Interview with Bonnie Whiting, xylophone
We’re pleased to be welcoming Bonnie Whiting, Chair of Percussion Studies at the University of Washington, as the featured soloist on our season opening concert October 1st. We reached out to her to get some insight into her work, and she was kind enough to share with us some of her thoughts on music and performing.
PNW: How did you get your start in music? You seem to perform a lot of new music, where did your passion for that come from?
BW: As a child, I began my musical life beating pots and pans on my mother’s kitchen floor. I have always loved sounds and been fascinated by experimentation. I studied dance for years, with a special affinity for tap dancing. While I did halfheartedly take piano lessons when I was young, I think the rhythmic propulsion of dance is what led me to percussion. I love seeking out the problems of experimental music, and it’s great that a typical practice day can involve keyboard percussion, car parts, the snare drum, or even pot lids.
PNW: What do you like about Hovhaness’ Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints?
BW: Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness was one our country’s most prolific composers, his archives are in residence at the University of Washington, and he lived in Seattle at the end of his career. I find his music to be beautifully orchestrated yet strikingly simple. The focus of my work is experimental, Avant-Garde music. There aren’t many mainstream concerti in this genre. So, I love that this work seamlessly blends traditional Western art music and non-traditional techniques. Several senza misura sections feature woodwind and string solos in which pitches are bent and the musicians of the orchestra are allowed to improvise. He tries to make many of the orchestral instruments sound similar to traditional Japanese ones, all while constructing brilliant variations of the central theme of the piece.
PNW: Do you have a favorite memory as a performer?
BW: I recently played this piece in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: a country that was pretty much closed to outsiders until about ten years ago. As it stands, only about a thousand people a year get visas and there is still little information about the country available via the internet and news outlets. There are no female percussionists in the whole country, and the purpose of the trip was to facilitate a large dontation of instruments from the US Embassy to the National Orchestra of Turkmenistan. We were separated by a language barrier (some musicians in this former-Soviet country only spoke Russian, and some of the younger folks only spoke Turkmen), and had the additional challenge that we collaborated on a program of all American music, some of it unlike any of the rep the orchestra generally plays. When we first rehearsed the Hovhaness, the wind players cackled with laughter at the bent notes in the solo senza misura sections. The timpanist had to be coaxed to play loud enough. I loved struggling with the orchestra on this piece, and then was delighted to have the opportunity to learn the most rudimental techniques on a traditional Central Asian percussion instrument the Nagara. The trip epitomized my favorite part about being a musician: the exchange of ideas between diverse groups of people.
PNW: Any advice for young people interested in pursuing music?
BW: Listen to all kinds of music: online, live, and while traveling. Go out of your way to perform with others: in large ensembles, chamber music settings, open mic nights, and garage bands. Balance this by finding a way to love the alone time you’ll spend practicing as you hone your skills; this solitude can be a gift.