for a Speaker, the timing of the percussion music ranges from very active to very sparse, but since it’s always in free rhythm it’s mainly up to the text to convey a sense of tempo and beat.

Although Whiting’s playing occasionally drowns out her voice (this is by design!), her diction is clear, and the text is usually intelligible—even if owing to its chance selection it doesn’t always make normal sense. Whiting’s light and agile speaking voice offers a refreshing contrast to all the male voices that have traditionally dominated recordings of this kind of piece, and the feat of covering both vocal and instrumental roles at the same time is an impressive tour de force. Listening to it is like imagining Gertrude Stein deliver a lecture on modern music in a room occupied by a crazy robotic drum corps.

Excerpt from Whiting’s annotated score to 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist.

The following track, Music for Two (By One), lasts a more modest 13 minutes and was similarly fashioned by Whiting from two different Cage pieces, one for voice and one for percussion. Both were written with indeterminate notation, and both come from his late collection Music for _____ (completed in 1987). Here the texts are bare letters and isolated syllables, so the emphasis is on tone color rather than meaning. Though the texture is relatively thin, as in 51’15.657” for a Speaking Percussionist, the result is more compact and integrated. In Whiting’s hands, it makes a nice entry point to this style of Cage piece.

A different side of Cage is revealed in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a tiny classic for voice and piano from 1942. It was this work that launched Cage’s lengthy artistic engagement with Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Clearly astonished by that unique monument of 20th century literature, Cage seems to have endeavored to stand back and let the text speak for itself as much as possible. After selecting a passage depicting a child’s lullaby, Cage wrote the voice part using just three pitches. For the piano part, Cage doesn’t even open the instrument, instead simply directing the performer to tap and rap on the closed cover and lid. He could hardly have intervened any less while still having set Joyce’s words to music!

Although The Wonderful Widow is fully written out in standard notation, Cage’s humble approach to his source material anticipates the even more ego-effacing attitude evinced in his later, chance-determined works. Whiting tackles the piece as another solo effort, doing both the singing and the piano tapping. The softness and simplicity of her interpretation gives it an unmistakably nurturing tone—a kind of release after the complex tracks preceding it.

Excerpts from Cage’s autograph of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Two more tracks wrap up the album: Cage’s A Flower (which is a kind of companion work to The Wonderful Widow) and a performance by Whiting’s frequent collaborator Allen Otte, where he plays Cage’s prepared piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp while reciting a text and adding frame drum embellishments.

For an album with such a focused concept, John Cage: Music for Speaking Percussion offers an admirable range of musical experiences. Mode Records is making it available both in conventional audio formats and as a Blu-ray Disc, with the latter featuring a video interview with Whiting and Otte and HD footage of all the works in performance, thus conveying the theatricality that’s so impressive when you see them live. The release is Volume 52 (!) in Mode’s longstanding project to record Cage’s complete compositions, and it’s essential listening for enthusiasts of Cage or percussion music. Here’s hoping that there’s much more yet to come from both Bonnie Whiting and Mode Records.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Memory Palace by Christopher Cerrone

by Maggie Molloy

Still frame from Mark DeChiazza’s video for Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace.

The method of loci is a mnemonic strategy dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea is this: you memorize the layout of a building or geographic space, then assign memories to any number of discrete locations within itand to recall the information, you imagine yourself walking back through the space.

In composer Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace, he takes that method one step further: instead of imagining a geographic space, he creates a sonic one. Composed for solo percussion and electronics, the piece is performed on a collection of homemade instruments and field recordings. In Cerrone’s memory, the palace is built of crickets and cheap guitars, wind chimes and wooden planks, beer bottles and quiet breath. The result is a vivid mosaic of music and memory—an intimate retrospective of a life lived in sound.

Memory Palace is a kind of paean to places and people that have deeply affected me,” Cerrone said. “The sounds in the piece are signposts; they help me remember—and more important, understand, who I am.”

Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum premieres Cerrone’s Memory Palace in this brand new video by Mark DeChiazza:

LIVE VIDEO STREAM: A Far Cry on Friday, May 26 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET

A Far Cry and members of Silk Road premiere Vijay Iyer’s “City of Sand.”

by Maggie Molloy

New and familiar works from all corners of the globe come together this Friday night at A Far Cry’s concert collaboration with members from Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. And although the concert itself is in Boston (and also completely sold out), you can still hear every minute of this musical tour de force right here on Second Inversion during our live video stream of the performance this Friday, May 26 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET.

