Mel Moss, Darrell DeVore, Deena Burton, Paul Nash, Martin Stumpf, Bob Moog, Dean Drummond, Barbara Benary
Sept 27,2005 - Just one month ago was the memorial to Darrell DeVore, in Petaluma. Not many people beyond the new music/new instrument scene in California knew Darrell and Mel Moss, who also passed away - and weirdly within about a week of each other. Both died from lung cancer this July.
I had introduced them 30 years ago.
Mel founded a group he called Moire Pulse, after the optical patterning, which would be the proto-minimalist creation of polyrhythmic, repeating, intersecting, shimmering phrases of music. Darrell was the Sound Magician, who among other groups co-founded the Future Primitive Art Ensemble of San Francisco with Charlie Moselle and myself. We had quite an interesting time in the Bay area of the mid to late 70's. People such as Joel Taylor, Jeannie Hahn, Ed Rollin, David Moe, Roseanne Cohen (long gone by assassins), Max Schwartz, Ed Montgomery, Robert Haven, Ron Pellegrino, Ariel View, Steven Rosenthal, Jeff Gere, Adela Chu, and our Shinto priests and Zen shiatsu master . . . Many musicians and dancers and sculptors and artists and poets collaborating and discovering the world music traditions of the Far East and mixing in avant garde aesthetics with the primalcy of "rock" and spontaneous improvisations of "jazz".
Darrell was a guiding light, an inspiration, a teacher and elder explorer. He always carried around a bag full of bamboo flutes and gourd drums, beautiful sculptural "primitive" sound makers. I met him in '73 or '74 when he came through CalArts selling his bamboo flutes and teaching us how to play them in his "Pygmy Unit" mediumistic improv style. We did a few interesting gigs up in SF. I think our first gig as Future Primitives was at Project Artaud. We were all reading Casteneda at the time and into shamanism. At a street fair I met Mel Moss and his gorgeous slit drums made from rare hardwoods and tuned in random microtonal designs. We jammed for hours and he invited us to join his ongoing weekly sessions at his house in Noe Valley.
I figured we would bring Darrell Devore into Moire Pulse, and see what happens - bamboo meets rare woods. I think I also invited percussionist Kevin Lambert from the group UBU, and we might have met Steve Rosenthal there, oboist soon to become bamboo instrument builder. Shafi , who had a radio show on KPFA, and Krishna Bhatt the Indian sitarist, and the trumpeter Baikida Carrol, and the ever magical Sally Davis, and Japanese flutist Jun Ishimuro, and many other great players would come by regularly. Every session was recorded.
The day Darrell discovered the wind wands and brought them in, was really something. Mel and he were building great things together in Mel's workshop. They were about the same age. Mel was a filmmaker who needed to create a new soundtrack, so he built the instruments and the ensemble, and forgot about the film. Eventually I had to leave the California scene and pursue my carreer in New York. Almost immediately I joined up with Skip LaPlante's group who built instruments from trash and recycled materials. Same thing, only different.
I did meet up with Darrell a few more times, most memorably in Hawaii at a Future Primitive trio concert we did at Honolulu Academy of Arts. I said goodby to Mel just a few weeks before he passed, in June this year. My daughter Antonia, his niece, let me know how close to the end he was. I made a trip out there. He was transcendant, talked about the terminus of his life, how he could see the big picture. Mel had given Darrell his expensive Kurzweil sampling keyboard, and then so quickly he too came down with the same diagnosis. Rasa, Mel's wife, gave me Darrell's phone number, but I just couldn't call, it was too hard for me, and probably for him too. And then suddenly it was just too late.
