Musicology of BowlSounds by Robert Parker
“Now” is the only moment that any of us have. And Kenton’s music is very, VERY present in “now,” is sensitive to “now,” and that sensitivity and that presence connect us TO “now,” and help us to become fully present and aware of “now.”
I am a percussionist, I have spent years pursuing the art. It is rare for a true artist-percussionist to understand, tofeel, what it really means to connect with and cooperate with an instrument. Kenton’s podcast describing his experience of interacting with the bowls is spot-on… Some instruments are “picky,” some instruments simply won’t work at all unless you meet them on their terms. Kenton’s connection to the bowls is immediately evident, but so is his connection to the totality of the musical experience. Each note supports every other note; some notes belong in the forefront, some notes belong in the background, some notes belong in a supportive role, some notesbelong in the gentle world of what could only be called “musical seasoning,” adding “spice” to the moment.
Clearly, Kenton is very finely attuned to the mystical magic of being present in “now.” His music invites you not merely to experience “now” fully, but to join with it, to cooperate with it, to allow his music to catalyze your full experience of what Ram Dass so clearly said: Be here now.
Enjoy Kenton’s music. Meet it, join with it, let it help you fully experience the amazing mystery of “now.” The sound is gentle, the sound is radiant. Invite the bowls to join you, to join them, and to truly Be Here Now.
I was indeed fortunate to listen to more of Kenton’s music, in (showing my age here by using this word) in two more albums: Atmospheres and The New Life. Very beautiful, and very interesting, indeed.
In all of his work, it seems as though the bowls themselves are driving the composition; the bowls chosen each have a different tone and tone quality, a different pitch center, a different “preferred” mallet choice. They are in many ways what Langer said of “the commanding form,” they are both “fecund and restrictive.” Some works feature a “cloud” of tones, long gentle and gently sustained pitches; some use completely different bowls, which have different everything, and which sometimes permit (demand?) more “percussive” approach, where motivic elements rely more on rhythm than pitch, although pitch is still present and important in its own way. The music of Mozart lives on pitch-centric motives; when the bowls are used “percussively,” as they are extensively used in The New Life, the motivic lifeblood is the “strike” not the sustain. Walter Kraft’s “French Suite” (written 1962) uses precisely this kind of writing; the drums and cymbals definitely *have* pitch, but the work is not *about* those pitches. (Which piece, by the way, I played in my Yale master’s-degree recital in percussion.)
Choice of bowls means choice of pitches and pitch centers and what can/can’t blend with what; this is almost “Messaien-ic,” to continue the mid-20th-century French organ metaphor, Messaien was famous (notorious) for inventing his own modes and then writing a composition that used them. Messaien’s modes could be thrilling, could be … puzzling … could be grating; but the chosen mode, I believe, is what really started the ball rolling. Which, of course, has been the power of modes in the West since the early days of chant writing; you want something dark for Good Friday, you pick E-mode, you want something for more general use, pick D-mode. (Wanna see how these work? Check the modes with the “white keys” on a piano: E-mode runs E, Fnatural, G, A, B, C natural, D; D-mode is D, E, F natural, G, A, B, C natural, D natural.) And modes are still being used nowadays; the theme written by Jerry Goldsmith for Star Trek movie 1, reused by the Next Generation series, uses the G mode, which is quite heroic: G, A, B, C, D, E, F natural. And nowadays, of course, we’re not tied to the piano keyboard or the starting note when we use modes; the G mode would work just as well starting on C#. People long after the medieval era started concocting made-up names for the modes, like phyrigian, mixolydian, Ionian (aka C major), aeolian (aka A “natural minor”), the real mode names were just notes, but… oh, is THAT ever another story. Jazzers still use the later mode names, they’ll tell you to solo on “G lydian” and such like that.
And another BTW, an article written in (how can you forget THIS date) 1776 talked about how keys were fine for “experimental music like symphonies,” but that if you wanted to write a really beautiful chorale, you had to use “church modes.” The very modes described above. And the author made his point by harmonizing a chorale tune with a “key,” what most people think as the sine-qua-non of composition, and with a mode, and the author was right–modes are MUCH better for chorales.