Joined by Silk Road members Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Sandeep Das (tabla), Haruka Fujii (percussion), Joseph Gramley (percussion), and Wu Man (pipa), A Far Cry explores music from across the ages and around the world, ranging from Bartók’s famous Romanian Folk Dances to a brand new world premiere of Vijay Iyer’s City of Sand.

The world-ranging program features composers and music from about a dozen different countries, including India, Iran, China, Syria, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, America, Japan, and more. Check out the full program below, and click here for program notes.

Kayhan Kalhor: Gallop of a Thousand Horses
Zhao Jiping: Sacred Cloud Music
Kinan Azmeh: Ibn Arabi Postlude
Béla Bartók, arr. Arthur Willner: Romanian Folk Dances
Kojiro Umezaki: For Zero
Vijay Iyer: City of Sand (World Premiere)
Sandeep Das, arr. Jesse Irons: Tarang
JPP and Marin Marin, arr. Karl Doty & Erik Higgins: Finnish and Swedish Fiddle Tunes
Kinan Azmeh: Bass Duo
Sapo Parapaskero, arr. Ljova & Osvaldo Golijov: Turceasca

Visit our website on Friday, May 26 at 5pm PT / 8pm ET to watch the sold-out performance LIVE. To learn more about our live-streaming video broadcasts of A Far Cry, click here.

Seattle Sounds and Musical Utterances: Q&A with James Falzone and Bonnie Whiting

“There is a ‘sound’ here, no doubt,” says James Falzone of Seattle’s distinctive new music scene. “It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas.”

Photo on left by Patrick Monaghan.

Those famous Northwest vistas are relatively new to clarinetist/composer James Falzone and percussionist Bonnie Whiting, each of whom recently moved here from the Midwest to serve as educators at two major academic institutions: Falzone as the new Chair of Music at Cornish College of the Arts and Bonnie Whiting as the Chair of Percussion Studies and Artist in Residence at the University of Washington.

Both powerful players in contemporary and experimental music circles, Falzone and Whiting first met at one of our New Music Happy Hours (co-presented with the Live Music Project)—and their conversation led to a musical collaboration which premieres this Thursday, March 2 at the Wayward Music Series.

Utterances is the name of the performance, which combines original, composed, and improvised music based on text, spoken word, and translation. The program merges the distinct sounds and styles of each musician: Falzone known for his matchless musical fusion of jazz, classical, and world music traditions, and Whiting for her interdisciplinary performances which often venture into nontraditional notation and instrumentation.

The concert program opens and closes with duo improvisations that expand, challenge, and subvert the traditional roles of clarinet and percussion. In between are solo sets featuring original works by Falzone, Whiting, and other composers, along with a performance by Falzone’s jazz-infused clarinet and saxophone sextet the Renga Ensemble.

We sat down with both artists to talk about Seattle sound experiments, unusual instruments, and musical utterances:

Second Inversion: You are both relatively new to Seattle, each serving as educators at two major academic institutions in the Northwest.  What do you find most inspiring about your respective new roles, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Photo by William Frederking.

James Falzone: Cornish has a legacy unlike any other institution, connected to the very heart of American experimentalism. Being the steward of that legacy is something I find very exciting but also humbling, and I intend to take good care of it. This means learning from that legacy and continuing the sense of openness, experimentation, and disruption that Cornish has always represented.

Bonnie Whiting: There are already so many fabulous opportunities that exist for percussionists at UW: the Harry Partch instrument collection on campus, a partnership with the Seattle Symphony, opportunities to perform with groups like the steel band and gamelan ensembles through the ethnomusicology department, and an ever-expanding jazz program.

I’m excited to teach, create, and perform new music by living composers alongside historical works from the 20th century. I also plan more touring and outreach for the percussion ensemble. In March, we’ll perform and lead a hands-on workshop for Tent City 3 (currently hosted on the UW campus.) I’ve been giving workshops in local high schools and middle schools, and we are going to be featured at the Northwest Percussion Festival in April.

In addition to my work with the students, it’s thrilling to have such great faculty colleagues. It’s an incredible scene for new music and improvised music, and I’ve met so many dream collaborators. Right now, I’m working on a project with another new faculty member in the DX Arts program: Afroditi Psarra. She has these incredible embroidered synthesizers and works with sensors, and so integrating these into a percussive soundscape has been fascinating.


