ST. PETERSBURG — John Shaw hunched over the instruments lined up in his practice room. He had a plastic tube, a dismembered rubber flip-flop, a set of wooden salad bowls. Most crucially, he had water.
His jeans were soaked, a perpetual hazard of his recent style of musicmaking. He held one of the bowls in the air. Tap, tap, tap. Hollow, tinny, blah.
"It doesn't sound like much of anything except a wooden bowl," he said.
He dropped the bowl into a basin of water, top down, trapping an air bubble between the liquid and the wood. Thun, thun, thun. Full, rich, strong.
"Now," he said, "it's a drum."
Shaw will transform the sundries into symphonic sound as the featured soloist in the Florida Orchestra's series of masterworks concerts this weekend. Backed by the full orchestra using both traditional and modified instruments, he's leading three showings of Tan Dun's Water Concerto, an experimental piece that has been performed throughout the United States and Europe, but never here.
It's one of a recent series of slightly out-there offerings from the orchestra, a nonprofit organization trying to draw in fresh ears and eyes. This season has already included a concert of video game music and a live soundtrack to a Charlie Chaplin film.
For this performance, Shaw and other percussionists will manipulate water and objects into complex beats and sounds. The whole concerto mimics the energy of the ocean, the calls of wildlife in the water.
Shaw, 48, has been with the Florida Orchestra for 22 years, but he knew he'd be a musician long before that. This performance encapsulates that moment of childlike discovery, he said, when you realize everything is music. Water makes noise when it drips. Leaves make noise when they rustle. Rocks make noise when they crumble.
"My parents used to get on me about turning my dinner plate into a drum," he said. "I'd be tapping on things. Or you dip your hand in the water and do the thing around the glass, like a glass harmonica. … 'Oh, that makes a cool noise.' "
Tan Dun, the Grammy Award- and Academy Award-winning Chinese composer behind the water concerto, may be best known for composing the score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But he has experimented with mashing music and nature for decades. In 1989, he composed a 45-minute piece called Soundshape played on water, paper and ceramics. In 2003, he composed his Paper Concerto (you can figure that one out). In 1998, he composed the Water Concerto.
Shaw first heard about Tan Dun's work years ago, but thought about the water work for the Florida Orchestra only after his friend at the Atlanta Symphony tried it. Shaw was drawn not just to playing in the water, but to the melodic Asian feel of the 30-minute piece.
"I thought it would be nice to do something with a Chinese, Eastern influence," he said. "There are all kinds of things in this piece that are not traditional western sounds."
Other musicians will strip down their standard instruments or modify their techniques, lending new sounds to piccolos, oboes, clarinets and horns. Think wind players using just their reeds, brass players using just their mouth pieces, emulating the sound of water blasting from a whale's blowhole.
The orchestra rented many of the instruments in a package that travels wherever the concerto is performed. There's a sieve with handles, a vibraphone with coins taped to the nodal points to create a sizzle, a water shaker, a slap stick, a pair of agogo bells, a big water gong.
Shaw will open the show from the middle of the crowd, he said, calling to the other percussionists with an instrument called a waterphone, a metal sphere filled with water that sounds like the cry of a sea creature. It was invented by a guy named — yes — Richard Waters.
The piece shifts a little every time Shaw tries it in his small practice room at St. Petersburg College's Gibbs campus. When you play a middle C on a piano, it's a middle C. When you bang a salad bowl inside a tub of water, it's not such a sure thing.
"It's just a really constantly changing soundscape," he said. "I've never been able to play this the same way twice, and I probably wouldn't be able to if I tried."
It's fluid, he said. Just like water.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.