He is alone on the stage. About 150 fidgety third-graders sprawl on the floor before him. They are watching him, waiting for him to do something, almost daring him to seize the elusive spirit of their attention.
Chris Patton introduces himself to the children of the William S. James Elementary School in Abingdon and rises to the challenge.
He is one of those endomorphic men whose body is made up almost entirely of convex surfaces. His thick curly hair is shot through with threads of steel gray; his beard crawls up his round, smiling face. He wears glasses, a light cotton shirt, a thin tie. His trousers are dark, his shoes purple.
Chris Patton is a performer on various instruments, a composer of choral music and operas. He is capable of sudden changes. In an instant he'll transform himself from a mild-mannered, run-of-the-mill musician into the mighty "Wave Weaver."
"I have lots of sounds," he tells his squirming audience in a creaky voice. "I am going to weeeeve all those sounds together."
He has the equipment to do it. He turns to his synthesizer for help and calls forth the sound of a dog barking a well-known 18th century tune ("That's Mozart's Eine Kleine Bark-musik," he cracks), a cuckoo clock, a ball bouncing against a wall (or is it somebody clucking his tongue inside his cheek?).
While this is going on Chris -- "The Wave Weaver" -- Patton is doing a shuffle and banging a keyboard. He versifies his message:
Technology, that's the key.
If you learn to use it,
It can set you free.
More sounds escape from the circle of his equipment. He is a one-man band -- which is how he describes himself. "I can make all the sounds of the orchestra," he promises.
More sounds emerge not usually associated with music, but which have been pressed into the service of a kind of syncopation: an explosion, a motor starting, a cannon firing, a cowbell, a saxophone -- no! that's not coming out of the machine: He's playing that himself.
In the background, accompanying him on the sax, a many-throated men's chorus rises like a heavy curtain of sound.
The tool that can set you free.
And a lot of work,
That's the key!"
Do the kids like it? Well, they've stopped fidgeting. They are rapt -- wrapped up in the many strands of his sound, delivered into the web of the Wave Weaver. Their arms, their heads, their bodies are swaying uniformly, like undulating swamp grass nudged by a gentle current. As they are drawn even deeper into his spell, he brings forth his video harp. It is a strange and rare machine.
One of only eight
There are only eight of these in the world, and nowhere are they used with the kind of determined purpose and productivity Patton applies to his.
The video harp doesn't look like a harp. It is made of amber-colored plexiglass and black aluminum. It doesn't look like anything musical at all, rather like a large radio, or tangerine wedge, if you can imagine such an oxymoron.
But to play it, Patton embraces it as he would a harp, coming around it with both arms; he places his fingers here and there on the illuminated plexiglass, which has marks on it like those of a gauge or dial of some kind.
How does it sound? How does it work?
The sound Patton draws from his instrument this time is a rolling, rippling, electric tinkling peal. It is ethereal, faintly forlorn. It penetrates the deep stillness called into being by the silent children; it floats to them easily through the air.
Paul McAvinney, the inventor of this instrument, says the video harp uses light to sense the gestures of the hands and its own internal computer to interpret them. The instrument makes no sounds of its own. It relies on the synthesizer to re-create virtually all the musical sounds made on traditional instruments by hand gestures: bowing, strumming, keyboarding, percussion. It is unique because of its use of light to interpret those gestures, and for its programmable computer inside. It can also interpret gestures that aren't used on any known instrument and realize them as sound. That is, it can make new sound.
All this has become vital to Patton the composer. It helps him to form his work, reform and redesign it, try it out with the sound of this instrument or that. It allows him to hear his melodies and musical phrasing in mid-creation, not just imagine them. The video harp also seems to reflect something of Patton's own attitudes toward his vocation.
"I was always more interested in making up my own music than learning somebody else's," he says, without a trace of arrogance.
Since there is no music written for the video harp, or very little, Patton doesn't have to learn any. His slate is clear, so to speak.
This is one reason McAvinney has built no more than eight video harps: there is no demand for them. It is something he understands and is not bitter about. He's an inventor and has other things to build.
"Most people say it takes 10 years to learn to play an instrument well," says McAvinney, a computer scientist formerly at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "So you might ask yourself, why study 10 years to play an instrument for which there is no repertoire?"
If that thought ever occurred to Chris Patton, it certainly didn't deter him. He likes the new and modern (all but one of his favorite composers are modern). He likes technology. He likes the idea of its marriage to art.
"I've always tried to create a new musical form. I'm still trying." Patton said. "A music with the spontaneity and rhythmic energy of jazz, with the complexity, richness and depth of classical music."
