Percussionist and composer Bonnie Whiting's Perishable Structures places works for speaking percussionist within a context of storytelling. Through works by Rzewski, Globokar, Parenti, Logan-Greene, and Whiting herself, the album investigates the intertwined relationship between spoken and musical narrative and the unique role that percussion plays in this repertoire.
|01||...perishable structures that would be social events: IV. Varèse|
...perishable structures that would be social events: IV. Varèse
|02||To the Earth|
To the Earth
|04||Your Thoughts While Listening|
Your Thoughts While Listening
|05||Exercise for Hands Right, Left and Deserted Mouth: no. 4 Speaking Percussionist and Ditties|
Exercise for Hands Right, Left and Deserted Mouth: no. 4 Speaking Percussionist and Ditties
On Perishable Structures, Bonnie Whiting presents works that display the natural connection between storytelling, theater, and experimentalism within the percussion repertoire. John Cage’s legacy is felt strongly throughout this program, as a pioneer in percussion music both with and without text as well as a defining voice in experimental aesthetics. Whiting’s program explores a range of shifting parameters, on a continuum from vocalizations that function as non-semantic sounds to text driven narrative, and percussion sounds that merge with the voice to gestures that provide a contrasting musical dimension.
The album begins with a movement dedicated to Edgard Varèse from Whiting’s composition, ...perishable structures that would be social events. Alongside Cage, Varèse’s impact on percussion’s role in 20th century music is incalculable, and Whiting’s work takes his snare drum writing in the iconic ensemble works Ionisation, Intègrales, and Amèriques as a point of inspiration. In Whiting's piece, Varèse’s words are alternately audible and buried underneath the snare, creating a seamless stream of texted and non-texted "syllables," a manifestation of what Varèse called “intelligent sounds.”
Frederic Rzewski’s classic To the Earth for four clay flower pots sets a 500 BCE Homeric Hymn in a ritualistic paean to the goodness and justness of nature. The simplicity of the musical setting for flowerpots reveals a meditative and independent but supportive relationship between speech and percussion.
If Whiting’s Varèse setting uses the drum to occasionally obscure the text, and Rzewski creates a accompanimental texture with the flowerpots, Vinko Globokar’s Toucher endeavors to merge the spoken and percussive sounds into a imitative, hybrid texture. In effect, Globakar “transcribes” the spoken text onto percussion instruments, often heard together in unison, as they match the inflection, gesture, and contour of the words. Setting a French translation of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Toucher demands several levels of virtuosity from the performer: theatrical (thirteen different characters are embodied in the recitation and the narrative is presented out of the story's chronological order), interpretive (non-traditional notation connects speech patterns to the percussion instruments), and instrumental (in addition to the synchronous passage with voice, there are several hyper-notated percussion alone interludes).
The only work on the recording that does not involve a speaking part, Richard Logan-Greene’s Your Thoughts While Listening nevertheless engages with translation, in this case, from a non-notated electronic music piece to live percussion instruments. The result is a rich tapestry of timbre, from ringing triangle to rumbling bass drums to scraping sounds on drum heads.
“Speaking Percussionist and Ditties,” the wry fourth movement from Susan Parenti’s Exercise for Hands Right, Left and Deserted Mouth closes the program. Parenti initially establishes a one-sided telephone conversation; we hear the percussionist’s voice and the "response" from the other end of the line is audible only as percussion sounds. As the work evolves, Parenti introduces satirical fragments of popular and patriotic songs, bombastic outbursts, absurdist utterances, and off-kilter percussion gestures. A kind of counterpoint of ideas and characters emerges, devolving into misheard turns of phrase that can be understood several ways, and exploring the subtext and subtleties of verbal communication.