SI: What do you find most unique or inspiring about the Northwest’s new music scene?

JF: There is a “sound” here, no doubt. It is one I would describe as patient and less influenced by the frenetic energy that you might find in a city with less vistas. I’m hearing this in composed music, in improvised music, in the soundscape around me; even in the way people speak.

Artists seem hard at work here, presenting their ensembles and music and building a sense of community, attributes of a healthy, vibrant scene. I’m delighted to be a part of it as an artist, and hope to use my role at Cornish to be of service. The wonderful NUMUS Northwest event—which, though not sponsored by Cornish, was held there as a means of service to the community—is an example of what I want to see Cornish doing more of in the future.

Solo improvisation by James Falzone, inspired by the writing of Christian Wiman:


SI: How did this collaboration come about, and how would you describe the music you’re creating together in this performance?

BW: James happened to sit across from me at a New Music Happy Hour last fall, and we had a great conversation. I had heard of him and was familiar with his music; we both moved from the Midwest and moved in similar experimental music circles but hadn’t yet had the pleasure of collaborating.

Earlier this month, we opened the Seattle Improvised Music Festival with a duo set and it was a real joy. One of the elements that has developed (that I love) is the way we subvert the traditional roles played by a percussionist and a wind player. Often, he’ll play rhythmic, groove figures while I make distorted long tones. He’s also happy to move while playing and explore the space. It’s been fun to find percussion instruments that can travel too.

Transcription of an electronic audio score by Richard Logan-Greene. Original realization and performance by Bonnie Whiting:


SI: The Renga Ensemble features six clarinets/saxophones—what is it about this instrument combination that grabs you and pulls you in?

JF: I love homogenous sounding ensembles, though I know many composers do not. The sound of six single reeds resonating together offers far more color than one might imagine. But Renga Ensemble, both in its original state and now with this Seattle mix of players, has always been about personality coming through the texture by way of improvisation.

All of the music I’ll be presenting incorporates improvisation, mixed with through-composed elements, and this back and forth—this teetering between the “already” and the “not yet”—is what my work focuses on. For me, improvisation brings forth a musician’s personality like nothing else can and the challenge I set for myself in the Renga music is to find the balance point so that you hear the voice of each player as much as you hear the voice of the composer.


SI: Many of your percussion performances feature unusual instruments, sounds, or spoken elements—has your career as a percussionist changed the way you listen to your surroundings in your everyday life? (Or vice versa—was it your interest in sounds that originally led you to percussion?)

BW: Even as a kid I had a long attention span, and I have always loved sounds. My mother says some of my first toys were pots and pans on the kitchen floor. Just the other night I was listening to the radio on a long drive across upstate New York, and I stumbled upon the last movement of Mahler 9.  It’s quite long and I was on the Thruway, so gradually the piece became punctuated by static as I moved out of range. This intensified the listening experience for me: my memory filled in some of the music, my imagination more, and I actually enjoy the sound of static.

I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to replicate the sound of static and white noise on my snare drum and sandpaper blocks, and my collection of found tuned pot lids are more valuable to me than my five-octave marimba. I’m naturally drawn to pieces that use speech patterns to generate rhythmic material: Globokar’s Toucher and Parenti’s Exercise No. 4 on our program feature this technique. These days, I have a very young son and I enjoy “performing” our bedtime stories, adding sound effects and rhythm each night.


SI:What were some of the written sources that inspired the music of Utterances?

JF: In addition to improvised duets with Bonnie, I’ll be presenting two works that connect to text. The first is an ongoing solo project I call “Sighs Too Deep for Words,” which is an improvised, long-form work that is inspired by language from the New Testament that speaks of “utterances,” which is sometimes translated as “sighs,” that communicate the prayers we do not have words for.

The other pieces come from music I’ve created for my Renga Ensemble, which takes its name from a form of Japanese collective poetry. Most of the music for Renga was created around a haiku by American poet Anita Virgil:

not seeing
the room is white
until that red apple

“The Room Is,” composed by James Falzone and performed with the Renga Ensemble:


SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance, and what do you hope audience members will gain from attending?

BW: John Cage often said that his goal as a composer was to “make an art that, while coming from ideas, is not about those ideas, but rather produces others.” I echo this desire when I honestly answer that I don’t wish for our audience members to gain any one insight or worse, “message.” I hope our program might inspire others to improvise, or to make work of their own, or to seek out the fantastic spirit that is within each mundane utterance or environmental sound in their daily lives.

