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.

 

VIDEO PREMIERE: Liquid Voices by Melia Watras presented with Sono Luminus

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photo: Michelle Lewis-Smith

Melia Watras: Violist, Chamber Musician, Composer, Professor of Viola, Sono Luminus Recording Artist, Chair of Strings at the University of Washington. And to top it all off? One of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

Second Inversion has had the opportunity to review her album Ispirare, film a video with her and Michael Jinsoo Lim in our studios, host the two of them on The Takeover, and now we’re thrilled to premiere the video for Liquid Voices, a piece from her upcoming album 26 to be released on Sono Luminus on January 27, 2017.

Melia Watras wrote Liquid Voices in 2013, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short story, The Fascination of the Pool. Watras was taken with the story’s fluidity, imagery and depth, which helped shape the structure and basic concept for the piece: voices floating on top of each other. Liquid Voices was recorded by Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin and Melia Watras, viola and this video was created by Ha Na Lee.


If you’re in the Seattle area, take note that Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.

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Meet the Instruments of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium

by Maggie Molloy

Walking into the Harry Partch Instrumentarium for the first time is a bit like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory—except Willy Wonka’s not a chocolatier, but a luthier of sorts. And Charlie’s not a young protégé, but a grown man named Charles Corey. He goes by Chuck for short.

There’s no candy or chocolate in this factory, but rather, the walls and floor are all covered in colorful, handmade musical instruments created out of wood and strings, gongs and glass, gizmos and gadgets. Oh, and everything you touch turns to microtonal melodies.

Chromelodeon - Photo by Maggie Molloy

All Photos by Maggie Molloy

Chuck is the director and curator of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium, which has been in residence at the University of Washington since 2014. Partch was an innovative and iconoclastic composer, music theorist, and creator of musical instruments—and the Instrumentarium is devoted to preserving and performing his works.

Partch was a pioneer of new music; he was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his musical texts and corporeal theatre works.

Through research, instruction, and performance, Chuck shares Partch’s music and instruments with, well, anyone who is interested. On Tuesday, April 26, he presents a concert of Partch’s music at Meany Hall, featuring local musicians, students, and community members who have studied the instruments with him over the past year.

Charles Corey - Photo by Maggie Molloy

“I have had the opportunity to work with Partch’s instruments for nearly half my life, and am still amazed by some of the sounds he creates in his music,” Chuck said. “Partch is best known for his just-intoned tuning system and the instruments he invented, but if he were not also a great composer I don’t think his work would have gained much of a following.  For me, it is rewarding to perform his music and solve the problems his instruments present, and I remain impressed by his distinctive musical language.”

Chuck first learned about the instruments while doing his undergraduate studies at Montclair State University, which housed the instruments at that time. His instructor was Dean Drummond, a composer and protégé of Partch.

“As a young composer, I was captivated by these unique sounds and a tuning system that I had never heard of, and quickly decided I wanted to be as involved as possible with the Partch program,” Chuck said.

Of course, being the director of the Partch Instrumentarium is no small commitment. Outside of teaching and performing, Chuck also takes care of all of the tuning, maintenance, and repairs on all of the instruments. Just to give you an idea, there are over 50 instruments in the collection—some with as many as 72 strings!

Aside from the peculiar tunings, each instrument also has its own unique performance idiosyncrasies.

Charles Corey with Chromelodeon - Photo by Maggie Molloy“Some of the instruments require an unusual performance technique and many of the instruments have a complicated tablature, so learning the music can be a challenge,” Chuck said. “That said, it can be particularly rewarding to learn the idiosyncrasies of these instruments and discover how to draw just the right sound out.”

In addition to curating, directing, teaching, performing, and maintaining the instruments, Chuck also provides guided small tours of the instruments by appointment. He was kind enough to show me around the Instrumentarium and let me see, touch, play, and take photos of every single instrument in the room.

Please, allow me to introduce you to just a few of them:

Diamond Marimba - Photo by Maggie MolloyDiamond Marimba:
This instrument is a physical manifestation of one of Partch’s most crucial theoretical concepts: the “tonality diamond.” Built in 1946, the instrument contains all twelve of Partch’s primary tonalities, each laid out in a series of thirds. It’s used as a prominent percussion instrument in many of his works.


Gourd Tree - Photo by Maggie MolloyGourd Tree:
Built in 1964, the Gourd Tree is comprised of twelve temple bells attached to gourd resonators, each of which hangs suspended from a eucalyptus branch. Yes, a eucalyptus branch. The instrument is often played in conjunction with Partch’s Cone Gongs, which are made out of nose cones from airplane fuel tanks.


