A fantastic exhibit of the amazing tonal sculptures of American artist Harry Bertoia is showing at the museum of arts and design (MAD) in New York City through September 25th. I was thrilled to be able to spend an afternoon walking through this exhibit and learning more about one of my favorite artists. I have known about his work since college and wanted to see and hear it ﬁrst hand. Having already established a reputation as a visionary sculptor and designer, Bertoia embarked on an exploration of
tonal, or “sounding” sculptures in the 1960s. This is the work that attracted my attention as a music student, and this is the focus of the current exhibit. Unfortunately, I was able to only see them and not hear them, since the hours in which they can actually be heard are very limited. I will have to be content with recordings of these beautiful sculptures. Bertoia recorded his sound sculptures, resulting in a collection of wonderful LPs that sound like early electronic music. He called these sounds Sonambient. The recordings that were being played in a listening area at the exhibit reminded me very much of electronic music of composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Bertoia found beryllium metals to be ideal for his work because of their weatherability and their tendency to retain their shape even under repeated stress and strain. This comes at a cost, however, since the dust created by working with this material is a known carcinogen. While I’m not sure of the direct connection, Bertoia died in 1978 of lung cancer.
Much of his output consisted of thin metal rods attached to resonating bases with or without weights on top. When these rods strike each other, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. A wide spectrum of sound is created with just a dozen or so rods. For me, the visual impact of his work reﬂects both architectural shapes as well as organic forms. In addition to these tall, thin sculptures, Bertoia made a number of gong-type instruments, ranging in size from medium to his gigantic sun gong, which stands on his property in Pennsylvania and under which Bertoia is buried.
How many companies can boast they held full opera orchestra rehearsals in their factory? Well, we can! The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice [phoeniciavoicefest.org] is in its 7th season and going strong. Phoenicia is a rustic town with some cultural flair nestled in the Catskill Mountains not far from our headquarters. The festival was founded by members of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and has attracted world-class performers since the beginning. I have proudly played a part in past seasons and was glad to offer my studio at Woodstock Chimes for several rehearsals this year.
On Saturday, August 6th, the festival presented a fully costumed, concert production of Verdi’s opera Otello with singers from the Metropolitan Opera. The orchestra was led by maestro David Wroe and consisted of professional players, many from the New York City metropolitan area. I played timpani and my colleagues from NEXUS, Bill Cahn and Russell Hartenberger, were in the percussion section. If you’re in the region next August, be sure to check out the festival. Shakespeare and all things English were the themes this year, and besides Otello, it included a Friday evening performance of Kiss Me Kate, which is based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The festival is not to be missed!
If you could live forever, would you want to? I will be 67 by the end of this year. I’m generally the oldest person in the room and in good health and mentally sound, or so I believe. I work with tremendous people both in the business of making chimes and making music who inspire me and keep me feeling young. I remember my father telling me at some point he started having to erase names from his address book as his friends passed on. Today we delete names from our contact files. On the other hand, our oldest daughter just had a baby boy, Lucca, which makes us grandparents for the first time. His birth reminds us that life renews itself, bringing hope and joy into the world.
A few of our friends have lost physical mobility and a few others have literally lost their minds to dementia. Both situations are very sad and make you wonder which is worse. Would you rather be physically OK or mentally sound, if you had to make a choice? I realize this is an impossible question to answer but it is something to contemplate – like a Zen koan. Someday medical advances will allow for an affordable fix for any ailment whether it be physical or mental. I believe this is known as nirvana. Or is it?
An elderly gentleman sat next to a woman at the bar and asked, “Do I come in here often?”
NEXUS has always been a groundbreaking ensemble and Saturday night, June 4th was no exception. We had the honor of being the first percussion group to play at the 35-year-old Rockport Chamber Music Festival in the spectacular Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts.
One feels like a 3-D component of a Norman Rockwell painting in Rockport, which is right on the ocean a short drive from Boston, not to be confused with Rockport, Maine.