It's been an awful year of death of close friends and artistic collaborators, beginning with Paul Nash, the composer and guitarist, who had the courage and vision to employ Lisa Karrer and myself in the Manhattan New Music Project creative music educators special ed residencies. While we were grieving Paul's passing in NY, Mel was with the San Francisco friends of Paul. It turns out they were old friends, and Mel spoke about not wanting invasive surgery or chemotherapy whose side effects could be debilitating, which was the case with both Paul and then Deena Burton, the dancer and Asian arts scholar, who died from multiple cancers and intensive experimental medical procedures. I had introduced her and Skip LaPlante, with the result being history in the making. She co-organized the festivals Artists Inspired by Asia, and Artists Inspired by Indonesia, and then we were just all simply inspired by Deena herself, her energy which seemed unstoppable. When the tribute concert to Deena happened at the Indonesian consulate in Feb of this year (which might have been the very first NYC Gamelan Festival: 4 gamelans in one day - Balinese, Javanese, Homemades, and Son of Lion) she wouldn't stop talking to the audience even though she had already lost her hearing. And now Martin Stumpf, such a nice gentle person, who recorded us at Galapagos (in Brooklyn) when Stephanie Griffin had her New Music series there - he just died a few weeks ago, of heat stroke in a sweat lodge, though not doing heat yoga. He'd been performing some important sound and media work through UNESCO in Africa, only to pass out of existence upstate NY with no one watching out for him.
As we were driving through the US this summer, Lisa and I stopped for a moment in Asheville, North Carolina just on the day a Theremin Festival was going to happen. We had an appointment in Knoxville that night, and couldn't stay . . . but being the home of Bob Moog, whose company built my theremin, I would have LOVED to visit him and the Big Briar factory. Unfortunately, and very very sadly he was too sick with cancer to attend the concert and died within days. We'd never met, and I wanted to show him my contribution to Theremin culture, motion controlled midi triggering a sampler.
Here's a humourous and painful memory of Devore: his teeth were awful, he smoked unfiltered Camels and plenty of dope, (this was in the 70's, after Bolinas, before Petaluma) but he decided it would be easier to just get ALL his teeth pulled out at once, finally, and be done with the suffering.
And so he did.
And as if that weren't enough, just a day after Deena's memorial at NYU in Dec, I learned that Andy Toth AND Bob Brown passed away within 3 days of each other in November! And that Mantle Hood, a Godfather of ethnomusicology in the US and teacher of both of them also passed away that July.
Bob Brown (Dr. Robert Brown) was my first Gamelan teacher at CalArts, and he was probably lots of peoples' first gamelan teacher, having established the World Music Depts. at Wesleyan, CT and San Diego State. He had a "gamelan camp" in Bali which was a popular destination, and also worked on the Voyager Golden Record with Carl Sagan, which was launched into space and included his recording of Javanese Court Gamelan - expected to survive for 4,500,000,000 years as part of the longest lasting product of the human race.
Andy Toth headed the U.S.Consul in Bali, was a student of Bob Brown, and had the (very) minor distinction of performing in my piece "Music For Theremin and Gamelan" at the Sacred Rhythm Festival in Bali. He was very helpful in smoothing the often disorganized Millennial festivities, but clearly wasn't in the best of health. He was a classic image of the scholar gone 'tropical' though, and played his part musically as well. Really a nice person.
I did meet Mantle Hood, (scary name) and wondered what he thought of the trifles and watered down travesties of the East-West Theater Company I was working with. (He was not discouraging).
Anyway you slice it, three (or 4) generations of Gamelan scholars passed away this year.
Very strange that in a room full of gamelan devotees, experts and practitioners, at Deena Burton's memorial, I didn't hear anyone mention anything about it. Just too damn depressing.
- D. Simons, March '06
April 20, 2013:
At Dean Drummond's memorial, the talking stick was passed around and many people said things. Some people tried to talk but couldn't get the words out before choking on emotions and bawling. That could've been me; instead I watched as his wife and son spoke clearly, thoughts composed, prepared for the day they knew was coming. I wanted to take that stick and say "THANKS DEAN" real loud so I wouldn't crack.
