by Adam Sliwinski
Songs, Stories, and Structures
“Close your eyes and imagine a percussion quartet — what do you see?”
Jason often asks audiences to do this at Sō Percussion’s concerts. In some ways it seems absurd, because we (a percussion quartet) are standing right in front of them. In other ways it is not. The broad and heterogeneous nature of percussion suggests many possible images. Do they see drums? Mallet instruments? Found sounds? The percussion ensemble has expanded so much that we cannot contain it within a single picture. It is whatever we need it to be.
This situation is unique to percussion. Ask the same audience to picture a string quartet, brass quintet, or solo pianist — the image would be clearer. But our art form extends beyond choosing sounds. Percussion music is no longer only about noises and rhythms. It is not even about percussion.
Because we’re constantly working on truly new music, the direction it takes depends largely on the collaborators we seek. Sometimes a composer is already familiar with percussion and builds upon previous ideas. Other times, they write for percussion for the first time because their voice suits the medium. In other cases, the energy of the collaboration molds the instruments to serve new ideas.
Our recent and coming work extends and searches beyond the realm of percussion chamber music. It now represents a mature art form which enables a subtle and rich realization of human musical experience. We are finding stories to tell and songs to sing, and along the way the word “percussion” in our name stands for an ideal of the widest universe of possibilities.
That ideal also includes a larger universe of human perspectives. We are taking a particularly close look at how we can help serve and create more equitable communities, where gender balance, acknowledgement of Indigenous communities, ethnic diversity, and economic equality matter.
Songs, stories, and structures animate the music of Sō Percussion’s present and future. We no longer need or want to locate ourselves as part of a tiny niche of classical music. Nearly twenty years after our first rehearsal, we are limited only by our imaginations – and by gear.
There is still a lot of gear.
“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world of woe
But there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that fair land to which I go”
The greater part of Sō Percussion’s early repertoire – both established pieces and new commissions – consisted of music which explored the abstract structural possibilities of noise and rhythm. They told stories of sound, time, and perception. The exciting aspect of this for us was that composers like John Cage, Steve Reich, Edgard Varese, and Iannis Xenakis created a new context for percussive sounds, truly liberated from standard Classical and Romantic-era assumptions about structure, form, and tonality.
This way of harnessing percussion continues to animate our music. Even when a composer writes for pitched instruments – in the new series of pieces for mallet quartet, for instance – such purely musical process as canons, looping patterns, and numerical puzzles usually drive them.
We have been wary of using percussion for narrative purposes in the past. The history in the USA of using percussion instruments to signify novelty or exoticism created problems for us in trying to contribute to a “serious” repertoire for percussion ensemble. (I don’t like using this word usually, but it does describe our initial mindset and aims.)
Recently, we have relaxed that narrow focus as our confidence in the way we use these materials has increased. Even more decisively, our composer-peers are tapping into percussion as an expressive vehicle to decorate and support the voice. We now have a substantial roster of projects which feature powerful songs accompanied by percussion.
We first came together with Upshaw and Kalish to perform George Crumb’s massive song cycle Winds of Destiny. This work uses the percussion quartet (with a staggering array of instruments) to illuminate American folk and war songs such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Shenandoah,” and “Lonesome Road.” Crumb’s take on many of these songs is dark and foreboding, laced with his characteristic sense of spooky and timeless enchantment.
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 Dawn approached us about this new piece, the first composer who came to mind was Caroline Shaw.
We had worked with Shaw at Princeton, and some of us knew her since graduate school. She wrote a beautiful quartet for us in 2012 called Taxidermy which we play often. We asked for another song cycle with percussion as its background – a companion piece to the Crumb.
She agreed. The work that resulted, Narrow Sea, is a heartbreaking and intimate exploration of the themes of the wanderer and the refugee. Like the Crumb, the songs are also sourced from folk traditions, creating an entire program that explores American songs and hymns with percussion.
We have realized over time that attempting to remove narrative from percussion playing isn’t possible. Percussion is an art form of objects, and those objects imply stories and contain emotional resonance.