Cloud-Chamber Bowls - Photo by Maggie MolloyCloud-Chamber Bowls:
Partch’s most iconic instrument, the Cloud-Chamber Bowls are made up of large glass gongs of varying sizes suspended in a wooden frame and played with mallets. Partch initially created the instrument in 1950 using Pyrex carboys discarded by the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.


Chromelodeon - Photo by Maggie MolloyChromelodeon: The colorful Chromelodeon, built in 1945, is an adapted reed organ modified to conform to Partch’s tonality system. The instrument plays a 43-tone per octave scale, as opposed to a typical Western keyboard, which plays 12 tones per octave. In addition to a standard keyboard and a collection of stops, the Chromelodeon also includes an additional keyboard of Partch’s own creation called the “sub-bass,” located in the upper left corner of the instrument. Both keyboards have colored and numbered labels representing ratios of the tuning system. Oh, and also: the player has to furiously pump two foot pedals throughout the entire performance in order fill the organ’s bellows and create sound.

Kithara II: Towering at nearly seven feet tall, the Kithara II requires the performer to stand on a riser in order to play it. Built in 1954, the instrument has twelve sets of six strings which correspond to Partch’s primary tonalities; four of these sets employ Pyrex rods as movable bridges. The Kithara II is also Chuck’s personal favorite instrument in the collection.


Surrogate Kithara - Photo by Maggie MolloySurrogate Kithara: As the name suggests, the Surrogate Kithara was originally invented as a substitute for Partch’s original Kithara, and was created when he began writing music for the instrument that was too difficult for one person to play. The Surrogate Kithara features two sets of eight strings, each with a Pyrex rod that serves as a movable bridge.


Bamboo Marimba II (Boo II): Affectionately dubbed “Boo II,” the Bamboo Marimba II (built in 1971) consists of 64 tubes of mottled Japanese bamboo organized into six ranks. Each tube is open on both ends, and tongues are cut into the bamboo at approximately 1/6 of the length of the tube in order to produce a harmonic at 6/5 of the fundamental pitch.


Bass Marimba - Photo by Maggie MolloyBass Marimba: Built in 1950, the Bass Marimba features 11 bars made of Sitka spruce. Just to give you an idea of the massive size of this instrument, the top of the bars are five feet above the floor, and the player must stand on a riser six feet wide and over two feet tall in order to play it.  Each bar is situated over an organ pipe which serves as a resonator, and the lowest bar corresponds to a C2 on piano which, for those of you who don’t play piano, is pretty darn low. The instrument can be played with mallets or by slapping the 
bars with the pads of your fingers.

The Spoils of War - Photo by Maggie MolloyThe Spoils of War: Created in 1950, this instrument takes its name from the seven artillery casings that hang from the top of the instrument. The instrument also includes four Cloud-Chamber Bowls, two pieces of tongued bamboo, one woodblock, three steel “whang guns,” and a guiro. Just think of it as a Harry Partch drum-set of sorts.


New Harmonic Canon I - Photo by Maggie MolloyNew Harmonic Canon I: Built in 1945, the New Harmonic Canon I is a 44-stringed instrument with a complex systems of bridges. It was built specifically to accommodate a second tuning, allowing the performer to play in either one or both of the different tunings simultaneously. The strings are tuned differently depending on the piece, and are played with fingers, picks, or in some cases, mallets.


Harmonic Canon II - Photo by Maggie MolloyHarmonic Canon II: Nicknamed the “Castor and Pollux,” the Harmonic Canon II (built in 1953) features two resonating boxes with 44 strings across the top. Bridges are placed beneath the strings specifically for the tuning of each composition. Like all of Patch’s Harmonic Canons, the instrument may be played with fingers, picks, or mallets.


Adapted Guitar II - Photo by Maggie MolloyAdapted Guitar II: The ten-string Adapted Guitar II is a steel-string guitar which is played with a slide. Partch first began experimenting with adapted guitars in the 1930s, and by 1945 he began using amplification for them. The ten strings of the Adapted Guitar II are typically tuned either to Partch’s “otonality” or “utonality” (terms Partch used to describe chords whose pitch classes are the harmonics or subharmonics of a given fixed tone). Thankfully, the headstock is specially designed to allow the player to change the tuning within seconds.

So there you have it
a little taste of the magical and mysterious musical inventions of the Partch Instrumentarium. In order to fully understand, you’ll have to see and hear them for yourself next Tuesday. After all, the instruments are meant to be played.

“Physical possession of scores and instruments is meaningless unless the knowledge, the usages, the traditions, the ethos, the daimon that underlie and permeate them are somehow present,” Partch wrote in a 1967 statement to UCLA. “If my music is considered important by some future generation, these realities are basic.  If it is not, my instruments become a pile of sculptural junk, and the scores fragments in a whirlwind.”