The 47-year-old Patton is living proof that a good teacher can repair the damage done by a bad one. Had it not been for the support and encouragement he received from a music teacher at Goddard College, in Vermont, Mr. Pillsbury might have prevailed and aborted a career in music that is turning out, it seems, moderately successful.
And who was this Mr. Pillsbury? And why can't Chris Patton remember his first name?
Trauma, perhaps. Pillsbury was the name of Patton's first piano teacher, employed some 39 years ago by the Patton parents to instruct their 8-year-old son. They lived in western Massachusetts then, in the town of Richmond. It is a place familiar with great music. It is only a couple of miles from Tanglewood.
"He terrified me," Patton says of Mr. Pillsbury. "I couldn't do anything in his presence."
Having found no talent in the child, Pillsbury announced as much to Patton's parents, then departed.
"I stopped lessons at 9 because of this," he recalled. "But I continued to play, make up tunes on the piano." Later he began to dabble with the guitar. He also plays the flute and, as mentioned, the saxophone.
Patton's parents dismissed the verdict on their son. They urged him to resume formal music study, but he held out against that for years, so deep was the sting of Pillsbury's scorn. Then he went to Goddard College and met the teacher who exorcised Mr. Pillsbury. Within one semester, Patton made up his mind to become a professional musician and composer. Then there was work to do.
"I had a lot to make up for because of my resistance to formal training," he recalled. "I went to school the year round, to Berkely College of Music in Boston in the summer."
Dennis Murphy saw talent in the young freshman. He introduced him to gamelan music, which was to influence him for a long time, continues to. This is the music of Java, Indonesia. It is made mostly with percussion instruments. He describes it as intricate, slowly evolving. It is popular among minimalist composers.
"The first time I heard it I was totally captivated," Patton says. "It has lots of gongs."
After Goddard, Patton went to Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., where he got a master's degree. By that time he was deeply interested in jazz and ethnic music in general. He also became increasingly influenced by modern American concert music, the works of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and later John Adams, who went on to write "Nixon in China." Others among his traditional favorites are Bela Bartok, Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and Ravel.
"And Bach, of course."
Glass, Reich and Adams, he said, were all influenced by $H gamelan.
Later he began to drift away from jazz, he said, though not for reasons of disillusionment with the music. He simply doesn't like to perform in clubs, which is where jazz is most frequently heard.
Patton is currently working on his third opera, titled "Reunion." It is about the annual and tortured get-together of the fictional Green family. The lyrics and story are by William Moses, Patton's collaborator on the two previous operas: "The Bridge" and "Fidgety Phil."
These two works are unique because both used deaf actors when they were first performed, at Gallaudet College, in Washington, D.C. The actors signed the dialogue and lyrics while singers sang from the orchestra for the non-deaf audience.
"The Bridge" was also produced at the Kennedy Center in 1992.
One of the purposes of that opera, according to Patton, was "to show the relevance of myth on our modern daily life." It draws on the work and ideas of Joseph Campbell, and Robert Bly, both storytellers and explicators of myth.
Patton also recently wrote a choral work titled, "A Dream of Wings Ascendant." It debuted June 23 at the First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville.
Paying the bills
So why is this accomplished musician, composer and techno-whiz spending his time entertaining a group of 9-year-olds in a Baltimore County elementary school? A place far removed from his glass-walled studio secluded in the suburban woods near Silver Spring?
There are two answers to that question: He likes it, and it pays the bills.
"That's the main source of my income at this point," he says.
In a good week, during the school year, Patton will do four such shows in schools around Maryland. He is one of a cadre of about 100 entertainers booked into the state schools by Young Audiences of Maryland. The non-profit agency, based in Baltimore, has been sending dancers, actors, mimes, musicians and other performers into Maryland's schools for 46 years, bringing with them samples of art and culture not necessarily part of every child's home life.
According to Patricia Thomas, who runs it, Young Audiences is the largest performing arts education organization in the country. It sponsors about 1,600 performances a year. They include storytellers and puppeteers, drummers and string quartets, poets and brass bands, etc.
But not just anybody can sign up, no matter how much talent he or she has. When selecting performers the agency looks not only for excellence in the discipline, but the ability to communicate to children.
"The artists really have to like children," says Thomas. "You have to like children to get up at five in the morning and drive all over the state to do it."
Patton has been doing this work for 10 years. Last year he performed in schools 167 times, by his own count.
"Chris is very unique," says Thomas. "He is a believer in children for one thing. He is a believer in his video harp and computer. The children love it. They just love it."
And Patton? He loves it, too.
"I like performing for young people because they immediately communicate their feelings about what's going on," he said. "If they don't like it, they let you know. Right away."
"There are times," he readily admits, "when I went out there and died."
His visit to the William S. James Elementary School was not one of those occasions.
Pub Date: 7/02/96