Sō Percussion was founded in 1999 on a handful of existing pieces, believing that the greatest works in our field had not yet been written. Since then, we have been dedicated to commissioning new works from the most exciting composers of our time, many of them American.
In addition, a lot of new music by our own members has made its way onto our recital programs, and we have entered into fascinating collaborations with singers, composers, electronic artists, and much in between.
The next generation of new repertoire for Sō Percussion is taking shape! Julia Wolfe’s new quartet Forbidden Love will be featured at Carnegie Hall December of 2019. The sub-genre of music for “mallet quartet” (two vibraphones, two marimbas) which kicked off with Steve Reich’s Sō Percussion commission Mallet Quartet in 2009, takes flight with astonishing new pieces by Vijay Iyer, Donnacha Dennehy, and our own Jason Treuting. We deepen our collaboration with Caroline Shaw in Narrow Sea, as well as an entire new album of collaborative songs. Angélica Negrón draws us into her world of percussion robots, while our longtime collaborator Suzanne Farrin’s new work A diamond in the square gathers the four of us around the inside of a piano.
Our newest major commission is Julia Wolfe’s Forbidden Love, a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello), written for Sō Percussion. Says Wolfe: “The beautiful thing about Sō is that they are so open, so collaborative, full of adventure and can-do attitude. Together we discovered and drew out beautiful ethereal and crunchy sounds from this iconic quartet of instruments. In the process I developed a very personal new language (boings, szhings, hammering, and more).”
Suzanne Farrin: a diamond in the square
Suzanne is a longtime collaborator of So’s, ever since we were in graduate school together. Her latest piece for us places the four members of So all around the inside of the piano as a “communal loom.” We thread through the strings, strike them with implements, and mute them, creating a rich sound texture.
Below is a piece she wrote for Jason years ago, in a terrific student performance from SoSI 2019.
One of our favorite recent collaborations is with the Pulitzer-prize winning composer Caroline Shaw, which also involves the legendary soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gil Kalish.
We first came together with Upshaw and Kalish to perform George Crumb’s massive song cycle Winds of Destiny. Out of this collaboration, we decided to commission a new work for the six of us. Upshaw was the featured artist for the Music Accord project (an association of music presenters who collaborate every year on commissioning new works). When she approached us about this new piece, the first composer who came to mind was Caroline Shaw.
The work that resulted, Narrow Sea, is a heartbreaking and intimate exploration of the themes of the wanderer and the refugee. As with Crumb, the songs are sourced from American folk traditions, forming an entire program that explores American songs and hymns with percussion.
We recorded Narrow Sea, along with Shaw’s percussion quartet Taxidermy, this past summer. During the recording session for “Narrow Sea,” Caroline and Sō Percussion spent an extra day in the studio experimenting with new material. In one afternoon, we made something we loved so much that we decided to come back to Guilford Sound in Vermont again to record others.
Ideas flourished from each of our corners. Sometimes Caroline supplied chord progressions for us to improvise and elaborate on. Other times, Jason or Eric from Sō brought fully composed instrumental pieces which Caroline created vocal parts for. At one point, we even decided that Caroline would record duos with each of the four members of Sō Percussion, but each pair would have no more than an hour to create the song and record it. This resulted in unexpected magic when Caroline and Adam Sliwinski concocted a multi-layered motet of ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love On Me” for marimba and voice, or when she and Eric Cha-Beach combined medieval plainchant with “I’ll Fly Away” over ethereal drones.
For the larger pieces, Sō built orchestrations in layers of keyboard instruments, “found” percussion sounds, drums, and steel drums. Some lyrics for Caroline’s vocals came from her own invention, others came from members of Sō, and some were even lifted out of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which Adam was reading at the time of the sessions.
Few collaborations between composer and ensemble have yielded such a diverse and surprising collection of music. These two projects exemplify the spirit of expansive creativity which makes those labels only a starting point for what is possible.
Dan Trueman/JACK Quartet: Songs That Are Hard to Sing
Songs That Are Hard To Sing is unlike anything we have ever done. It combines the supernatural abilities of the JACK Quartet with our own eclectic curiosity. Trueman’s description below captures it perfectly. The piece was premiered at Carnegie Hall in March of 2018, and will be released on New Amsterdam Records in November of 2019.
“In the process of writing this piece for possibly the most incredible contemporary music band imaginable—Sō Percussion and the JACK Quartet… combined!—I found myself thinking about ‘songs’ in all of their mysterious and wonderful facets. While I think most of these pieces will be hard or impossible to sing, my hope is that they feel like songs in various ways, like something we might be able to sing in a parallel universe, or, most ambitious, leave us wanting to sing them, even if we can’t. Perhaps Yeats was on to something when, in his penultimate poem Cuchulain Comforted, he tells us ‘Now we must sing and sing the best we can…. Or driven from home and left to die in fear.’
Now, about the band. Sō Percussion has broadened the notion of “percussion” so far that I tend to think of them as four amazing musicians who can do just about anything I ask them. Here, two of them play bitKlavier, a ‘prepared digital piano’ inspired by Cage that I’ve been coding up for the last few years with fellow hacker/musician Mike Mulshine. One of the beauties of bitKlavier is that we can tune it up however we want, and have that tuning change as we play. Here, it’s mostly tuned to the overtones of C-Major, though we hear it drift from there at times (including the very opening of the first song, which gradually and strangely sinks flat). Similarly, I’ve asked JACK, which is the most tuning-sensitive ensemble I’ve ever encountered, to tune up their instruments to a big beautiful C-Major chord; you’d think that would be simple to deal with, but it turns out to be magnificently complicated, and even more-so when they play with the changeable bitKlavier—don’t try this at home! Or, maybe do!”
Buke and Gase
Our collaboration with Buke and Gase began at the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York in 2014. Since they perform on custom-designed instruments – “Buke” is baritone ukulele, “Gase” is a hybrid guitar/bass – it wasn’t difficult to find common ground. Buke and Gase also love to experiment with complex overlapping rhythmic loops, which only helped!
We’ve just recorded a new album together, and we’ve had performances in New York, at the Big Ears Festival in Tennessee, and the Walker Art Museum.
Here’s our set from the premiere on New Sounds Live at the Ecstatic Music Festival: March 26th, 2014 at Merkin Concert Hall. Our combined performance starts at about 1:13 into the show.
Carnegie Hall, as part of their “125” commissioning project, sponsored a new work for Sō Percussion and Shara Nova called Timeline. Timeline represents the first occasion on which Sō Percussion and Shara have worked together. We’ve admired her work for many years, both as My Brightest Diamond and on works such as David Lang’s Death Speaks. Shara’s haunting voice and penetrating verses explore the subject of time, and as such provide Timeline as a kind of companion piece to Steven Mackey’s It Is Time.
Working with Shara was one of those moments of instant chemistry for us: she is a consummate, almost frighteningly gifted musician. She handles our typically quirky rhythmic layers with grace, but then adds a lyricism and emotional depth that makes our mutual exploration come to life.
So Percussion’s third studio album was Jason Treuting’s Amid the Noise, which has become one of our most popular albums. We frequently present residencies of Amid the Noise around the world where we involve students and local musicians in large group realizations of the work. Jason’s newest project is a sprawling series of nine pieces called Nine Numbers. Nine Numbers Four is a mallet quartet for So which is part of our “Keyboard Reimagined” program.