Throughout Perishable Structures, Bonnie Whiting brings precision, intensity, and flair to both the percussion and spoken components of these scores. This collection of works underscores a fascinating wealth of relationships between semantic and abstract sound that is applicable to any works merging instruments and text, but particularly at home in the percussion repertoire given its grounding in the tradition of storytelling.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded, edited, and mixed by Matthew Champagne
Co-produced by Bonnie Whiting and Allen Otte
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Cover Photo by William on Unsplash.com
Recorded in 2015 at the Green Center for the Performing Arts at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana
Bonnie Whiting performs, commissions, and composes new experimental music for percussion. She seeks out projects involving non-traditional notation, interdisciplinary performance, improvisation, and the speaking percussionist. She lives and works in Seattle, WA, where she is Chair of Percussion Studies and an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington School of Music.
Her debut solo album, featuring an original solo-simultaneous realization of John Cage’s 45’ for a speaker and 27’10.554” for a percussionist, was released by Mode Records in April of 2017. Recent work includes performances as a percussionist and vocalist with the Harry Partch Ensemble on the composer’s original instrumentarium, and a commission from the Indiana State Museum’s Sonic Expeditions series for her piece Control/Resist (2017): a site-specific work for percussion, field recordings, and electronics. Whiting has an ongoing relationship as a soloist with the National Orchestra of Turkmenistan via the U.S. Embassy Cultural Affairs Office, playing concerti in Ashgabat in 2017 and 2018. She collaborates frequently with percussionist Jennifer Torrence, giving concerts of new experimental work for speaking percussionists throughout Norway and the US, and with multimedia artist Afroditi Psarra. Their album <null_abc> was released on the Zero Moon label in 2018, and their current project with designer Audrey Desjardins on transcoding data from IoT devices as performance is a recipient of a 2019/20 Mellon Creative Fellowship, and was explored in a workshop at the 2020 Transmediale Festival in Berlin. 2021 brings the premiere of Through the Eyes(s): an extractable cycle of nine pieces for speaking/singing percussionist collaboratively developed with composer Eliza Brown and nine incarcerated women, and the world premiere of a new percussion concerto by Huck Hodge with the Seattle Modern Orchestra.
Whiting has presented solo and small ensemble shows at The Stone in New York, the Brackish Series in Brooklyn, The Lilypad in Boston, The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, at Hallwalls in Buffalo, the Tiny Park Gallery in Austin, The Wulf in LA, the Carl Solway Gallery in Cincinnati, The Grove Haus in Indianapolis, on the Wayward Music Series in Seattle, on tour throughout New Zealand, and at colleges and universities around the country. Whiting has collaborated with many of today's leading new music groups, including red fish blue fish percussion group, (George Crumb’s Winds of Destiny directed by Peter Sellars and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw for the Ojai Festival), eighth blackbird (the “Tune-in” festival at the Park Avenue Armory), the International Contemporary Ensemble (on-stage featured percussionist/mover in Andriessen’s epic Die Materie at the Park Avenue Armory, and the American premiere of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers at Miller Theatre), Bang on a Can (Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians for the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella Series) and Ensemble Dal Niente (the Fromm Concerts at Harvard.)https://bonniewhitingpercussion.com/
In all likelihood it was the Western classical composition that “silenced” the percussionist, who in popular cultures all over the world is also a vocal and narrative presence alongside the rhythmic accompaniment. If the avant-gardes of the twentieth century, guided by the visionary inspiration of John Cage, had already rediscovered the secret timbral properties of percussion instruments (as well as others), with the new generations a solo repertoire open to new and transforming solutions has made its way, in which the designated interpreter participates at each level as co-protagonist.
Thus finds its own individual dimension and dignity the figure of the ‘speaking percussionist’, griot and storyteller of the postmodern expressive collapse, explorer of a hypertrophic and boundless musical space-time.
