Sounds Heard: Steve Butters—Oomaharumooma

Chicago percussionist and new music specialist Steve Butters is one of those wonderful artists whose perfection in his specialty doesn’t inhibit the exercise of his broad curiosity. If music isn’t a sufficient vehicle for his ideas, he will bring in the kitchen sink to realize his conception, and he’ll plumb it, too. Butters’s 2010 Oomaharumooma is a such a project: twenty-three brief movements composed on a text from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer with magnificent writing for solo percussion. The work comprises a series of four videos, each about eight minutes long.

Butters wrote, staged, performed, videotaped, and edited Oomaharumooma in his home studio over the course of six months. He published it on YouTube in July 2010. Oomaharumooma has never been performed since and may never be performed again because of its many technical challenges, like wardrobe changes between each of the movements, some being as brief as twenty seconds.

The selection from Tropic of Cancer contains the apotropaic title word, a magical incantation that Nanantatee recommends to Endree: “Oomaharumooma,” endlessly repeated (“a million times you must say it”), will bring luck. But Endree, for a long list of mundane (but consummately poetic) reasons, cannot retain the word. The fantastical tally of mind-numbing distractions to his memory (“the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind…the rats in his garret”) becomes the series of prompts for Butters’s mysterious and commanding percussive remarks.

I call Butters’s series of solos “remarks” to establish that this work is a hybrid of music and spoken language, but it’s a hybrid that goes so far beyond either as to be sui generis. The basic form of Oomaharumooma is that Butters recites a phrase from the paragraph explaining one of the reasons for Endree’s forgetfulness. After the stentorian recitation, Butters plays a brief companion composition.

Before this pattern is established, though, the work opens with a minute and a half of stiff competition for our attention: fast-paced visuals set the scene. The videographer takes us on a detailed, close-up tour of the table array of toys. Lined up like surgical instruments ready for deployment lie a train whistle, wood blocks, sleigh bells, cow bells, inverted enamel pans to beat, and a shekere, among other fascinating items. We see his copy of Tropic of Cancer lying next to the open score. Arranged on the floor are his drums, cymbals, and gongs. We see the natural lighting in his white music studio. We survey all this booming potential in weird silences. The instruments lie breathlessly still.

But the film isn’t silent at all, because Butters reads from Miller throughout this absorbing visual survey. His voice is big, and the paragraph from Tropic of Cancer is an attention-getter—strange, alarming, and funny all at once. It is as absorbing as the visual experience we are trying to have at the same time. How are we supposed to grasp both? I find it frustrating to listen to the rich prose and to attend to the details of the visuals simultaneously; but is this a flaw, or part of the design?

Most of Oomaharumooma is composed of very brief movements in which Butters faces “forward” (the same direction, that is, no matter where the stationary camera is placed), recites with wonderful expression the next phrase, adding to the explanation of Endree’s poor memory, then performs the next movement of his score in a manner worthy of a grand stage. The music may be fast and furious, noisy, almost inaudible, elegant, silly, frightening, strange; it seems to come in every color, sound, and affect.

The differences, Butters tells me, begin in the phonetic. He assigned each phonetic sound a musical sound. The finger cymbal, for instance denotes the letter “b,” short “u” sounds in the bass drum, and the snare represents “th.” (Thus, most movements begin with the snare and bass drum: “The.”) But the designation of an “alphabet” of tones and colors determines the scope and meaning of Butters’s score no more than the letters of the alphabet determine Miller’s word choice or message.

Oomaharumooma is highly patterned. To find that design penetrates to this level should come as no surprise, but I’ll confess it amazes me. Butters’s gift is for maintaining order through repeated structures, all the while keeping his audience in suspense: How does the relationship between the recited words and the music develop? Every movement leaves room for a new theory. Why would we stay tuned through twenty-three movements if we perceived this relationship to be merely code to be cracked, or a game? And, because of our sense of expanding exploration and development in the music, there is always a sense that we will be led to some conclusion, surprise, or resolution at the end.

The relationship of the words to the music is indeed the heart of Oomaharumooma. It is impossible not to wonder about it from the very beginning. It is surely not the relationship of lyric to song tune, or libretto to opera, or of sacred text to chant. After a few movements, it’s clear that this is not a programmatic work, nor is the music (despite the phonetic correspondences) even onomatopoetic. “Here are these words, here is this music.” Each movement presents two experiences related by sequence, with little space for consideration between.

