Fresno State professor makes music with water
The newest instrument in the Fresno Youth Philharmonic Orchestra lineup doesn’t come with a loan. (Have you seen how expensive French horns are these days?) It doesn’t even come with a case. Compared to other instruments in the orchestra, it might as well be free.
But water is unspeakably precious if you don’t have enough of it.
When the 300 musicians of the combined Youth Orchestras of Fresno take the stage of the Saroyan Theatre on Sunday, May 24, for a concert titled “Water, Water, Everywhere,” two 44-quart punch bowls filled with the wet stuff will make a starring appearance.
They’re part of a new piece by Fresno State music professor Benjamin Boone commissioned by the orchestra for the concert. His “Water(less)” is about as timely as you can get: It starts with rain and ends with drought.
Members of the percussion section will use their hands and other implements to “play” the water, amplified by a boom microphone, for various sound effects.
As part of the piece, Boone is using recorded tracks of Philip Levine, the acclaimed Fresno State professor and United States poet laureate, who died in February. The audience will hear Levine reading passages of his poetry that have to do with weather, water, environmental degradation and the starkness of the central San Joaquin Valley when rain doesn’t fall.
There are certain advantages to performing with water. If you drop it, you don’t have to worry about dents. (But perhaps about your security deposit at the Saroyan if it splashes too far.) It’s quite portable. It’s soothing. It produces a sound that is positively primeval and possibly pre-natal in character, triggering in a listener feelings of calm and assuredness.
And it’s on everyone’s minds these days.
The Youth Orchestras of Fresno organization has been particularly deft in recent years with annual themed end-of-season concerts that attract attention. (Last year’s big bash at the Saroyan had the theme of “Joy,” and the year before was “Mariachi Madness,” featuring another commissioned work by Boone.)
Thomas Loewenheim, who will conduct the work in a program that also includes such famed pieces as Debussy’s “La Mer,” Bernstein’s score for the movie “On the Waterfront” and Handel’s “Water Music,” has never conducted “water” before.
“I have conducted some works that had digital recordings of water and other effects,” he says, “but a ‘live’ water sound — that is new to me. I think Ben has invented this instrument, and I am very excited to hear it being amplified in the concert. I think it will be something special.”
“I’m going to go grab a bucket,” says Jose Elagarza, technical director at the Fresno State music department. He runs off the stage of the Concert Hall to fill ’er up.
He helped Boone design the water instruments and came up with a way to illuminate and mic them. The bowls sit on a black wooden stand that puts them at hand-level of the percussionists.
The lights can turn color, from the placid aqua and green of gently falling rain to the fiery red of thunderstorms.
300 number of musicians on stage
44 capacity in quarts of each water instrument
Boone demonstrates the various sound effects he asks for in his score. Gently scooping up handfuls of water, he lets it fall, creating a tinkling, dribbly sound. He dips a colander into the bowl, raises it to chest-level and slowly brings it down, producing an uncanny imitation of rain. He grabs a plastic cup, turns it upside down and plops it hard against the surface, creating a sharp percussive sound, almost like a muted drum.
“I worry I’m going to get wet,” he says with a laugh. “I have a recording session to get to after this.”
He says he was terrified at first of writing a piece about water. Do you use the orchestra to imitate the sound? Do you use rain sticks as instruments, which could be thought of as cliche? Or, like Debussy or Handel, say, do you use water as an inspiration?
He even tried his hand at music in the style of “La Mer,” but it came across merely as cheap Debussy, he says.
Upon the recommendation of Joung Min Sur, a colleague in the music department, Boone then listened to the Chinese composer Tan Dun, whose “Water Music” includes water gongs and gourds. Boone was entranced and inspired.
He envisions the arc of the music as going from the creation of the world with water and rain, then to dark clouds and environmental degradation, and finally to a lack of water and fallow farmland.
The 18-minute “Water(less)” features the water instruments prominently in the beginning and ending of the piece. He made some rhythmic notations for the percussionists in the music, but most it relies on verbal descriptions. (“This is where the dribbles go.”)
At first he thought even bigger than his two big punch bowls. He remembers seeing a Broadway play in which all the actors got drenched.
“Then I realized I couldn’t do a rain shower,” he says.
HEARTBREAK AND HOPE
Just as the drought has brought worry to California, the creation of Boone’s piece has a somber side to it.
He got the commission about a year ago and spent time letting it percolate in his mind. Then things got rough for him personally.
Within months of one another, his brother, mother, best friend and mother-in-law all died.
And in February, Levine died at age 87.
The poet and Boone had spent a great deal of time together working on a jazz project in which music is paired with selections of Levine reading his poems. The project was inspired by a 2012 concert featuring Levine and the Benjamin Boone Jazz Quartet at the Tower Theatre.
Four jazz superstars — Branford Marsalis, Tom Harrell, Greg Osby and Chris Potter — have recorded music so far. Pianist Donald Brown (who has produced many of jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s albums) is producing the project.
As a way to remember Levine, Boone sat down and listened to the 30 tracks recorded for the project. He realized that the poet often used themes of water, rain and dryness as metaphors. ( Levine’s “By the Waters of the Llobregat” concludes with these lines: “By the waters of the world no one sits down and weeps.”)
“I didn’t know I was writing about drought until I listened to those Philip Levine tracks,” he says.
About 95% of the music in “Water(less)” is original, and the remaining are snippets of the Levine recordings. The piece is dedicated to Levine and “to my mother, Clarma Boone, who loved hearing the music from my collaboration with him,” he writes in the concert program.
For Boone, the loss of loved ones put him in a frame of mind that he explored musically.
“I had no clue what loss really was,” he says. “And then I got four of them. It put me in a better space to appreciate the dichotomy between life, which is water, and death, which is lack of water. I think the piece is better at giving those two extremes because of my experiences.”
Yet such extremes can be inspiring as well. In the act of writing for talented young instrumentalists, Boone himself is acknowledging the cycle of life — that there is great music yet to come.
At first, Loewenheim says, his young percussionists didn’t know quite what to make of playing water.
“They were very puzzled at the beginning when we described it to them — what they were going to be doing,” Loewenheim says. “But last week we actually got to rehearse with the water and it was a lot of fun.”
And lest the folks at the Saroyan are worrying right about now: There will be towels on stage. Lots of them.
Youth Orchestras of Fresno
- What: ‘Water, Water, Everywhere’
- When: 4 p.m. Sunday, May 24
- Where: Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- Details: www.youthorchestrasfresno.org, (559) 275-6694.
- Price: $15-$20 suggested donation