Photo on right by Marc Perlish.

Utterances is Thursday, March 2 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For more information, click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: Seattle Marimba Quartet

Join us Saturday, March 11 at 7:30pm as we present the Seattle Marimba Quartet as part of On Stage with Classical KING FM at Resonance at SOMA Towers! Get your tickets now – it’s a small venue and will easily sell out!

SMQ thinks way outside the box when it comes to percussion – and classical music. Join us for a showcase classical favorites (Bach, Mahler, Ravel), a unique blend of drumming styles from around the world, and modern marimba repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries. Best of all, YOU will have a chance to learn and perform Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and African drumming rhythms right along with them! Presented by Second Inversion, KING FM’s project dedicated to rethinking classical music. 

SMQ formed in 2007 by members Christian Krehbiel, Chris Lennard, Craig Wende and Brian Yarkosky while earning music degrees at the University of Washington. SMQ strives to engage audiences with their unique blend of drumming styles from around the world, as well as modern marimba repertoire from the 20th and 21st centuries. Much of their current repertoire consists of their original mallet keyboard arrangements with works by such composers as Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Mahler, and Bach. SMQ’s showcase of the diversity of percussion makes for an interesting and entertaining concert experience.

And – SMQ has just released their new album, A Thousand Pictures, which offers a great preview of what you’ll hear live on Saturday, March 11!

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their playlist. Tune in during the indicated hours below on Friday, January 20 to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!

David P. Jones: Music for South Africa (Caballito Negro)

For many living in the United States, this past week has felt like a lit fuse. Today, protests & rallies will explode all over the country as marginalized groups and their allies rebuke violence, advocate for social justice, and work together from every corner of the nation to make a statement of unity. Seems like a good time for some “music of hope,” which is how David P. Jones describes Music for South Africa. In this piece, Jones took inspiration from the struggle against apartheid and drew from traditional South African music to create a percussion-heavy composition akin to the sounds of Johannesburg night-club jazz. Whether or not you participate in a mass movement, let Music for South Africa encourage thoughts of hope and expressions of your limitless potential. – Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Joseph Byrd: Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese Ball” American Contemporary Music Ensemble (New World)

ACME’s album exploring Joseph Byrd’s work in NYC from 1960-1963 has some interesting sounds, not least of which is the final track. This experimental work for balloon ensemble serves as the prelude to a chamber opera that was performed at Yoko Ono’s loft in the spring of 1961 (with Ono as one of the performers). There is no score, rather only a sort of oral history of the event to follow: each performer is instructed to allow air to escape their balloon, creating different pitches by stretching the neck in different ways. It results in an improvised crowd of squeaks and whines, and it goes for some time – maybe the balloons are pretty big in this recording. Some combine together to almost form a melody, but not quite. It’s a good bit nose-thumbing anti-music, with a hilariously abrupt ending as the last bit of air escapes. – Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 2pm hour today to hear this piece.


Madeleine Cocolas: If Wisdom Fails (Futuresequence) 

A distillation of her “track-a-week-for-52-weeks” composition project, Cocolas’s album Cascadia was written after the composer relocated from Australia to Seattle.  Lately, my ever-deepening connections to the Seattle area have been an indispensable source of solace, and those feeling were brought back to the surface by If Wisdom Fails.  Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper called this album “cathartic;” I wholeheartedly agree. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


Matt Marks: The Little Death, Vol. 1 (New Amsterdam Records)

Matt Marks’ The Little Death, Vol. 1 is a classic tale of boy meets girl—except for instead of the familiar happily-ever-after ending, the boy and girl take a romantic ride through the world of Fundamentalist Evangelism, struggling to cope with their religion-prescribed repressed sexuality in the 21st century.

Performed by Marks and Mellissa Hughes, the post-Christian nihilist pop opera features 11 provocatively-titled chapters which detail the extraordinarily convoluted relationship between religion and sexuality using surprisingly modest means: Marks self-produced the album using only a couple microphones and a laptop running Ableton Live.

The ambitious two-character theatrical work draws on sampled material from Marks’ own collection of 1970s gospel, hip-hop, and soul albums, crafting surprisingly catchy tunes that fuse hypnotic pop hooks with satirical lyrics and apocalyptic Christian imagery. It’s definitely not your traditional church service—but it’s a surprisingly spiritual experience.
Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear an excerpt from this recording.