Throughout an evening of whirling oscillators, party organs, shimmering metal curves, and wiggling, the unspoken question “what the fuck is that?” existed like its own sound. This omnipresent wondering was a pedal tone that instrument inventor Neil Feather and composer/keyboardist Rosie Langabeer reveled mischievously within. In just two pieces, a semi-improvised duet called “Popular Organ Fun Party 2” and Langabeer’s raucous work-in-progress “IDIOSYNCROPHILIA,” it seemed as if the world had turned very silly. Presented by Bowerbird at the Rotunda, Neil Feather: Sound Mechanic upended our notion of the possible, both through instrumentation and relaxed, playful composition.
Dumping the classical Kool-Aid
For those of you who have ingested the classical Kool-Aid and believe the last good instrument made was a Wagner tuba, I invite you to consider Feather’s instruments. Their scavenged forms bare their functions, but their sounds are otherworldly and astonishingly well-balanced.
Take the nondo, a giant curved metal plate with two metal strings extended across its body. When struck with a doohickey, it resonates like a gong, but with clearer overtones and an ever-changing timbre.
But with Feather’s instruments there’s always more to it than that. By shifting the balancing point on the nondo, the performer (in this case, the expert Ashley Tini of Arcana New Music Ensemble) can bend the fundamental pitch. This shifting of weight can then be used to manipulate a metal rod placed atop the wires, creating an inverse harmonic relationship with the base: when the base goes up, the rod moves downward, and vice versa.
A descending nondo hit is like the motion of a roller coaster, making your body feel ready to turn into a puddle of happy goop. I could literally feel it in my stomach at a certain point. An ascending nondo hit seems to draw your body to heaven itself, radiant harmonics becoming ever brighter.
“Popular Organ Fun Party 2” featured Rosie Langabeer on a modified organ that played either premade soundtracks, or a cheesy rhythm generator similar to an old Casiotone portable keyboard, and had an electric organ whose tone could be manipulated in real time.
Alongside her was Neil Feather playing the vibrawheel, which utilizes violet and pink pieces to modify the rotational speed of a wheel, whose different segments produce different tones, so that moving slowly produces a drone and moving quickly accentuates the difference between the tones in the segments, creating rhythmic figures.
The majority of the piece had a premade jazzy tune, with a head-turning clash of rhythms generated by the vibrawheel against the clock-time of the soundtrack, which somehow all became unified by Langabeer’s organ-playing. It may have gone on for too long, but I thoroughly enjoyed its humor, “harmonies,” and amorphous structure. (You can browse some of Feather’s instruments here.)
Langabeer’s work-in-progress, “IDIOSYNCROPHILIA,” finished up the evening. This piece is scored for a small chamber orchestra, two percussionists, vibrawheel, the wiggler, and nondo. The form is, in her own words, a mixture of through composition, structured collective improvisation, and hand-signaling parts, all of this primarily coordinated through numbered sections for the larger ensemble to keep track of.
Langabeer used the nondo to great effect. Its multifaceted tone at the beginning of the piece both established mood and created an envelope into which other sounds were introduced. Her techniques seemed to blend the best of neoclassical composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich with the spectralism (the basing of harmony from concrete acoustic phenomena) of Grisey.
How this blending occurred from moment to moment changed drastically. At times, Langabeer clearly signaled chord progressions in the Arcana chamber orchestra, providing a beautiful canvas to desecrate with percussion and vibrawheel. At other times, the chamber orchestra was let loose while Feather’s instruments receded to the background, or provided appropriate structure.
My only complaint with this orchestration was that the vibrawheel was too powerful in its ability to disrupt the action of other instruments. Because it never breathes, it takes away from the more organic nature of the piece, as well as rhythmic interplay between other instrument groupings. I wish its use had been more restrained.
But beyond being a wacked-out version of an instrument showcase, colorful, tonally dense passages make up the bulk of this work-in-progress, where aggressive rhythms, sparkling sounds, and an outpouring of humanity make a compelling sonic body. I can’t wait to experience the finished creation.
What, When, Where
Neil Feather: Sound Mechanic. Featuring the instruments and compositions of Neil Feather, Rosie Langabeer, the Shizuka Duo, and the Arcana New Music Ensemble. Presented by Bowerbird on November 15, 2019 at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. bowerbird.org
The Rotunda is wheelchair-accessible.