But these instruments are so much more than just a pile of junk, and this concert is a testament to the significance of Partch’s innovations in 20th century classical music. Partch may have died in 1974, but his musical legacy lives on in the hands of anyone who picks up his instruments.
Charles Corey with Cloud-Chamber Bowls - Photo by Maggie Molloy“These musicians have been working very hard to learn new instruments, new music, and new ways of performing,” Chuck said, “And there’s a great satisfaction in sharing something so unique with a new audience.”

And trust me, these instruments are nothing if not unique. To some, the far-flung musical contraptions of the late Partch may look like the work of a mad scientist—but I prefer to think of them as the work of a musical scientist. And Harry Partch was one hell of a Willy Wonka.


The Music of Harry Partch will be performed on Tuesday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

ALBUM REVIEW: Ispirare by Melia Watras

by Maggie Molloy

Think of the composers that have most inspired you. What is it about their music that makes your ears perk up, your heart soar, and your soul come alive? What is it about their music that makes you want to pick up an instrument and play something?

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Violist Melia Watras asks all of those questions in her new album, “Ispirare”—but she also asks one more: what is the music that most inspired the composers themselves?

“‘Ispirare’ consists of contemporary music for viola and the pieces that inspired their creation,” Watras said. “I wanted to build a program around works that were not only engaging to perform and listen to, but also provided a creative spark for other composers.”

Watras has commissioned and performed numerous works by living composers throughout her career as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist—establishing herself as a very versatile violist in the contemporary classical music scene.

So who made it on Watras’s list of most inspiring contemporary composers? The album features works by George Rochberg, Atar Arad, Luciano Berio, and Shulamit Ran.

“Ispirare” begins with George Rochberg’s 1979 Sonata for Viola and Piano. Written late in his career, the piece is a lush tapestry of gorgeous melodies with clear ties to earlier composers. The first movement makes heavy use of chromaticism, extended tonality, and a unique harmonic language at times reminiscent of Bartók, while the dramatic, sweeping piano figures pay tribute to Richard Strauss. The soaring melodies and poignant lyricism of the second movement glide above jazz-infused harmonies, and the third movement ties the piece together with a neoromantic fantasia, an epilogue of sorts borrowing bits and pieces from the first two movements.

The piece that follows, “Caprice Four (George),” was inspired by Rochberg’s sonata, and even quotes part of it. Composed in 2003 by Watras’s former viola professor, Atar Arad, the piece is part of a set of viola caprices which Arad intended as “thank you notes to composers who graced us with great viola pieces.” With the exception of the opening phrase, the caprice is played entirely on the G string of the viola, with the instrument’s rich tone ringing and echoing unaccompanied. Intimate and exposed, the piece showcases the viola’s immense power and force as an instrument—and likewise Watras’s intensity and expressivity as a soloist.

In another cross-musical connection, Atar Arad’s daughter, singer Galia Arad, appears on the album’s next track: Luciano Berio’s “Black is the Color…” from his 1964 song cycle, “Folk Songs.” Composed for mezzo-soprano and small chamber group, the piece borrows from American, Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Italian folk traditions. Wistful viola motives and modal harmonies accompany Galia Arad’s gentle, daydreaming voice as she drifts through the sweet, simple, and sincere vocal melodies.

The song is so achingly beautiful, it’s no wonder it was the inspiration behind the next piece on the album, Shulamit Ran’s 2010 “Perfect Storm.” Watras commissioned Ran to compose a piece that made use of an existing work of her choice, and Ran chose to expand upon the viola motif in Berio’s song. The result is an unaccompanied viola solo which travels through a series of diverse musical landscapes: at times rocky, jagged, and intense, but at other moments sweet, shy, longing, and lyrical. It is (as the title suggests) the perfect storm: wind, rain, and rhythmic turmoil envelop the listener before the clouds clear, the pizzicato pitter-patter fades away, and they are left with a beautiful, airy silence.

The final and most experimental piece on the album is Berio’s 1985 “Naturale (Su Melodie Siciliane),” written for viola, percussion, and the recorded voice of a Sicilian folk singer. Recorded by the composer in Palermo, the voice belongs to Celano, whom Berio described as “perhaps the last true Sicilian storyteller.” The piece highlights the contrast between the highly refined classical transcription of folk songs with the raw and organic voice of a true folk singer. It’s the perfect ending to the album, as it juxtaposes, quite plainly, the musical inspiration itself with the music that it inspired.

And like all of the pieces on the album, “Naturale” illustrates the way musicians both inside and outside of the classical music sphere can teach one another, learn from one another, engage with one another, and ultimately, inspire one another.

PS, If you missed Melia’s edition of “The Takeover” with her husband Michael Jinsoo Lim, listen below!IMG_5874-Edit-Edit-Edit+copy