Cloud chamber bowls. Music by the inch. Electronic jawbone. Glass armonica. Bicentennial turkey tambourine. Composers usually take their commissions where they can get them, but William Penn must have done a double-take when Sound Reasonable Inc. asked him to compose a score for these and other handcrafted instruments that are presently on display at the Renwick Gallery.
Sitting in his office, adjacent to the Folger Shakespeare Library (where he was at work on the music for the current production of "Richard II") Penn recounted the work that was involved in the "Renwick" score. "I was determined not to create a 'show and tell' album," he stated. "I wanted to write music that would use the sounds of the instruments creatively."
The instruments, handiworks of American craftsmen, presented a range of artistic difficulties and possibilities for the composer. "First, I had to choose which ones to use. Some, if they sounded at all, didn't sound very good. Others, like the single string stainless steel cello, were unbelievably expressive." He also said he believes that, "Music is sound and I had to experiment with the sounds that were available and organize them into a musical composition. I consider this a handcrafted album of handcrafted music."
The result, "Crystal Rainbows" (SRISR 7801), is an eclectic blend of musical styles. Played on "unusual" as well as "traditional" instruments, the music conveys a sense of adventure and inspired experimentation that never degenerates into mindless selfindulgence. The work, which includes dissonant sections and a song that Penn refers to as "country-and-western disco," is nonetheless an engaging musical structure, one that highlights the sound capabilities of the various instruments while using them in a musically expressive context.
To modern ears, which have become accustomed to a tremendous assortment of sounds (form synthesized music to the noises of everyday life), this record is not the watershed of exotica that one might expect. The cloud chamber bowls are similar to gigantic chimes, while others, like the jaws harp, when echoed and phased in the studio, sound like the pops and gurgles of electronic instruments.When they are combined with "regular" instruments such as a piano, the mix is simultaneously foreign and, somehow, familiar.
"Reflections in a Pastel Vase" begins with the deep ringing of the bowls that evolves into a steel jungle of sound inhabited by the primal punctuations of the electronic jawbone and the "Sansa" finger piano. A synthesizer provides a theme line around which the instruments act and interact. A piano, at the end, serves as a musical anchor that reinforces the framework of the piece.
"Interlude: Crystal Rainbow" and its reprise are transitional works that emphasize the coloristic qualities of the record. The glass armonica (originally designed by Benjamin Franklin) emits high-pitched tones that create a luminescent layer of sound that seems to float in mid-air.
The most effective cut on the record is "Gossamer Looms," a dramatic composition whose subtle interplay of dynamics is compelling in its tension and urgency. The single string stainless steel cello erupts like a chainsaw cutting across a delicate atmosphere that has been created by the droning highland bagpipes and the glass armonica. The finger piano and finger cymbals provide crystalline accents to the dense harmonic textures; the piece could easily be mistaken for an avant-garde computer work. In "Gossamer Looms," Penn has successfully transformed his materials into a collage of noises and effects that transcends the basic qualities of their construction and design. The simplicity of the instruments submits to a more complex, musical purpose.
The same cannot be said of "Moonshine," the one notable failure on "Crystal Rainbows." A monotonous rhythmic line and a meandering melody serve as compositional devices around which the instruments are featured. The song seems to be an effort to use the sounds in a "popular" setting, but the results are more gratuitous than insightful.
"Moonshine" notwithstanding, "Crystal Rainbows" is a viable musical offering that shines with imagination and invention. Far more than a "novelty" record, it presents some of the possibilities of these unusual instruments. William Penn has taken these "exhibits" and given them the musical life for which they were, no doubt, intended.