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Fresno composer, orchestra imagine 'Water (less) Music' at Disney Hall

Ted Hioe/FOOSA

For Fresno composer Benjamin Boone, making music with former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine always made sense. 

"I’ve always been attracted to the melody of the spoken word," Boone says. "And I see Philip not only as a poet but I really do see him as a musician."

So when Boone was stumped on a commissioned orchestral piece he was working on about water, it was only natural to turn to Levine's words for inspiration. "From my perspective as a composer, water in Philip’s poetry evokes feelings of the essence of life and what makes life," he says. "It’s integral to plant life, to the ecosystem, to us as people, to all animals, and it comprises everything we have as life, it has to have water."

Levine is most known as a poet of working men in his native Detroit. But he put down roots in Fresno's arid valley, too - a place now suffering under the state's punishing drought. 

Boone also took inspiration from Chinese composer Tan Dun, who has composed a series of works in which organic elements, including stone, paper, and water, serve as instruments. 

"You can slap the top of the water. You can pick up the water, and throw the water, and that gives a different sound," Boone says. "You can also use cups and cymbals in the water itself. "Depending on how large they are if you hit that on top of the water it gives a different resonance."

Of course Boone played with water containers and tools. But he says, he did so in his yard, near his orange tree, so it would benefit from runoff. 

Percussionist Ethan Castro, a recent graduate of Fresno State, says the piece has made him think differently about music - and water. 

For one thing, traditional techniques don't apply. "We are splashing around, we’re throwing stuff in the water, we’re picking up the water, and throwing it ourselves, and then we’re splashing and hitting the water, and it’s intense," says Castro. "It gets really intense."

FOOSA - Water (less) music

For another, the experience of losing the water is immediate. The piece ends with Castro holding up an enormous bowl as it loses water through holes drilled into the bottom of it. "You literally watch it go dry at the end of the piece," Castro says. "It’s like, oh man. I should stop what I’m doing and stop using water."

That change is exactly what Benjamin Boone hopes for in his audience, in musicians, and in himself. 

"The drought’s really serious, and I’m actually really uncertain how seriously a lot of people are taking it," Boone says. "I’m concerned when I go by a really really large house. that has the sprinklers going and there’s tons of runoff into the road and I see a lot of the plants that really need a ton of water."

Boone says he still wastes water. But he says this music is reminding him to do it less.