"Thank you Dean for taking the CalArts Percussion Ensemble on a pilgimage to visit Harry Partch in 1974."
I thought he would hear me, that being loud and forceful would dispell the tears and ungrip my voice. I wanted to yell out THANK YOU DEAN for that day we went down to San Diego and spent the whole day with Harry Partch first in his house, sitting on the Indian blanket covered couch while he played a microtonal hymnal on chromelodeon about loitering on the Courthouse Lawn . And then we went to his studio at the college where Harry Partch gave us a personal tour of his instruments, and Danlee Mitchell was there, who always deferring to Dean to explain the theory part of Partch's music. Thank you Dean for giving us the opportunity to sit in the zoo with him, under a tree. I bought a cheap bottle of wine, the kind I thought hobos might like, (as if I knew anything about wine at that age, 19 or 20.) And Harry Partch said that we percussionists were like acorns that fell from his tree. And we drank wine in the zoo and loved it.
Oh and Thank You Dean for conducting the premiere of my piece Odentity for the Partch ensemble, for Newband at Montclair State College. It was a long and difficult process, which took me years and with a very steep learning curve in figuring out how to write in a tablature notation, unique for each instrument ! The dedication, even if it was like pulling teeth, to get the job done with the highest standards was remarkable, and the band pulled it together. Dean was an immaculate musician. He was also a gifted conductor who really paid attention to detail.
So thank you Dean. Thank you.
But I couldn't say it, I couldn't get it out of my mouth even if I had the words, I thought I would just break down and not be able to speak. Babble and quaver incontrollably.
So I didn't.
But now, after the shock, of the inevitable, in some way I can express my thanks.
-D.Simons, Aug 2013
"It's safe to say that it's all over.
The world this far away from the corpse
Predicted by prophets who saw
in the moon a reflection
of the future."
- from a poem by John Famulary
for John Famulary:
When a friend dies, a little piece of us cracks and falls off. That makes our world smaller. Suddenly we can't feel what they feel or see new things that they have experienced. No more communication, no more sharing, no extra pair of eyes and ears to sense and make sense of the world around them. Because them is a part of us, and we are the sum total of living breathing beings that can change their mind, or have strong opinions of things. Now we've lost that, a unique perspective is gone. A piece of our spinning plate snapped off, and our world is that much smaller.
-D Simons Feb 2015
It's hard to write about Barbara Benary, who died in March 2019.
For about 35 years I worked with Barbara, as a member of her ensemble the Gamelan Son of Lion. Barbara was director of the gamelan, whose instruments she designed and built, based on methods used by the first American Gamelan builder Dennis Murphy. Benary was a pioneer in the American Gamelan movement, who made her ensemble and their instruments available to composers to write new music for Indonesian style instruments. The ensemble achieved much acclaim worldwide, as both a New Music ensemble, a microtonally tuned resource available to any composer who wished to experiment with it ('open-source' gamelan?), and as an introduction or portal to cross-cultural understanding. In this last sense, Barbara's philosophy of music was so important because it demonstrated that one could have respect for a tradition, and as an outsider, expand the scope of that genre.
Indonesians considered the Gamelan Son of Lion representative of a significant movement in the West, mostly America and Europe, to release the gamelan from nationalistic or even culturally specific domination. When on the occasions that Son of Lion performed at the 1st International Gamelan Festival at the World Expo 86 in Vancouver, and the 2nd festival in Yogyakarta 1996 (with subsequent Java tour), the Gamelan Son of Lion was viewed as a highly respected musical force. Actually this phenomenon was quite astonishing and amusing to us members of the group, to see our name on welcoming banners throughout Java as though we were superstars visiting our source of inspiration, coming home as it were to the roots. Performing at one of the wonders of the ancient world, Borubodur, in front of governors and dignitaries was an unforgettable experience, partly because the bronze instruments which were sitting outside in the sun were so hot to the touch we couldn't properly dampen the metal keys without pain of it being too hot to handle. We were nearly at the equator. But in the mountains of Bandung where the temperature was cooler and the music more active, our sponsors expected us to also perform some traditional Javanese music for their dancers, because of course they thought we would primarily be experts on that. We weren't. But being that they were our hosts, feeding and housing us, we tried anyway. We all received a trophy and proclamation for our efforts.
