Bonnie Whiting shares her experience with speaking percussionists including her arrangement titled 51'15.657" for a speaking percussionist, advice for those starting their professional careers, and dealing with sexism in a male-dominated field.
Where did your interest in voice/percussion works begin?
"I came across Vinko Globokar’s Toucher (1973: the first piece for solo speaking percussionist) when I was an undergrad at Oberlin. At the time I was studying French pretty seriously, and was fascinated by performance art and the intersections of music and theatre. The piece is explores scenes excerpted from a French translation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei, and the percussionist must find seven instruments that correspond to the colors and tonal qualities of seven vowel sounds. Gradually, the instruments stand in for the voice “speaking” the text through musical sound and gesture. While it’s the first piece for speaking percussionist I learned, it has stuck with me for more than 15 years. Its intentional obfuscation of narrative taught me that music for speaking percussionist is more about storytelling than acting. When I perform these works (standard ones like Rzewski’s To the Earth and Jerome Kitzke’s The Earth Only Endures, and countless new ones commissioned from composer friends and colleagues) I always lean first on my musical skills. Well-composed pieces will tell their own stories without over the top theatricality and bad acting getting in the way.
That said, my first job after college was with a touring quartet that blended new music, creative movement, and theatre for children and family audiences. It was a full-time gig: we played about 200 shows per year and I traveled to 25 states during my three-year tenure. Sometimes we played at big performing arts centers or even soloed with major orchestras, but we also took our work to elementary school gymnasiums. Those were trial-by-fire years: we shaped our pieces for all kinds of situations; there’s nothing like performing for two thousand electrified third graders in a giant auditorium in Alabama and then the next day playing for 25 shy kids sitting on the floor at a small rural school. Those years shaped how I made musical decisions as a speaking percussionist.
How did you get the idea to marry 27' 10.554" and 45' for a Speaker into Music for a Speaking Percussionist?
"From 1953-6 Cage wrote a series of pieces with durations as titles. In notes and letters, he referred to this music collectively as “The Ten Thousand Things”, intending them to be played separately or in any combination. There are pieces for piano, prepared piano, string players, and of course 27’10.554” and 45’ for a Speaker. There have been many simultaneous performances of parts of The Ten Thousand Things by groups of performers over the years. My interest in speaking percussionist music led me to first try a small excerpt of both pieces combined: about five minutes long. The results were successful, so I took my first year of Doctoral study at UC San Diego to combine both pieces in their entireties.
Cage’s music thrives when an interpreter engages with what the composer referred to as “X”: the unspecified and unknown, the new territory for both performer and composer. It is harder to fall back on preference, taste, and memory when one is constantly struggling to balance the pleasantly dissimilar elements of solo-simultaneous performance. I needed to choreograph two divergent pieces of work, but then in performance accomplish an act of forgetting that combination. Cage wrote on this subject of simultaneity 1956:
“The independence of the music and dance follows from Mr. Cunningham’s faith, which I share, that the support of the dance is not to be found in the music but in the dancer herself, on her own two legs, that is, and occasionally on a single one. Likewise the music sometimes consists of single sounds or groups of sounds that are not supported by harmonies but resound within a space of silence. From this independence of music and dance a rhythm results which is not that of horses hooves or other regular beats but which reminds us of a multiplicity of events in time and space – stars, for instance, in the sky, or activities on earth viewed from the air. . . The meaning of what we do is determined by each one who sees and hears it. The novelty of our work derives therefore from our having moved away from simply private human concerns towards the world of nature and society of which all of us are a part. Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord”
Cage died roughly one year before I picked up my first pair of drumsticks. I’m a second-generation interpreter of these pieces, so I owe much to those performers who worked with him directly. I am immediately in debt to Allen Otte and the Percussion Group Cincinnati, I listened to recordings of Cathy Berberian and Jan Williams, and I looked at the notes behind the creative realizations by David Tudor when beginning this project. Of course, we have Cage on the record too, saying contradictory things or (more difficult for us) withholding judgment altogether, masking it with quiet laughter. These pieces offered me just the right constraints to push the boundaries of the speaking percussionist genre through solo-simultaneous performance
I completed the initial recordings for this project back in 2011, so finally editing and releasing them is like dissecting my past. It’s very different from most of my current projects that involve more improvisation, self-generated work, and commissions that are very collaborative.
Tell us about how you got into percussion. When and why did you start playing?
"One day during my 6th grade general music class, a percussionist from the high school visited. He brought a snare drum. After playing for us, he invited interested folks up to hold the sticks and play. I remember not just beating on the head, but on the rim and edge and the stand for the drum itself. I was exhilarated, and joined the school band the next day.
What advice would you give to percussionists who are about to begin their professional careers?
Work on your technique early and often. Don’t put it off. There’s real joy in teaching your body to find your ideal sound.
Find your point of difference. Our field is already so saturated; don’t waste time on music you don’t care about. Spend time listening to lots of music, talking to other musicians, going to shows, and collaborating.
Seek out people who will give you honest criticism and feedback.
Prepare for your first rehearsal in a group situation like it’s the performance, do what you can to make your logistics invisible, and show up early
Beware of fads/popular trends. Instead, be the musician who makes new paths.
