When she was in the sixth grade, Bonnie Barnett’s teacher asked her students what they most wanted. Barnett’s answer was simple: “harmony.” That was more than a little prophetic in light of her role as a composer, musician and innovator of extended vocal techniques.
Barnett has recorded five or six albums and worked with many musical ensembles and aggregations, but she’s perhaps most famous for what she calls her HUMs. She finds acoustically live public spaces and leads ordinary people and trained instrumentalists in participatory vocal events. That’s what she’ll do at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock Sunday night for Alex Cline and Will Salman’s Open Gate Theater series. Though the space can accommodate a few score, Barnett has coordinated as many as 500 people at a time in multiple sites.
“The last one I did was almost two years ago, in Houston,” Barnett says, speaking from her home in the San Fernando Valley. “I look for resonant spaces that amplify voices; I did a very nice one in the San Francisco Rotunda — the ‘dings’ of the elevator complemented our sound. It was lovely. I find the venues in a variety of ways, but when you’re dealing with a large group of people, flexibility is the name of the game.”
Trying to describe Barnett’s HUMs almost invariably falls into the prosaic, but there’s a definite mystical quality to the way she leads sizable groups of people to produce communal vocal sounds. “We’re vibratory beings,” Barnett concedes. “Elizabeth Keyes, in her book ‘Toning: The Creative Power of the Voice,’ called what happens in the HUMs ‘inner sonar massage.’”
A lifelong student of music, Barnett, earned a teaching degree at the University of Illinois, and later taught at UC San Diego.
“Bonnie’s an undiscovered gem of the L.A. underground,” says composer-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. “She’s very present on the scene — as a musician and composer, and through her radio show.” Barnett is one of three rotating hosts of the long-running new music program “Trilogy,” on KXLU (88.9 FM). “That show exposes people to the audience who wouldn’t have an opportunity to be heard anywhere else.”
For the Open Gate recital, she will augment the HUM with cornetist Dan Clucas, bass clarinetist Richard Wood, baritone saxophonist Richard Walker, bassist Hal Onserud and percussionist Garth Powell. Golia explains: “The instruments act as an underpinning for the vocal sounds. Bonnie lets the players go where they want, but if they stay with the center, pretty soon the whole room kind of pulsates. It’s pretty magical.”
Clucas has been playing in Barnett’s band since 1994 and he credits her with opening improvisational doors to him. “After I started playing with her, I quit my classes at Cal Poly Pomona,” he explains, “got a job and started to play the music I wanted to play.”
His first HUM was at Fort Mason in San Francisco, and he emerged form the experience “glowing.” But he also recalls a HUM at a Highland Park art gallery that didn’t go so well. “The audience just couldn’t break through their awkwardness,” Clucas frowns. “But you never quite know what’s going to happen when you dive into these things.”
There are quietly ecstatic moments in the HUMs when participants’ vocal tones lock in with those around them, and it produces a kind of human electricity. Barnett acknowledges this: “It happens every time. It’s the nature of the beast. Even if you’re tone deaf, the music will gravitate you to the core of the group tone. People get swept up as part of a group consciousness, and it’s very exciting. We’re like spokes on a bicycle wheel: the energy flows out from the hub and we send it back to the middle.
Keyes said it very well: “When we tone we’re infusing ourselves with enthusiasm.’”
What: Bonnie Barnett “HUM”
Where: Center for the Arts, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock
When: Sunday, Dec. 6, 7 p.m.
More info: (626) 795-4989, www.cfaer.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.