But to return to the *bowl* discussion, it’s quite interesting; the choice of bowls is *indeed* the commanding form, both fecund and restrictive; the choices make so much possible, and makes other choices IMpossible. The bowls used in much of The New Life do not, CANNOT, create a fat “pitch cloud” which is colored by scale degrees 7 and 9 (which, by the way, is also VERY French, 19th-century French, the flat-7/9 chord is the sine-qua-non of much of Ravel’s work; see especially “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”) But those very “cloud-loving, cloud-creating” bowls don’t have the clarity of *individual notes* required for the percussive interplay that enlivens (as it were) works on The New Life.
Good stuff. GOOD STUFF!
It’s clearly modal. Kenton creates his own modes by selecting the instruments; although many of the bowls are in a nice comfortable C-mode diatonic space, other instruments not only create their own modes but since they were not built to adhere to the rigor of the A440 equal-tempered world, they not only create their own modes but have their own unique tuning systems and pitch centers–their uniqueness enhanced by Kenton’s choice of techniques to play them using different mallets or other tools to play the instruments.
And then, it hit me: This work is very reminiscent of mid-20th-century *organ music.* Specifically, the gentler introspective works of Vierne, Dupre, Tournemiere, and maybe a hint of early Messaien. Vierne was one of the best organists in the world during his peak years, to this day organists flense themselves trying to survive some of his “well, *I* could play it” works. However, his quieter works are much more doable. Dupre especially was famous for his improvisations during the church service; one of his “Elevations,” written to accompany the Eucharist which I used to enjoy playing myself, is very reminiscent of Kenton’s works.
The Bowl Music clearly has its roots in the classical world; for example, a keen awareness of consonance, modality, even using different pitch systems (Messaien was famous/infamous as a “mode inventor,” he wrote a treatise on “Modes of Limited Transposition” that illustrates the undergirding of his modal-aware compositional system), even counterpoint–rhythmic and temporal, rather than imitative/fugal. The mid-20th-century organists lived in a time of “rule breaking;” yes, they could write fugues and symphonies and works that lived on “form,” but what I find most interesting is their more “discursive” work, which is VERY similar to Kenton’s music. It is not “program music” along the lines of Bald Mountain or even the Symphonie Fantastique; it is much more “soundtrack” like, it is music that simply tells its own story, they way it wants to tell it. His works do have structure, but it is more the “self-sustaining circle” than architecture that supports a structure. The Bowl Music’s structure is organic, responsive to the moments in which it is created and experienced. It uses tools of the Western Classical world, but it usesthem, they don’t control it.
Such wonderful fresh music, with seems to have ties to such an interesting tradition, which was itself tied both to the ancient Roman Church world and to rule-changing, rule-breaking techniques that would in time become spoken of as “avant garde.” Or, as magicians like to say when two completely unrelated people develop the same trick, “parallel development.”
Here’s a mystical Tournamiere:
Here’s a barn-burning Durufle. The bowls don’t fly like the wind as this piece does, but you can hear how Durufle tells his OWN story on HIS terms, which is very much Kenton’s journey:
Here’s a Vierne work that wanders in and out of “bound to structure.” It starts VERY structured, then wanders out, then wanders back in to full-on structure. It’s a show stopper, and DANG is it hard. Almost nobody plays this nowadays, it’s so danged hard. Doing B major scales up and down the pedalboard, you’ll see that towards the end of the 6:00 mark, as it transitions into 7:00. Oh heck, it’s a great piece, just enjoy listening.
But you can also hear how the beautiful consonance of The Bowls is reflected in the consonance of the organ. And when the organ really finds its power IN its consonance, MAN is there power there. And you can also hear how “registrational changes” to tone color work on the organ. The Bowls do this all the time. See the document below on Suzanne Langer’s idea of “commanding form.”
Time to make some tea and dive into Resphigi… I’m trying to write a storm, and that’s tricky, DEFINITELY tricky… Anyway, well done, again!