William Winant: Wild Percussion

This week at ANAM we've been working with the Grammy-award nominated American percussionist William Winant, who has has an incredibly interesting career! William is in town to work with us on a John Zorn composer portrait concert, but in his lectures and chats throughout the week we've heard about his experiences of working with John Cage, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, Sonic Youth, Mr Bungle... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. 

The big focus of our week is working on Zorn's Cobra, a game piece for improvising performers. We've been learning a series of cues - usually indicated by pointing to a body part and showing a number between 1 and 4 - which can be used to change the direction of the ensemble. As an example, 'Mouth 1' indicates an 'everybody jump in and play something new' direction, 'Nose 1' cues a duet with another player, and 'Palm 1' cues the ending. Then there's a whole extra set of rules triggered by wearing a hat, which allow you to ignore cues and rules as you please. It's a lot to remember, but a lot of fun!

I've found this experience completely fascinating after learning a little about Walter Thompson's Soundpainting at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. Thompson describes Soundpainting as 'the art of live composition'. In this scenario, the conductor or facilitator uses a series of body cues to direct the performers to perform certain actions - improvise, talk, play in small groups, dance, change volume, etc. I really enjoyed learning about Soundpainting, but found some frustration as a performer in having no control over the ensemble. As a Soundpainting performer, you're at the whim of the conductor - it's about their taste and how they want to develop the sounds the ensemble is producing.

Cobra strikes me as a more democratic version of Soundpainting. Any performer, or the conductor, can make a call to continue or change the music being produced at any moment. This is really exciting for all involved, but can lead to other problems (think too many cooks!). The music often moves through different styles and instrumental combinations at breakneck speed, and William has talked to us about how Cobra reflects John Zorn's love of mash ups - the frenetic pace of the music is similar to someone flicking through television channels.

This year at ANAM we've looked at improvisation in terms of graphic notation with Mark Applebaum and the classical style with David Dolan, so it's been great to see an entirely new approach this week. The concert is tomorrow night at 7pm, and William will be talking about some of his exciting collaborations in an 'In Conversation' at 3pm. It's guaranteed to be an interesting Friday!

What's next?  

  • Speak Percussion's A wave and waves opens on Thursday next week. Word is tickets are selling fast, so book ahead! Composer Michael Pisaro and guest percussionist Greg Stuart arrived in Melbourne this week, and it's going to be really exciting for all involved to have them at this weekend's final rehearsals.
  • Recital preparations! It's full-steam ahead for a metalwork-inspired, industrial extravaganza on October 27. I'm really looking forward to working with some of my favourite collaborators - my Rubiks' partners in crime Tamara Kohler and Justin Beere on Anna Clyne's Steelworks.