What is your #1 tip for quality practice?
"See no. 1 above.
Also (and I’m only half kidding here): have a child. I am much more efficient in the practice room now that I only work when I am paying someone to watch my kid. Every moment counts, and I look forward to my practice time.
Of all your performances to date, which one sticks with you the most?
"The varied experiences stick with me. During my years performing for children/family audiences, I played while someone projectile vomited on to the stage, during an earthquake’s aftershock, and while a disgruntled clown (who turned out to be the venue’s presenter; the guy paying us, in costume) interrupted our show to do his schtick. You learn to adapt. I love cross-cultural collaboration too. This spring, I flew to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan for a residency with their State Symphony Orchestra. In addition to playing a concerto with the orchestra, I coached the percussion section and visited local music schools. There’s not a single female percussionist in the country. Less than a thousand visas are granted to outsiders each year, and the country was pretty much closed even a decade ago. Turkmenistan doesn’t have the greatest human rights track record, especially where women are concerned. It’s considered risky for Turkmen to associate with foreigners in most situations. However, we had an incredible week. After one masterclass, we held an informal jam session. We shared little common language, and the students were playing a traditional local drum, the Nagara. It was one of the most joyful experiences of my musical life.
What is your goal as an artist? How do you see percussion advancing as an art form in today's culture?
"My work as a percussionist continues the experimental tradition. So, my projects are exploratory: based on timbre, sound, silence, and duration rather than traditional melody and harmony. That said, I don’t want to work in ivory tower isolation. The surface simplicity of percussion –you strike an object to produce a sound- demystifies that experience, rendering the most experimental sounds accessible. Even my toddler understands this about my percussion instruments (and our pots and pans.) Percussionists are always musicians who take on the “next thing.” Drop the needle on the birdsong record for Pines of Rome? Sure. Sirens in Varèse? Of course. Cage’s amplified cacti and Tan Dun’s water musics lead to our willingness to stay up late with our computer music friends patching in Max or undergoing vocal and theatrical coaching for the next speaking percussionist piece.
Percussionists have the privilege of playing many various instruments and set-ups. What is your favorite instrument to perform on?
"I love invented multi-set ups. I play my collection of resonant pot lids more often than my five-octave marimba. Unspecified instrumentation is often my favorite, or set ups that I devise on my own or with a composer. There’s nothing better than searching for, and then finding, an imagined sound.
What are some recent projects you've been working on?
"My next big project is three new works for speaking/singing percussion duo with Jennifer Torrence (an American musician working in Norway.) Paula Matthusen made us a piece for crash cymbals, singing, feedback, and live electronics. Bethany Younge has a quirky new work for timers, homemade motors, oscillators, toy instruments, and deconstructed texts. We’re also collaborating with my colleague Afroditi Psarra on the UW DXarts faculty on an improv-based piece that integrates her signature embroidered synthesizers and wearable sensors. The first performances happen in September at the UW, and we’ll tour the project through the Midwest in November. Working remotely from three different locations has been challenging, but I’m loving the collaborative process so far and can’t wait to rehearse in earnest in a couple weeks.
Can you share some of your experiences being a woman in a man-dominated field?
"I have plenty of stories. There are little anecdotes that add up: the time I was struggling to push a cart with drums on it out a door and up a steep ramp and a maintenance worker in the building said “Wow, those are some pretty big makeup cases you have there” or the countless times I’ve been asked “Shouldn’t a little girl like you play the flute”? Then there are more insidious cases: a mentor/reference confiding to me that the reason I wasn’t accepted to a certain grad school was due to my upcoming marriage, or more recently, considering filing a Title IX lawsuit after a former employer illegally changed my full-time status to part-time adjunct after I disclosed a pregnancy.
Most of the time, I can channel these negative personal experiences and transform them to positive advocacy. I have the privilege of a small but vibrant career making creative music, and a university teaching position that allows me to recruit the next generation of percussionists. I am constantly looking for ways to seek out other female collaborators and students, checking my own gender biases. It’s tempting to glom on to the success of recent composers and projects that have proven success and already garnered critical acclaim. It’s much more rewarding for me to seek out new projects with folks who are less well-known, but have unique ideas. A friend and I have been working on a comprehensive list of music for percussion by female composers. The list is getting longer, but there are still so many programs –concert seasons even- without a single woman on the bill.
This advocacy reaches to my teaching as well. When I was in high school, the percussion section was split evenly between men and women. As I persisted in the field, I found that the percentage of women diminished. Only a handful of us have full-time University positions in this country. I can count the professional (exclusively) orchestral percussion women on one hand. Our models for the percussion ensemble have been the fabulously talented Percussion Group Cincinnati, Nexus, So Percussion, and now younger generations like LAPQ, and Mantra, but these groups don’t contain a single woman. Rather than ranting about exclusion from groups like this, I’d rather make my own way. Will it look/sound the same? Probably not, and that’s great. So, come find us next month when, instead of crashing cymbals together in a show of virtuosity, we’re exciting feedback and exploring the resonance of these instruments with our voices.
Learn more about Bonnie on her website at http://bonniewhitingpercussion.com/