American Bonnie Whiting has already distinguished herself in this field for her constant didactic and performative commitment, also putting her signature on the fourth chapter of Cage’s works for percussion published by Mode Records, within what is currently and by far the most extensive discographic recognition dedicated to him. Perishable Structures is, in fact, Whiting’s first portrait album, featuring five compositions dated between 1973 and 2014 that qualify it as a sort of pocket-sized “atlas” tracing the evolution of the ‘speaking percussionist’ over the last decades.
The short self-written fragment introducing the album appropriately takes its cue from the revolutionary genius of Edgard Varèse, pioneer of a symphonism shaken by the telluric irruptions of imposing percussive sections, an ideal link between the ancestral heartbeat of primitive civilizations and the deafening roar of the metropolis. The martial gait of the snare drum interrupts or stands in the way of the recitation of extracts from Varèse’s letters and writings, words of a higher conscience sensing the potential of an artistic creation liberated from formal and conceptual limitations (We have not yet revealed to people the new language of their own day).
The journey through history continues with another “disheveled” protagonist of the late 20th-century avant-garde such as Frederic Rzewski: “To the Earth” (1985) takes up a solemn 500 BCE Homeric Hymn in honor of Gaia, the life-giving mother of every creature on the planet, using only four small clay pots as its basic melodic guide; thus, around Whiting’s recitative-chanting in half voice, the four tones intertwine in minimal patterns with a lulling and hypnotic tinkling, whose occasional accelerations draw the piece even closer to an exotic ritual, at the crossroads between the Indonesian gamelan dances and the hermeticism of kabuki theater.
Translated into French from Brecht’s “Life of Galileo”, Vinko Globokar’s miniature monodrama “Toucher” (1973) – perhaps the first piece specifically scored for a ‘speaking percussionist’ – addresses the material and timbral diversity of the surfaces, alternately related to the dialogue between all of thirteen characters. Corresponding to the increased virtuosity required of the interpreter is a directly proportional degree of expressive self-sufficiency: in this short essay lies the yearning for a total “theater of the Self”, schizoid and alienating in its arbitrary denial of the collective mise en scène in favor of a purely mental proscenium.
Right from its title, Richard Logan-Greene’s “Your Thoughts While Listening” instead subverts the programmatic suggestion of classical works: it is Whiting herself who conceived a transcription of the non-notated electronic piece by her compatriot composer; in this case there isn’t any strictly verbal element, while it’s the mixed percussions that become a ‘talking drum’ of inscrutable idiomatic inflections, the vehicle of an irregular and labyrinthine abstract narrative echoing the improvised inventions of Lê Quan Ninh – another Cagean heir of primary importance.
A last delving into an eccentric and stratified musical/theatrical dimension, the only piece for percussion composed by Susan Parenti undoubtedly presents the most radical and demanding mixture of vocal registers and approaches: “Exercise for Hands Right, Left and Deserted Mouth: Speaking Percussionist and Ditties” (1987) unfolds like a more and more whirling scherzo among hints of solfeggio, whistles, coughs, but also operatic singing and sudden falsettos, concomitant with acrobatics nonetheless insidious in terms of physical coordination. It’s the crowning pinnacle of a “recital” as unusual as it is intriguing, perhaps the first of its kind and therefore a further source of pride for the rampant collective label New Focus, a fervent work in progress in the backlines of contemporary classical music.
— Michele Palozzo, 8.26.2020
The esteemed percussionist and composer Bonnie Whiting brings us a very unique effort here, where speaking percussionists handle storytelling as it examines the relationship between percussion and spoken narrative.
The Whiting original, …perishable structures that would be social events: IV. Varése, starts the listen with a brief display of playful yet reserved drumming that makes great use of space, and Frederic Rzewski’s To The Earth follows with poetic storytelling amid bare, charming percussion that becomes quicker and gets more hypnotic, nearly meditative, into its 10 minutes.
