The Speaking Percussionist

Seattle-based performer and educator Bonnie Whiting merges the two oldest forms of storytelling on Perishable Structures

University of Washington percussion department chair Bonnie Whiting’s Perishable Structures, which came out last year on New Focus Recordings, explores the connection between storytelling, theatre, and experimentalism within the percussion repertoire. Whiting is all-in on the concept, as the collection of videos, recordings, photos, and performance updates at her website attest—not to mention the handy list of “music for speaking percussionist” she’s been compiling since 2011, which Whiting invites all to contribute to.

“Speaking-percussionist music has always seemed natural to me,” Whiting writes in the liner notes to Perishable Structures, “in part because our discipline is inclusive, tied not only to the traditions of experimental music and theater, but also narrative and storytelling. We are asked to cue the birdsong in Respighi’s Pines of Rome, play the siren in Varèse’s orchestrations, splash in Tan Dun’s Water Music, and construct the next fantastical instrument out of everyday objects. The surface simplicity — someone striking something and vocalizing simultaneously: a creative reimagining of seemingly familiar everyday tasks — gives this music strength and immediacy. Percussionists deal with sonic inclusivity on a professional level: finding audible ‘readymades’ throughout everyday environments.”

As Whiting suggests, effective avant-garde music need not be “highbrow” and all that term represents — even when attacks on science, academia, thoughtfulness, and subtlety are on the rise, and the negative connotation of a word like “elite” is taken as a given, “difficult music,” as Laurie Anderson might say, is still simply the work of ordinary human beings, albeit with a taste for the esoteric. We all like a good story, whether the narrator is Ms. Anderson, Robert Johnson, David Byrne, or Bjork. As Whiting’s work makes clear, we who hit things to make sound for a living can be ideal communicators, particularly when we open our mouths at the same time.

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