Chronicles #2: SOUNDINGS

Soundings is a composition for solo metal percussion. It was written for the Ingenuity Fest in Cleveland, Ohio. I premiered it on September 23 & 24, 2010 at the Fest, held on the historic Detroit Superior Bridge in downtown Cleveland. You can download or stream the tracks here.

A Quest for Echoes

SOUNDINGS started out as an idea, an impression about sounds underwater and how they reflect and echo. I was thinking sonar, submarines, whales, and other deep sea sounds. Metal percussion is the ideal medium, because the tones have a strong attack, yet also have a long sustain. Because of this, they interact with each other, producing additional tones and beats. Sounds close to the same pitch react by producing a rhythmic beating pattern. In playing metal percussion, the tones ring out and fade away into the air. For me, it's as important to play the spaces, as it is the notes, leaving the sounds hanging like mist in the air. I like the idea of the sounds moving from one to another at an unhurried pace—opening, evolving, and unfolding.

For SOUNDINGS I built a set of six special aluminum Sounding Plates. These produce a strong, clear, glass-like tone, and depending on the type of mallets used, can sound like church bells, chimes, a music box, or even a Gamelan. I also played various Gongs from 6"-32" in diameter, 3 Kyeezee (Burma Bells), and finally, a medium wood block to add a staccato sound as a contrast to the longer metal tones.

The actual recording was made under much duress. I was applying for a state arts grant and wanted to use a recording of SOUNDINGS for my grant application. While the piece was composed, I didn’t have a recording and the deadline was only a few days away. To make it all more difficult, I had been sick with a high fever and chills for the past week. and kept waiting to get better in order to record it. But I didn’t get better. So I dragged myself into my studio, turned on a small, portable digital recorder (which was all I could manage to set up), and played through the piece a couple of times. I then put it into my laptop and added the delay and reverbs to give it that underwater sound. I sent it off and that was done (I didn’t get the grant).

I had planned to re-record it all later when I felt better, but I really loved how this had turned out, as the finished recording sounded like what I envisioned in my head. 

So here we are nearly 11 years later and I still have a particular fondness for this recording. It’s one of the few recordings of mine that I go back and listen to every now and then, especially the 1st movement—most musicians don’t listen to their own recordings, because they were there, putting in the time making it, and most likely were playing it on tour. So they really have no need to hear it again! 

A Bridge To Cross

Playing this live for the first time was quite an experience. I’ve played in a lot of different venues in my life, but this year's Ingenuity Fest had to be the most unique. The fest was held in the lower level of a 2-level bridge. While cars still use the upper decks of the bridge today, the lower level was used by the trains connecting outlying cities to Cleveland. It has been unused for decades. On one side of the bridge, there is a large cavern (I kept expecting Batman to show up) where various routes from outlying regions converged, before going across the bridge into the city. Lit up by various lights, it resembled some sort of surreal scene in a sci-fi movie. The years of disuse only added to the look. There was a large stage and sound system, and chairs for those who wanted to sit, set up towards one side. This was the main music stage, but there were other smaller stages throughout the bridge, as well as art exhibits and other interesting things to see.

Setting up sound plates and gongs 'backstage'

Waiting backstage

The main stage in the cave

Because it was a festival as opposed to a formal concert, there was a lot of background noise and people came and went throughout the various performances. This was a challenge for me in many ways, because some of the sounds were rather subtle. I just had to jump in and play, not listening to what was going on around me. I had 2 performances on successive days and feel it all went rather well. The listeners were appreciative. I quite enjoyed the other performers and the whole festival atmosphere. While I did record both performances, there is so much background noise that they are not really listenable.

A full day and night of performances

I haven't played the whole of SOUNDINGS live since then. I have played various movements in solo concerts and even once put together a shortened version in 2013, but it remains mostly a studio recording.

A note about the album cover. I took the photo during Summerfest on a hot July day under the Hoan bridge that runs over the harbor here in Milwaukee, so there's that fest, bridge and water connection again.

~ MB

Chop Wood / Carry Water / Play Gongs™

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