Last modified 28 July 2015

Watershed III (1995)
(Solo Percussion, Ensemble, Real-time computer sound spatialization)

by Roger Reynolds

The phenomenon of the watershed has iconic force, whether in reference to continental geometries, or a decisive circumstance in an individual’s life. There is an attractive aura around those increasingly rare realms that is decisive. The twentieth century saw the emergence of percussion as a musical resource – its capacity to manifest unbridled energy, as well as its unmatched diversity of sounds.  But achieving with percussive resources the satisfaction of the more traditionally developed domains of strings and winds has proved elusive. To this end, I decided on two complementary strategies: the giving of individual, almost theatrical character to families of percussion instruments, and the global immersion of listeners in the physicality of sonority itself.

The instrumental setup for Watershed involves four families: six drums which are rational, almost didactic in their precision; eleven "oddities" functioning as a contorted alter ego that mimics parodistically; five metallic instruments portrayed as organic, intuitive, and temporally elastic; and four wooden drums assigned only a small vocabulary of reactive interjections.

The skins and oddities dominate more than half of the piece, establishing an explicit and reasoned world. This perspective finds its limits, so to speak, and there is a metaphoric "realization," after which the closing portion of the work is then carried by the more subjective and inferential ways of the metallic resource. An assured, logical approach gives way, in short, to something less well-managed, perhaps, but more true to the lives we lead.

The second integrative influence stems from computer processing. Our ever-expanding capacity for sharing information remains, nevertheless, a network of representations, not the direct experience of things themselves. In Watershed, computer technology is used to draw the audience into the percussionist’s world, to erode the line between spectator and participant. It is rather as though one found oneself inside Lear's mouth during one of his revelatory outbursts. The local environment of the soloist – who is obliged to move in a dance-like manner within his circle of instruments – is expanded, projected through six loudspeakers so as to embrace the audience in a dynamically changing dimensionality.

Watershed III does not adopt the oppositions and aggressive drama of the traditional concerto, though the solo part is certainly demanding. Rather, the ensemble behaves as a sympathetic ally, introducing, supporting, commenting upon what the soloist is doing, has already done, or has not yet ventured. It too has a collection of characteristic behaviors for its three contrasting instrumental sub-groups, each placed separately on the stage.

Watershed III is one of a family of works (it resembles, in this regard, my earlier Transfigured Wind set). And I am indebted, in this project, to colleagues and friends: to percussionist Steven Schick, to Peter Otto and Tim Labor for sound direction and software design, to Josef Kucera for sound engineering. In this work I try to engage the mind in a music that is perhaps more primitive (archetypal and elusive), but at the same time more integrative than much of what I have previously done. Technology is not an end here but a bridge, and musical characterization confers on the interaction of materials, I hope, an uncommonly social feel.

Watershed III was premiered by Music Mobile at the Loeb Center, Washington Square, New York City, on 30 October 1995, conducted by Bruno Ferrandis. Steven Schick was the premiering percussionist. The TRAnSiT group (Kucera, Labor, Otto, Puckette, Reynolds, Schick) provided the real-time sound spatialization and design.

– Roger Reynolds, Del Mar, California, April 2008