There were many many festivals and high visibility performances, including what might have been the first gamelan to tour Estonia, with Lisa Karrer's Woman's Song, and a memorable run at Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Mark Morris Dance Company. We premiered so many pieces, including the Henry Brant spacial and multi ensemble pieces outdoors at Lincoln Center, and works by Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros and of course by Barbara herself and the original co founders Philip Corner and Daniel Goode. I wrote many pieces for the group that were performed and recorded.
An interesting sub-group of Gamelan Son of Lion was the Rockland Angklung ensemble. This was a different set of instruments, a 4 note scale, smaller in size and number, almost like a toy gamelan. So we were very portable and mutable. For many gigs (including the opening of a new jewelry display at Saks 5th Avenue, or a spice company banquet, or a church service) it was a trio: Barbara, Lisa Karrer and myself. Each of us played about three instruments simultaneously. Other configurations had 5-10 members, with Iris Brooks, Mark Brooks, RIP Hayman, Gde Arsa Artha, Jeremy Wall, various Sons of Lions. The repertoire was mostly from a wonderful book of Barbara's transcriptions of Balinese Angklung music. For the longest time she insisted on endbeat notation, where the last note of the score was the first note of the music, and this [what seems like] ethnographers' contrivance put a major counter-intuitive warp on the experience. Yes, Gong is the beginning and Gong is the end and it's all cycles within cycles, but to have this notational system caught up in the head of the player where we have to transpose visually what we Westerners see and hear as phrases beginning and ending, puts a remove on the music. So for me, and for Barbara obviously, memorization is the key. Don't be glued to the score. Although she could dexterously manage to play a two part kotekan counterpoint by herself, curiously, Barbara played Balinese music in the Javanese style - she definitely had her speed limit and a delicacy of touch. Many of these pieces, with all the ritards and tempo changes and drum cues counting the repeats, I must have performed hundreds of times.
One of the earliest gigs I did with the Son of Lion was actually NOT playing with Barbara, because I was her alternate. We traded places in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest, directed by Lee Breuer. Barbara wrote great music for that ("Full Fathom Five", which I always wanted the gamelan to reprise) and we shared space onstage with a Samba band, Sumo wrestler, fire pit, choreographed helicopters (in the air), and Raul Julia as Prospero.
One of her last productions was a shadow puppet presentation with Barbara Pollit of the Revolutionary War/ Benedict Arnold/ Major Andre story Shadows of Treason. It was performed with gamelan at Piermont library, as this episode is part of Rockland County's history. If you can imagine, we played Yankee Doodle Dandy in combined slendro and pelog.
The awful thing was Barbara's long trajectory of debilitation. I might have seen it coming, as I used to (privately) joke she was exhibiting "early onset", those memory lapses that happen to seniors. But my smart-ass reference to Alzheimers was off the mark - she was actually showing the dementia and shakiness of hands that accompanies Parkinson's disease. After she lost her way driving home from rehearsal one night and ended up wrecking her car and breaking her back, the deadly process of Parkinson's accelerated. Lisa and I brought a gamelan keyboard to her in rehab hospital, hoping to cheer her up, but sadly she could barely hold the sticks.
Now I'm remembering just a few of Barbara's outstanding compositions like the Indian influenced Tamil String Quartets, the Jewish historical shadow puppet and gamelan opera Wayang Esther, and Jigalullaby and Gaelic Weaving which very successfully combined Celtic melodies with gamelan. We will miss her creative spirit, great knowledge, prolific output, generosity, sense of humor, and encouragement to others.
- David Simons, July 16, 2019