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A Composer Imagines What William Penn Heard: The Otherworldly Sounds of the New World

The Philadelphia Museum of Art; Bequest of Charles C. Willis, 1956
The Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, American, 1780-1849

This week’s solar eclipse has a lot of people thinking about outer space. In his new composition, written for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Dirk Brossé uses the “spacey” sounds of an unusual instrument to depict an important encounter that took place on Earth -- not far from WRTI. 

Radio script:?

[MUSIC: “The Peaceable Kingdom” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Dirk Brossé, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia]?

Dirk Brosse was intrigued by the conversation going on between the British people and the Native Americans. Which instruments did they play?

Debra Lew Harder: The Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks, depicts the 1680s treaty made between William Penn and the Lenni Lenape. When composer Dirk Brossé chose to “re-interpret” this folk painting into music, he was...

Dirk Brossé: ...intrigued by the conversation going on between the British people and the Native Americans. Which instruments did they play? So it brought me to Native American percussion instruments, Native American double flute.

[MUSIC: “The Peaceable Kingdom,” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Dirk Brossé, Native American double flute solo, performed by Dirk Brossé]

DB: The double flute is an amazing instrument, because one part of the flute is giving a sustained sound. The other part gives you the possibility to play in a pentatonic scale. When you use the two instruments at the same time, you play in counterpoint.

DLH: Brossé juxtaposed Native American sounds with a new instrument, called a...

DB: Waterphone. It’s a metal instrument with small metal staves and inside, you have to put water. It has a very weird, spacey sound.

[MUSIC: Sounds of Richard Waters' Waterphone, made by Brooks Hubbert]

I can imagine when William Penn came to America and he saw for the very first time Native American people, that for him it was a completely strange world, like he was in space, like he went to another planet. And this conversation between the spacey sounds, representing the unknown world for Penn on the one side, and on the other side the pure, very open, emotional sound of the Native American flute—these two worlds, they really clashed with each other.

And at the same time they were in harmony.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.