The back half of the record offers Richard Logan-Greene’s Your Thoughts While Listening, where low rumbling sets the mood for a cinematic appeal that’s the only composition without vocals. The final track, Exercise For Hands Right, Left And Deserted Mouth: no. 4 Speaking Percussionist And Ditties, by Susan Parenti, exits the listen with several percussive instruments coinciding with what seems like a one sided conversation that evolves into an off kilter and disjointed exploration of fascinating demeanor.
An effort that’s appreciated for both its percussive and spoken elements and that bridges the gap between the two mediums with an abstract and always exciting execution, Whiting pulls of an ambitious endeavor here.
— Tom Haugen, 12.04.2020
University of Washington percussion department chair Bonnie Whiting’s Perishable Structures, which came out last year on New Focus Recordings, explores the connection between storytelling, theatre, and experimentalism within the percussion repertoire. Whiting is all-in on the concept, as the collection of videos, recordings, photos, and performance updates at her website attest—not to mention the handy list of “music for speaking percussionist” she’s been compiling since 2011, which Whiting invites all to contribute to.
“Speaking-percussionist music has always seemed natural to me,” Whiting writes in the liner notes to Perishable Structures, “in part because our discipline is inclusive, tied not only to the traditions of experimental music and theater, but also narrative and storytelling. We are asked to cue the birdsong in Respighi’s Pines of Rome, play the siren in Varèse’s orchestrations, splash in Tan Dun’s Water Music, and construct the next fantastical instrument out of everyday objects. The surface simplicity — someone striking something and vocalizing simultaneously: a creative reimagining of seemingly familiar everyday tasks — gives this music strength and immediacy. Percussionists deal with sonic inclusivity on a professional level: finding audible ‘readymades’ throughout everyday environments.”
As Whiting suggests, effective avant-garde music need not be “highbrow” and all that term represents — even when attacks on science, academia, thoughtfulness, and subtlety are on the rise, and the negative connotation of a word like “elite” is taken as a given, “difficult music,” as Laurie Anderson might say, is still simply the work of ordinary human beings, albeit with a taste for the esoteric. We all like a good story, whether the narrator is Ms. Anderson, Robert Johnson, David Byrne, or Bjork. As Whiting’s work makes clear, we who hit things to make sound for a living can be ideal communicators, particularly when we open our mouths at the same time.
— Adam Budofsky, 1.29.2021
This is a percussion disc with a difference. All but one of the works, Richard Logan-Greene’s Your Thoughts While Listening, ask the percussionist to speak or sing texts as she plays. This is not a new idea. In fact, only two of these works were composed in the current millennium—Logan-Greene’s and the percussionist’s own, which serves as a short prelude to the rest of the CD. However, it is not an idea that often is presented on disc or in recital. (Whiting’s debut CD, in 2017 for Mode Records, was a collection of John Cage’s music for speaking percussionist.) “In these pieces,” Whiting writes, “I see myself as a storyteller rather than an actor.”
I’ve frequently commented that percussion recitals benefit from being seen as well as heard. I can hear orchestral music without missing the visual element—perhaps because my eye hardly knows where to rest. Percussion music, on the other, comes closer to dance or even to sport than any other musical genre that comes to mind. One wants to “see the sounds” as they are created. Fortunately, several of Whiting’s performances have been uploaded to YouTube, including a live performance of Frederic Rzewski’s To the Earth. This is particularly fortunate because the instruments in Rzewski’s work are four flower pots of different diameters. I would not have known this had I not seen the YouTube video. In a program note penned for one of Whiting’s performances in 2010, Rzewski wrote, “The text, recited by the percussionist, is that of the pseudo-homeric hymn To The Earth Mother of All, probably written in the seventh century B.C. This simple poem is a prayer to Gaia—goddess of the Earth. The Earth is a myth, both ancient and modern. For us today as well, it appears increasingly as something fragile. Because of its humanly altered metabolism, it is rapidly becoming a symbol of the precarious human condition. In this piece the flower pots are intended to convey this sense of fragility.” And so, what initially seemed merely quaint becomes touching.
