William Penn ‘Crystal Rainbows’

William Penn 'Crystal Rainbows' LP coverProducer Jim Harmon with composer William PennInvented Instruments from liner notes'Crystal Rainbows' side 1

01 Reflections in a Plastic Vase (6:20)
02 Interlude: Crystal Rainbow (2:18)
03 Moonshine (7:22)
04 Gossamer Looms (6:58)
05 Iridescent Stillness Through Curved Space (6:36)
06 Reprise: Crystal Rainbow (2:32)

Total time 32:00
LP released by Sounds Reasonable, Inc. (SRI) SR 7801, Washington, D.C., 1978

This record is based on an exhibition held at the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s craft and decorative arts program since 1972. The exhibition was titled ‘The Harmonious Craft: American Musical Instruments’, and was on show in 1978 and 79, including ‘unique and esoteric American handcrafted musical instruments’. Composer William Penn (b. 1943) was asked by Sounds Reasonable Associates to compose music based on the instruments on display. Penn graduated from Buffalo University in 1967 where he studied Northern Renaissance music, Theater Music with Maurizio Kagel and serialism with Belgian composer Henri Pousseur. At one point, he played in a band called The Creative Associates including Lukas Foss, George Crumb and Kagel. He turned to more academic music as a composer and producer for Arizona University Recordings, and nowadays writes scores for theater productions. Penn has records out on CRI, Smithsonian, Hebra, Advance, etc. On a side note, in 1974, the Washington, D.C. Sounds Reasonable label released an intriguing 7” single by The Stereofernic Orchidstra, an orchestra of plants triggering electronic sounds from an ARP 2600 synthesizer. The Orchidstra was the brain-child of physics student Norman Lederman with help from Jeff Bagato and Gary Burke. It seems S.R.I. producer Edmund Barnett was quite an adventurous person as a producer.

To compose the tracks on Crystal Rainbows, Penn grasped some of the instruments on display at the exhibition: the Cloud Chamber Bowls built by Skip LaPlante and designed by Harry Partch; the Single String Stainless Steel Cello by Robert Rutman; the Electronic Jawbone by Bob Natalini; the Triple Ocarina by Susan Rawcliffe; the Steel String Guitar by Max Krimmel; the Bicentennial Turkey Tambourine by Jan Brooks Loyd; the Portative Organ by John Brombaugh and George Taylor; the Music By The Inch by Bob Hanson or the Appalachian Dulcimer by Rufus Jacoby. To this Penn added his own rubber piano, jaw harp and ARP 2600 synth. Dominick Labino plays Glass Harmonica on two solo tracks (#2 & 6). All other instruments are played by Penn himself, except:

  • Carol J. McCloud: bagpipes
  • Magruder Dent III: Steel String Guitar
  • Tom McCarthy: Fender bass
  • Elizabeth Garrett Bunker, Robert Wieczorowski: voice
  • Dominick Labino: glass harmonica
  • Jim Harmon: piano (on Reflections)

The music is unlike any other music from self-build instruments I can think of, for William Penn is a trained composer, making full use of counterpoint and other elaborate techniques in composing. Some passages are freely improvised, like the powerful sounds emitted by the Stainless Steel Cello on #4 Gossamer Looms. In this case, the menacing sounds are counterbalanced by Jew’s harp and Sanza Finger piano. #3 Moonshine gets very close to a Jean-Jacques Perrey hit on self-build instruments. While this LP is far from the avantgarde of the time, its charm lies in the exquisite arrangements and originality of instrumentation.


Below: instrument builders

Susan RawcliffeSkip LaPlante with David SimonsDominick Labinos plays glass harmonica on the LPRobert 0Rutman

9 Responses to “William Penn ‘Crystal Rainbows’”

  1. 1 JG October 14, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Thanx much for sharing this!

  2. 2 continuo October 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    I’ll share everything I have with my most curious readers. Thanks for dropping by.

  3. 3 Marc October 14, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Hi, Continuo , excellent post needless to say.

    A reflection : I was wandering whether posting all these stuff online would make the already overpriced original copies raise its price even more. I´m prepared to collect vinyl and cd´s , but not sure at all about collecting mp3´s. Regarding mp3´s I stay on a download-listen-delete basis, but I´m convinced I´ll will never be able to find a decent (original) copy of 99% of the items posted here.

    p.d. : please accept my apologies for bugging you with that …


  4. 4 continuo October 15, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Hi, Marc. Actually, these obscure records are not that expensive. This is a niche market where items maybe rare yet not very much sought after. For the curious and the adventurous, there’s a whole lot of music to be found on eBay, for instance.

  5. 5 alchemical pagan November 1, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    This is very interesting!

    By the way, I follow your blog for some time now, and I just created my own in which you may find something interesting. Here’s the link:


  6. 6 continuo November 1, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Hi, good luck with your blog and thanks for dropping by.

  7. 7 Alejandro March 17, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Hello and what an interesting work you did!!!

    My name is Alejandro and I am a percussionist from Medellin, Colombia. Would you mind telling me please the contact info of William Penn?



  8. 8 continuo March 17, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Hi, Alejandro. Of course I don’t have a mail address for every composer featured on this blog. You should try and contact his last label, Arizona University Recordings.

  9. 9 Stuart November 3, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Hi, I had this on lp when it first came out. Long lost now. I also had a download of it (maybe from you) but have lost that too. I would love to have it again if you still have the files.

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