Sunday, September 9, 2012

William Penn
"Gossamer Looms"

William Penn
Crystal Rainbows
(Sounds Reasonable, Inc., 1978)

From the cover and title, one might expect the album therein to be some sort of horrible New Age monstrosity. I bought it 'cause Robert Rutman appears on this track with one of his marvelous steel cellos (picture below, with string enhanced by moi). It was with a definite sense of dread that I put it on the turntable, but my fears were quickly destroyed by the content of the music within.

The liner notes tell the story of the album better than I can, so I'll let them take over:

Born January 11, 1943, William Penn has, during his career as a composer, written music which is tonally accessible to everyone. His music and sound effects scores commissioned by the National Air and Space Museum for the Albert Einstein Spacearium have thrilled millions. His music for Shakespearean Plays, performed by the Folger Theater Group and the New York Shakespeare Festival, has brought new depth to the classics. As a serious composer, Penn has written more than thirty concert pieces, twelve film scores, six musicals, four ballets, and forty-three scores for plays.

What you are about to hear is not a mainstream creation of any kind. From the choice of instruments to the final cutting of the master discs, this is an unusual production.

American primitive instruments and finely handcrafted replications have been combined with state-of-the-art recording technology to produce an amazing expression of far-sighted creativity, both idiomatically and technologically.

It all seems so magical, this assemblage of woods, strings and steel, but we who experience it daily understand the great simplicity of the work. Within the confines of the art, this experience becomes, simultaneously, divinely personal and universal, leaving works to the world which encompass all ages. Yet, instrument building is an art that needs to be seen as well as heard. Recent efforts to reveal contemporary masterworks have been most encouraging. Gallery shows, museum exhibits, art festivals, and publications have all aided this great renaissance of instrumental design.

Ken Riportella
Maker/Metamorphis II

In June 1978, Sounds Reasonable, Inc. (SRI) learned that the Renwick Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, would mount an exhibition that included unique and esoteric American handcrafted musical instruments. SRI subsequently developed the idea of composing an album of music played on these instruments.

By July 1978, a cooperative agreement between SRI, the Smithsonian Institution and the instrument makers was signed, and work began. SRI selected Dr. William Penn as composer for the project. After reviewing and finally choosing forty-three of the instruments, thirteen were actually used in the recording. The nature of the musical compositions precluded using all of the instruments chosen. The listener may wish to note that the instruments recorded are listed on the opposite leaf in the order of their appearance on the recording. Devices for electronic effects are listed only when used as discrete sound sources.

Tonality of the instruments has been modified throughout by using electronic and spring echo; parametric equalization; electronic pitch change; and phase reversal. Delicately recorded are the natural qualities of the instruments themselves. The Cloud Chamber Bowls drift naturally through the stereo spectrum, while the grand piano takes on an unbelievable dual identity.

Crystal Rainbows is a work of monolithic tonality which, unlike the more common commercial record, finds unity in its musical structure while allowing each listener the freedom to discover favorite colours in the making of personal rainbows.

Since the first recordings were completed, people have asked which of the instruments I like the best. Unequivocally I must answer the Ten-Foot Single String Stainless Steel Cello. The power and depth of this wonderful instrument are refreshing, and the opportunities for exploration are exciting in prospect and unpredictable in direction. Conjuring up visions of dragons, black holes and volcanic eruptions, this monster too large for the recording studio was erected in the lobby of our downtown office building at 2:00 A. M., and recorded during the lull between the passage of the night people and the early morning buses. The rubber piano, although not part of the exhibit, is also a favorite and is Penn's invention.

The audiophile will find dynamic range that literally makes the stereo system buzz; the electronic music devotee will discover new sounds and combinations of electronic equipment used to create space where none previously existed; the lover of avantegarde music will find herein an opus which reaches new heights in musical awareness; and who knows, but that Moonshine may become a hit single.

Edmund S. Barnett
October 21, 1978

The players for this piece:

  • Mark Cushing: Highland Bagpipes
  • Kathleen Doyle: Sansa Finger Piano
  • Dominick Labino: Glass Harmonica
  • William Penn: Finger Cymbals, Jaw Harp
  • Robert Rutman: Single String Stainless Steel Cello

2 biased opinions:

Biki Honko said...

ok, you know i love you and all, but how is this NOT a new age monstrosity? thats what im hearing, either that or a sound track to either a horror movie or a sci-fi one.

hit me up when your free, i miss ya du

Lightning Baltimore said...

New Age (rhymes with sewage, as my friend Aaron used to say) music is supposed to be ethereal and soothing and stuff. I don't think I'd call this soothing even in the slightest.