Thomas Buckner: A Weekend at the Harrison House
By Cynthia Brando
It started with the pounding of a drum-a several minute solo by master percussionist and hand drummer Daniel Ray, aka., Big Black, which Tom tells me later in our interview, was the only format. Buckner sits poised in his chair, with his eyes closed, listening. After awhile, he stands up and begins to make sounds with his smooth baritone voice. The sounds range from melodic lines; rich long notes, to guttural staccato tones that sometimes sound like animal mimicry. He begins to move around the room. He touches walls and vocalizes towards them; cupping his hands near his mouth, which manipulates the sound in different ways. Suddenly he is out the door and communicating with the thick adobe surfaces on the outside of the house. It is all-intriguing as a visual performance piece, but in closing ones eyes and focusing on the sounds, they start to take on a life of their own. At one point, the sound seems like it is coming from above-is Buckner hovering near the ceiling? I open my eyes and find the 73 year old flat on his stomach, glued to the floor, making sounds that seem to rise from the depths. The whole time, the drums continue, paired with the steely sounds of Dan Joseph on the dulcimer. I close my eyes again as the music gets more frenzied. It starts to feel “trance-like”, this spontaneous music; mystical and magical.
My only real reference to experimental music was John Cage and his non-traditional uses of instruments, and various jazz ensembles, with their often long and exploratory improvisations; but the music that Tom Buckner describes as “spontaneous music”, is quite a different experience and approach. I had the pleasure of attending my first ever Thomas Buckner concert in the desert of Joshua Tree, California, in the first straw bale constructed domain that ever existed in the state. It was created by none other than Lou Harrison, the experimental composer who became known for working with microtones, and incorporating the music of non-Western cultures into his pieces.
Harrison created the space with certain musical mathematical equations in mind. He felt that music was “emotional mathematics”, and spent years experimenting with tonal systems based on mathematical ratios. I was there for a concert and workshop by Thomas Buckner, a baritone vocalist who uses a lot of non-traditional vocal techniques in his explorations of contemporary classical and improvised music. He explains in our interview, the experience of making music in this unique space.
M.E. “As a singer, your body is your instrument. I noticed that during your spontaneous music piece, you moved around the room, using your body and voice to interact with different areas in the environment. Are you exploring sound alone, or is there something more happening?”
T.B. “To me, especially this house, which has particularly interesting acoustics-finding a way of resonating with the space-activating the vibrations of the room-gives me an experience that takes me into, like another level of thinking or consciousness. It’s like you get completely absorbed in it, and sort of one thing leads to another; it’s organic; it grows organically. I did spend a couple of days in this space, and all I could do was to keep singing; it was so beautiful. I worked on all the stuff that was going to be in the concert, but I’m exploring the space just as much when I sing an accompanied song, as when I sing an improvisation-because the room is also your instrument.”
M.E. “What kind of state do you get into when you perform spontaneous music?”
T.B. “For instance, when I was performing the improv piece last night with Big Black and Dan-the only thing we decided was that Big Black would perform a long drum solo, so that we could develop something, and I would come in when I felt like it-but I think what happened, is that he invited me in-in other words, the beginning was soloistic-when we got to the place where the music seemed like it had space to let me in, I began-and he had so many levels of sound….I’m really focusing on sound a lot, and modifying sound-I practice finding different sounds. I like to look for new sounds right there in front of the audience. I like to think of a good improv as being music that is made right before your ears-it’s not like bringing out your bag of tricks-even though you develop things that you know how to do-but it’s nice to be on the edge between what you know how to do, and what you’re discovering.”
M.E. “And that’s what happens in new spaces in particular.”
T. B. “This room for example; you can make a sound and attenuate it down, and you’ll find a spot where the room just rings-and you can just explore being below that level and above that level-and the timbre changes without having to do anything except move the pitch a little, or sometimes I think of it-this sounds silly-but, looking inside, and singing what’s there-but in a group improv-you’re responding to the other person, and you’re giving out things for them to respond to. Each combination of instruments seems to have its own sets of challenges. In a duo-it’s a dialogue. If you stop, the other person is soloing-period, and you can have silences, etc., but it’s a dialogue, and making the sounds together. A trio is very different because you can stop and the other two are playing, and there are so many different timbres-I love the trio.”
M.E. “What was it like to be around Lou Harrison? Did he teach you anything?”
T.B. “I learned a lot from listening to his music, and I had a couple of opportunities to be around him. He was a man of wide interests-One time we were at a festival staying for some days and I had breakfast with him every morning-and he was going to Stanford and communicating with a female ape-because he knew American Sign Language, and he was going to have a conversation with the ape. He learned Esperanto-(a constructed language)he thought Esperanto would help the whole world communicate.”
M.E. “Sounds like he was eccentric.”
T.B. “He was eccentric, in that he was really himself. In his time, he was unusual in that he was a gay man totally out-and nobody was. He lived in New York, which was too much, and he had a little breakdown, and eventually moved back to the West where he found a way to live closer to nature with more peace in his life-and he did fine for the rest of his life.”
M.E. “A very interesting an unusual piece of music you performed was an oscillation piece, with two devices sending out frequencies. Can you explain the phenomenon of oscillation and tell us a bit more about the piece?”
T.B. “These are pure waves-it’s that sound that goes-ooooooooo…….and they are sweeping slowly. They both start in unison-one of them takes x amount of time to go one half step, then the other one takes x+y to go a half step going down, and I come in when the first one gets a half step to here (points to sheet music)-then I sing-oooooo……..and drop down-oooooooo……when I get to the lower one-that is when the other oscillator has gotten there. The scientific fact is that unisons, octaves and fifths-or an octave and a fifth-these are the only intervals that generate beating patterns when they’re not quite in tune. The beating patterns are a physical fact when a pitch is slightly out of tune-you hear the beating, and you may notice that sometimes the beating starts from nothing and gets faster, and sometimes it starts faster and gets slower and slower as its approaching being in tune. The composer, Alvin Lucier, is only interested in making music out of acoustic phenomenon-so one beat is going up-when it gets to a point- I come in on a certain note and while I am holding it-this other note is still sweeping by-so if the beating comes in-sometimes they don’t, but they usually do-will beat until I approach unison-it’s tricky, because the wave is moving-it’s only a split second that I come in to reach unison, and you don’t know how long it’s going to last because it’s constantly moving. If we look at the score-here I come in on a fifth-and there’s a different kind of beating that happens then-plus they’re the most in tune intervals-like the drone in music is one and five; and so if we’re using one octaves and fifths; it’s constantly approaching and just barely hitting, and then going away from being perfectly in tune, which is a lovely thing to hear-so the piece-whether you hear the beating or not-you’re hearing a melody that’s based on being in tune with one or the other of these oscillators that are sliding. I think it’s just a beautiful thing-an evocative piece."
M.E. “Another piece you performed was composed by Boon Ching Lamb; a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley called, “Music-When Soft Voices Die.” I think it would be a nice ending to this interview, which I would like to thank you very much for doing. Could you recite it?”
T.B. “Music-when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap’d for the beloveds bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou are
Love itself shall slumber on.”
Listen to a clip of Alvin Lucier and Thomas Buckner's oscillation piece HERE.
Short clip of Buckner performing spontaneous music.
Including the concert by Buckner, the weekend also consisted of a workshop on improvisation. Here is a clip of the group and the first improv, and an audio of the second improv. Skip around the audio recording to hear different aspects of the piece.
Soundcloud clip to a student improv piece from the workshop.
Learn more about the Harrison House and the overseer and work of Eva Soltes and information about her documentary on Harrison.