Danforths' Talents Pour Forth
By Al Phillips
In the relatively closed world of modern serious music, Ann Arbor, or rather the University of Michigan, occupies a signal position. It's not hard to see why. The University School of Music has a top rated composition department with a crackerjack faculty. Before Ross Lee Finney retired, there were two Pulitzer Prize winners on it. This faculty presents a series of concerts by student composers, and a series by the greats in the field of modern music, John Cage, Luciano Berio, et. al.
There is no charge for these concerts, and the level of performance is almost always very high. People from Ann Arbor, when they go to cities like New York, are a little shocked to realize that standard practice is to charge admission for this music.
ATTENDANCE is on the small side. The average age of those attending is roughly 26. Actually it's a little lower, but the overall age is raised by the presence of faculty and the parents of the composers or participating musicians. And in the back row, taking in all the complicated modern sounds, both in their 70s, Mr. and Mrs. Percy Danforth, Percy and Fran.
The Danforths, who live at 1411 Granger, are truly amazing. They come as close to being inspirational as two people can and still function in a work-a-day world. Both of them are devoting time to relatively new careers.
Fran first studied composition in 1921, when her teacher was Robert Russell Bennett, later known for his orchestrations of all good Broadway show. "He hooked me on modern music," she says. He must have, for recently she started composing again. She composed a twelve tone serial Suite for Piano which was premiered at Eastern Michigan University and will be played again in the spring at the Unitarian Church for Mu Phi Epsilon, a professional musical fraternity. She has recently composed a piece for harpsichord and rhythm instruments. She studies with George Cacioppo, a composer employed by WUOM, who has a Monday night show dealing with modern avant garde music.
When asked about her interest in modern music, Fran is likely to say, "You know I'm funny, if I hear about something I don't know, I have to find out about it-curiosity and the cat." She add, "I love Beethoven; I love Mozart, and of course, I love Bach."
Percy, at 77, finds himself a concert performer. On Dec. 7, he and William Albright of the composition faculty flew to Philadelphia to perform. He cites the concerts he has given in the past year: "I've appeared in over ten folk festivals, including the Toronto Mariposa Folk Festival, Fox Hollow in New York, the Festival at the Smithsonian on the Mall, and Wolftrap." His instrument, the "bones".
The bones are oval pieces of wood, held in the hand and clacked together, a sort of American castanet. Actually they're not American but African. Percy remembers, "seeing pictures of African children, holding dried spareribs in their hands, just as you would hold the bones."
In this country, the bones were used as rhythm accompaniment to dancers. Percy, when he demonstrates how to use the bones, moves his arms in such a way that the correlation between dance and the playing of the bones seems both natural and logical.
He recalls, "living in Washington, D.C. as a kid in 1907, and seeing the black dancers put sand on the sidewalk and then dance using the bones. My father was a journeyman printer and about that time went to work for the Government Printing Office."
By then the "bones" were probably made of wood. They certainly are now. In fact, Percy has started manufacturing them. He insists the company has no name but says, "It's listed as 'Danforth Bones' on the income tax. I can give them to you in balsa wood, which makes a soft clicking sound; or you can have them in 20-year-old aged hickory wood or maple."
ALL OF THIS comes at a time when there has been a terrifically intensified interest in the music of the minstrel shows and the early vaudeville shows, which frequently sported a character called "Brother Bones". Percy has become the guardian of a neglected art.
This all came about, when roughly eight years ago, Fran decided to get her master's degree. She had a bachelor's degree from the U-M, granted her in the 1920's. She enrolled at EMU, taking two courses at a time. One day toward the end of her studies, Edith Boroff, of whom she speaks very highly, asked her if she knew anyone who played the bones for a country music segment of a concert she was giving.
"Oh my husband plays the bones", said Fran. And Percy was launched. He says, "I practiced like crazy for a few days, particularly the two-hand stuff. I had learned how to hold the bones in 1908. The concert was a huge success. After it was over someone came up to Fran and said, 'He even play two against three.'
"After this came concerts at the Unitarian Church with Bill Albright. Then stuff with Shirley Smith in the Pendelton Room. And of course The Ark. That's been wonderful for us. I've helped to raise money for The Ark."
While this was happening, Fran became interested in early music, encouraged by Boroff, and modern music, studying under Anthony Iannaccone. The interest in early music led her to acquire both a harpsichord and a clavicord, and to seriously address herself to mastering them. These instruments, along with an upright piano and a baby grand, are on the ground floor of her house. Also visible is a tape recorder which she uses as a teaching device for her piano students and as a compositional aid.
Like most composers, she hates copying out parts. She wonders if it can't be done on a computer. So far she hasn't found a satisfactory solution. Cacioppo's comment: "She will".
THIS CHRISTMAS, the Danforths fly to California, but not to the Rose Bowl. This trip came about as a result of a broadcast segment WUOM did featuring Percy. The tape was aired in Berkeley. Percy received a letter from a choreographer, "who said she had advertised for someone to play the bones and all she got was a woman who played the spoons. She wants us to come to Berkeley, to the School of the Performing Arts, and see if she can't work out some choreography to the bones. Also there's a minstrel group in San Francisco that has a brother bones character who has no bones that I want to look into."
Musically, their lives do not overlap. However Fran certainly enjoys folk music and rags, and Percy, when pressed, admits to an admiration for the piano music of Schumann and more particularly Chopin.
"I've had a speckled career," says Percy, and he certainly has. He studied engineering and he studied art. At one point, he designed the art education curriculum for the Monroe, Michigan public schools. In fact he studied to become almost everything but what he has become-a full fledged virtuoso.
As George Cacioppo, first Percy's pupil then Fran's teacher, said, "I hope I'm all together like that when I reach that time."
Balance Technology Inc.
University of Michigan - Alumnus
University of Michigan School of Music
Eastern Michigan University
Mu Phi Epsilon Sorority
WUOM-FM (Michigan Radio)
Mariposa Folk Festival
Festival at the Smithsonian on the Mall
Pendelton Room of the Michigan Union
Ann Arbor News
Percy Owen Danforth
Ross Lee Finney
Robert Russell Bennett
1411 Granger St