Bent Frequency and Michael Fowler: Sound Worlds – The Sonification of the Japanese Garden

At work today, I was told that I should have worn red and black instead of purple and black. Apparently, this was to signify support for some local falcons who might get to go to the superb owl. Apparently ornithophilia1 is pretty wide spread in Atlanta because the performers at this evening’s concert at Kopleff Recital Hall got the memo and wore red and black, as well. I’m not sure if this owl is like the one from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH or more like Wol from Winnie the Pooh – both are superb in their own, distinct ways – but it must be impressive to have so many people excited about local birds visiting it.

The program began with “Ryoanji” by John Cage. Cage composed this piece based on the measurements of rocks in the Ryōan-ji rock garden. Scored for whatever solo instrument or ensemble of up to 20 instruments that the performers feel like putting together, tonight’s performance was brought to life by percussion, flute, and oboe. It’s a very slow and meditative work, much like one would expect to be inspired by a Japanese rock garden. It can be difficult to get good sound from some instruments when playing softly and the woodwinds didn’t always meet the challenge. Still, it was more than good enough for me to be absorbed into a live encounter with the piece.

This was followed by the world premiere of a new piece by Michael Fowler and Bent Frequency called “Otoniwa.” The piece is performed by and among the audience and is scored for electronic sounds over cell phones, small bamboo flutes, and a variety of small percussion instruments including stones, bamboo sticks, bags of gravel, bells, and cymbals (which is what I played2) . We were given instructions prior to the show on how to use the Mixlr website to run a program to stream the recorded electronic sounds over our phones (or, rather, everyone who has a smart phone’s phones since I still use a flip phone). The instructions also told us that we could play 5 sounds on our instruments, lasting up to 10 seconds. The idea was to create a ‘soniferous garden’ and, I have to say, it worked reasonably well with this audience. The sound over the phones was kind of neat in that it was like sitting in an ocean of sound, with a certain randomness of density and direction due to the irregular spacing of phones that were doing the streaming. Similarly, the instruments that we were given were somewhat quiet and sounded good together and the audience seemed to be decent at making it all work together. I don’t think that I’ve ever really enjoyed audience participation in a non-family-oriented concert piece until this one: it was fun and it sounded like the kind of gentle cacophony nature can provide that can be stimulating in a manner that is more soothing than innervating.

Next up was a work by Toshio Hosokawa called “Verticle Time Study II” for tenor saxophone, piano, and percussion. Hosokawa intended this to be like a slow walk through a Japanese garden, with each step being a new collection of sights without being able to see what came before or will come after. The soundscape that he created succeeded in doing this for me: it was like slowly moving along, each cluster of sounds impacting me on their own without reference to those that came before or after but still creating a coherent whole.

After an intermission, there was another piece by Fowler, “Sesshutei as a Spatial Model.” The notes for this performance state that it is a “remix” scored for percussion and electronic instruments. Eight speakers were spaced around the auditorium with four on each side setup in a non-symmetrical arrangement. It began with white noise – almost rainlike – with Fowler and percussionist Stuart Gerber slowly walking down the aisles on either side of the seating area with straps of jingle bells making sounds that were not unlike the birds weathering a light, summer rain in an oak in Savannah. On the stage they proceeded to create something more like a fully developed sound environment than a soundscape until they ultimately walked off stage playing singing bowls. It was extraordinarily engaging and even the moments that kind of threw me out of it seemed to develop into something that brought me back in and helped build something with a few extra dimensions to it. I wish that I had more to say about it to stir my memory later on. It was an amazing end to an excellent concert of a wonder-filled program.


1 – My spell-check wants to correct ornithophilia to necrophilia, which makes me wonder what it knows about falcons or the superb owl that I don’t. back

2 – When I wasn’t playing it, the cymbal sat in my shirt pocket with the handle peeking out, like a prosthetic brass nipple. I think that we all are going to need brass nipples to get through the next four years. back

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