The accompanying booklet has a lot more to say about Vinko Globokar’s Toucher, whose text is taken (in fragmentary form, of course) from Brecht’s drama Galileo. This is a tour de force for the percussionist, who must distinguish between Brecht’s text, character names, and stage directions. Brecht’s drama is a known quantity by now, but Globokar’s work revitalizes it and makes it possible to be surprised by it all over again.
The full title of Susan Parenti’s work is Exercise 4 for Hands Right, Left, and Deserted Mouth: Speaking Percussionist and Ditties. The piece is about communication and miscommunication. It starts with a one-sided telephone conversation and quickly turns into a comical but also hypomanic catalog of “bombastic vocal and percussive utterances, threats, pleas, and satirized versions of popular and patriotic songs.” It sounds like a collaboration between Cathy Berberian, Luciano Berio, and cartoonist Charles Schulz—and that’s a good thing.
Whiting is chair of percussion studies at the University of Washington School of Music. Her students are lucky to have her around, because she is on the cutting edge of percussion performance, and also because of her ongoing relationship with cutting-edge composers and their work. Despite my initially stated reservation about missing the visual element, this is an important release for anyone interested in experimental percussion music and performance. It should give many a young percussionist palpitations.
— Raymond Tuttle, 1.26.2021
It might look like a low playing time (40 minutes), but this is pretty specialist fare, and Bonnie Whiting presents a program that requires, and rewards, our undivided attention. From that perspective, 40 minutes feels just about right.
Allen Otte’s excellent booklet notes refer to John Cage’s Living Room Music and the movement “Stein,” where a text by Gertrude Stein is included, thus setting off the trend of linking storytelling and percussion. The disc begins with Whiting not only as performer but also composer: the fourth of her …perishable structures that would be social events (2010). The text is taken from the writings and letters of Edgard Varèse, mixed with snare drum in almost military guise. The voice is slightly recessed, the percussion very present, one assumes to create a deliberate distancing of the text. The snare drum writing is directly influenced by Varèse’s Amériques, Ionisation, and Intégrales.
Taking a Homeric Hymn of around 500 BCE as its text, Frederic Rzweski’s To the Earth (1985) was composed after a request by percussionist Jan Williams. It is written for “small instruments” (flower pots have been used before now). A prayer to Gaia (Mother Earth), it is 10 minutes of beauty, as the fragile percussion sounds like a poignant garland around the text. The limiting of percussion means it has a certain monochrome quality that throws into high relief Vinko Globokar’s Toucher (1973), to a text by Bertold Brecht, and which seems to burst upon the scene. Globokar investigates the relation between spoken word and struck sound via a French translation of Brecht’s Life of Galileo in which the performer not only has to embody 13 different characters but also speak aloud the stage directions; to further complicate matters, the text is fragmented. Speech patterns determine how the music moves forward, while the speech sections are separated by instrumental and notated passages. Much is performed in half-voice, linking to the distancing effect experienced in Whiting’s own piece, but here there is huge energy involved, too. Virtuoso hardly covers it; Whiting convinces us there is nobody better to interpret this music.
In another “experiment,” Richard Logan-Greene’s Your Thoughts While Listening (2014) takes an electronic score and transcribes it for performer. This is the only piece that does not include voice; but it is utterly remarkable the way gestures which feel particularly electronic are translated into “human” performance, in the process subtly changing the flavor of the piece and our experience of it. Finally, it’s back to the 1980s for the “Speaking Percussionist and Ditties” movement of Susan Parenti’s Exercise for Hands Right, Left and Deserted Mouth (1987), its placement perfect because of its light, witty touch in its rendition of a telephone conversation in which the other party is represented by the percussion. A study in mishearings and multiple layers of meaning, it also acts as a reflection on the power of language.
The recording dates from 2015. Music such as this requires maximum dynamic range, and receives it here in a recording of the utmost power and clarity.
— Colin Clarke, 1.26.2021