This intimate, well-run hall has incredibly wonderful acoustics and is one of the few halls we’ve ever played in with a magnificent view behind the stage. The back of the stage, which is visible to the audience, is a gigantic glass wall overlooking the bay.
The group stayed at a quaint bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of the hall. The proprietors have been housing performers for years and have a collection of photos of some pretty impressive artists who have stayed there. I hope they include us!
As you can read by the reviews in the links below, our program was divided into two parts. The first half included three works by Steve Reich, two of which featured rhythmic percussion instruments.
The second half featured arrangements of works by Moondog and George Hamilton Green, played primarily on melodic percussion instruments. It was a real pleasure to be invited to be part of this prestigious concert series in such a beautiful venue.
“Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway.” – Willie Nelson
On April 9, I had the tremendous pleasure of speaking to an audience of 800 attendees of the TEDx Makers conference at Monmouth University in New Jersey. It was an honor to be among 30 “Makers” chosen to talk about what we had created. In my case, I talked about the quest to hear ancient scales that led me to create my company, Woodstock Chimes, and played some of the instruments I have designed through the years. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. I am hoping the X stands for xylophone but I doubt it.
Below is the official video of my presentation:
I hope you enjoy my talk about good vibrations and share it with everyone. The producers of the TEDx talks did a fantastic job and I highly recommend checking out the other wonderful speakers who were featured.
I recently attended a performance of the New York Theatre Ballet entitled Legends & Visionaries. It took place at the cool little theater of New York Live Arts on 19th Street in Manhattan (newyorklivearts.org). The dance performance included a work by Philip Glass entitled Etudes for Piano, nos. 1-10, arranged by Josh Quillen, the director of NYU Steel. The 11 students performing this challenging work were outstanding. Josh, who is a member of So Percussion, is a skilled pan player with a deep understanding of the style of this music and the instruments. The result was an amazing bath of psychoacoustical phenomena with tremendous clarity and richness. The music of Philip Glass is a perfect vehicle for the pan. The dancers were fantastic as well. The choreography tended to be more traditional than I had been used to for music associated with minimalism. Jonathan Haas is the director of the percussion studies program at NYU, which offers an eclectic assortment of percussion styles. This energetic group has been a part of several of the Drum Boogie Festivals (drumboogiefestival.com) that I produce, and is always an audience favorite.
Pierre Boulez, composer and conductor, passed away on January 5 at the age of 90. It is said that conductors live long lives due to their intense mental and physical activity during performances. His compositions are still considered by many to be avant-garde due to their complexity. Composer Edgard Varèse has attributed this attitude to the fact that composers aren’t necessarily ahead of the times but rather audiences are behind the times.
I was incredibly fortunate to have played under Boulez’s leadership twice. Both times were when I was 20 years old and a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Boulez conducted the student orchestra in a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The timpani part in the Rite is one of the most difficult and rewarding in the repertoire and I was honored to be able to play that role, so to speak. Boulez knew the score like no one else. He conducted not only the performance by memory, he conducted the rehearsals by memory as well. He knew all of the rehearsal letters and the intricacies of interaction amongst all the players. I remember him sorting out the piccolo and contra bassoon that were part of a very thick orchestral texture in one section. He had them play alone to correct a slight intonation concern that most people would have never even heard.
The Rite of Spring is a seminal 20th century work that literally caused a riot during its premiere early in the century. It is now standard repertoire for orchestras throughout the world. The other performance I participated in was with the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall. I was one of a few extra percussionists in addition to the percussionists of the orchestra to play an early Varèse work entitled Ionisation. This is another amazing work that greatly influenced the percussion writing of composers who followed.
Several years after these experiences, the Blackearth Percussion Group, which I helped co-found, performed several times in Paris, including a performance at the beautiful contemporary cultural center, IRCAM, which Boulez helped create, as well as at the American Cultural Center. To this day, I still prefer the Cleveland Orchestra’s recording of the Rite of Spring conducted by Boulez. Check it out. While it is available on compact disc, a vinyl recording sounds amazing if you can find one and have a turntable (they have resurfaced!). Call me old-fashioned but ironically I still like the avant-garde.