The relationship of percussive and verbal sounds; the relationship of verbal and musical meaning: these central abstract issues are embodied in Butters’s videography. Every abstract concept in the films is located, balanced, and stabilized by the visual. Butters’s physical presence and his constant wardrobe changes from scene to scene help do this (the shirts change within a single video, the shorts do not). So does the camerawork, in which we see each movement open with Butters in the pose that ended the movement before. Continuity is the spine of every change. These devices ground his ideas in images that are always fresh, however predictable. The visual keeps us moving while it keeps the same issue—words, music, their relationship—in front of us until we reach the final video and the climax. This linear yet looping construction is very artful in its simplicity.

The fourth and final video of Oomaharooma begins like the others, with Butters narrating. This time, it’s the final line of the passage. The last two clauses, the only unit left, are not only longer than any other but they explain what the passage has been building to, the fact that Endree “was hard-set to memorize more than a word a week.”

Unexpectedly, the video breaks open. Once Butters has finished his instrumental remark on those words, a mixed chorus of disembodied voices begins a verbal fugue that builds in volume and expression to a climax on the words, “the height of his rage.” As the fugue rises, images of score pages, titled by the text phrases emerging from the voices, flow quickly past. The voices and the speed of the montage rise to great intensity, then stop on the word, “rage.” Though we cannot know, we are at the mid-point of the passage.

Silence. Butters looks straight at us from among his drums. He holds one arm across his chest with a drumstick poised in his hand, dagger-like. His expression is fierce and angry. Butters is a big man with an athletic build. Here, he no longer looks the narrator or professional musician he has acted: He has become Endree himself, at the height of his rage, wearing the same costume that Butters-the-performer wore in the first frame, when he began telling the story.

Next, the same text is repeated by the chorus, but the video presents us not with the score that shows us the printed words, but, instead, we are taken on a flash tour through the percussion instruments, some still, some in use as they were in the first three videos. This section decreases in intensity, slowing and calming until it ends where it began, with Butters once again facing us in his defiant pose.

The entire second half of the final video is a single, uninterrupted percussion solo with no verbal content at all. In the course of this movement, the momentum and ferocity will once again build until a final percussive explosion. Butters falls like artillery into a sequence of mallet paradiddle-diddles before a few final seconds of softening. At the end, he briefly faces us, tired and serious, then walks off camera, leaving us in a similar state of exhaustion.

This fourth, final video is a powerhouse. It satisfies us with a clear consummation of a carefully laid plan, a resolution we did not even see coming. The issue of word and music has come to a head, and not at all in a summary way.

In Oomaharumooma, word and music are each moved to a different plane of effectiveness in the presence of the other. Music does not express something about or like the words. Words become actively meaningful in the presence of the music: Words become experienced reality. Likewise, music does not illustrate, imitate, or mime words. It is a medium in which words come to life. It is not simply a backdrop for language.

Might listeners now find Henry Miller’s prose lifeless without Steve Butters’s score and performance? It’s not outrageous when you think of what Butters has accomplished in this work. Miller’s ultimate subject is a feeling of being overwhelmed that is so great, and is composed of so many disparate mental and sensory experiences, that it paralyzes Endree and paralyzes his memory. Butters creates with music and videography an environment that transforms the words describing Endree’s experience into something that resonates immediately through our own bodies and brains: We live not the words, but Endree’s experience, in our own warring senses and understanding, as we try to deal with this work of art.

When we reach the final video, we finally experience what Miller’s text describes. As the opening sequence foreshadowed, we are completely overwhelmed by the rush of sights and sounds, the diversity of claims on both our senses and on our rational intelligence. As we try to understand everything going on, we naturally feel some panic, unless we are feeling giddy and hyper-stimulated. We are Endree: overwhelmed, confused, unable to take it all in. Butters has created the situation Miller can only conjure in words. It’s hard not to close down or feel assaulted.

Butters’s innovation in this work is as simple as it is important. Text need not be silent nor mental. Words are the same stuff of musical sound, made of pitch, duration, and caused by the physical, not the mental alone. In their common pool of sound, their mental aspects—meaning—becomes a characteristic of both. Words and music partake of one another and fortify one another in ways that would go undiscovered outside of the generous medium, sound.