Last modified 28 July 2015

Watershed IV (1995)
(Solo Percussion, 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 the first half of the piece, establishing what is an explicit and reasoned world. This perspective finds its limits, so to speak, and there is a metaphoric "realization", after which the second half of the work is 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, especially in regard to the domains of dream and myth.

The second integrative influence depends upon 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 choreographic manner by his circle of instruments – is expanded, projected outwards through six loudspeakers so as to embrace the audience in a dynamically changing dimensionality.

Watershed IV 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. The TRAnSiT group (Kucera, Labor, Otto, Miller Puckette, Schick and I) is dedicated to an ongoing exploration of real-time sound spatialization. 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 some 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 communal feel.

Watershed IV was premiered by Steven Schick at the Mandeville Center of the Arts in La Jolla, California on 11 April 1996.


– Roger Reynolds, Del Mar, California, June 2008