Bonnie Whiting Smith begins the Palomar College afternoon “concert hour” with a three-minute John Cage piece entitled “A Flower.” The piece consists of melodic singing and the sound of Smith’s knuckles and fingertips tapping on a closed piano. Although intended for performance by a separate vocalist and a pianist, she handles both.
Smith refers to herself as a “speaking percussionist” and explains that for the main event she will perform two John Cage pieces (“45' for a Speaker” and “27'10.554" for a Percussionist”) simultaneously.
The audience numbers about 160 people — almost all of them students, in attendance to fulfill a requirement for their music-appreciation class.
A grid of over 100 spotlights hangs overhead, and 24 rectangular panels of gray, sound-absorbing material decorate the painted brick wall behind Smith.
Smith invites her audience to laugh if they find something funny and to enjoy the theatrical gestures Cage added as part of the score. She also advises the students not to overanalyze the performance.
“Even if you could understand all the words, it wouldn’t make any sense,” she says.
Smith then takes her post behind the percussion stand, which has been outfitted with dangling cooking-pot lids, brass plates in the shapes of bells, a thumb piano, an empty champagne bottle, bongo drums, two tom-tom drums, a snare drum, a gong, a wine glass, and a pink-and-blue buzzer from the board game Taboo. She uses drumsticks, mallets, and her fingers and palms to create a series of plips, gongs, claps, and plops. Her voice, as she goes through her spoken lines, is at times loud and theatrical and sometimes but a whisper.
Because the lunchtime concert hour allows for only 45 minutes of performance, Smith begins at the 12-minute, 30-second mark in the score. In its entirety, her “realization” of the two John Cage pieces takes 51 minutes to perform.
“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. And that is poetry,” she says, using John Cage’s words. Smith’s performance is punctuated by a stretch of silence here, a yawn here, a cough — all written into the score. And at one point, Smith upends a water bottle into her mouth, gargling its contents before swallowing. A few audience members laugh.
During the performance, a Palomar College sophomore named Stina sits in the last row at the top of the carpeted risers, quietly organizing her three-ring binder. “I prefer traditional music, so it wasn’t my favorite concert,” she says.
John “Jack” Gallagher, who at 79 is likely the oldest audience member, has attended the Thursday Concert Hour for 20 years.
“I thought it was wonderful,” he says of Smith’s performance. “I don’t think I could point to anything I learned. I just sort of sat back and let it flow over me.”