In Narrow Sea, one of Caroline’s most effective ideas was to focus a whole movement on the soprano while she pours water between ceramic bowls. She sings these words from the Sacred Harp collection of hymns:
“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s bright and happy land
Where my possessions lie
Don’t you feel like going home
Don’t you feel like going home
My home is in the promised land
And I feel like going home”
– Samuel Stennett
Two percussionists softly sustain rolls on the ceramic bowls while she sings. Over the course of the movement, the transfer of water from one bowl to the next shifts the pitch of the tones they produce. Upshaw allows the center of her singing pitch to drift higher along with the bowls, a perfect musical painting of the themes of the hymn.
Pouring water while singing about the river Jordan is a highly theatrical act, not an abstract sound exploration (although the boundaries between abstract and narrative are unclear and always shifting). Themes of liberation, renewal, and hope permeate it.
We premiered Narrow Sea at Penn State in October of 2017, with further concerts at San Francisco Performances, UCLA, The University of Richmond, and the Kennedy Center. For the UCLA program, we combined the Crumb and Shaw works with our song cycle Timeline featuring the composer/singer/songwriter Shara Nova. Shara – who performs also as My Brightest Diamond – creates so effortlessly in both the classical and indie rock genres that a unique type of song cycle emerged from our work together.
While the Crumb and Shaw pieces utilize percussion objects for their poetic value, our songs with Shara follow a different path.
For the work, Sō Percussion functions as a unique band which features each of our individual strengths as musicians (drumset, steel drums, mallet instruments, electronics). Rather than a work for voice and percussion ensemble, this project represents a Shara/So “superband,” co-composed by the five of us and not easily repeatable in other configurations. (The Crumb piece by contrast has been performed many times by other groups.)
All the music in Timeline is original, but many of the lyrics are plucked from the prolific American mind of Walt Whitman. The piece ruminates about cycles of life and death, connection and loss.
Not a day passes—not a minute or second, without an accouchement!
Not a day passes—not a minute or second, without a corpse!
The dull nights go over, and the dull days also,
The soreness of lying so much in bed goes over
— Walt Whitman
Sō’s flexibility and interest in occasionally transcending the percussion ensemble as John Cage imagined it (un-pitched noise, rhythm and time as structure) means that we can approach other modes of expression as any other musician would. There remains something unique about the way that the five of us create the music together, which is not just the sum of our individual skills, experience, and inspiration, but something transcendent and greater.
Dan Trueman’s work for So Percussion and the JACK Quartet is named Songs That Are Hard to Sing, and the piece is characteristically difficult to describe. As a composer, software designer, and fiddler, Trueman’s music is a unique combination of tuneful and strange. The influence of Norwegian fiddle traditions merges with gnarly micro-tuning and technology.
At the heart of Songs That Are Hard To Sing is Dan’s new software instrument called the “Bitklavier,” which he combines with the impressive tuning practices of the JACK Quartet. The Bitklavier is a software piano instrument with extraordinary capabilities. It can warp notes, re-tune to different systems in real time, trigger metronomes, match your tempo, and many other things.
Which means that Trueman can program tuning changes movement-to-movement, or even within the same movement, which would be impossible with any physical acoustic instrument. He calls for the JACK Quartet to play in these alternate tunings with their acoustic string instruments. This ensemble of two Bitklaviers and string quartet is rounded out by drumset, steel drums, and tuned metal pipes.
The work, premiered at Carnegie Hall in March 2018, is a tour-de-force of ensemble virtuosity, a singular piece of music. For Trueman, a song or a tune is not only one fixed idea, but a field of potential – all the many twists and turns that might be possible with a melody at a given moment.
With both our 2012 show Where (we) Live and 2016’s A Gun Show, we tossed ourselves heedlessly into two complex worlds: site-specific (or referential) work, and social issues. Our most significant takeaway from these important projects was that neither is easy to do.
The most recent version of this kind of theatrically immersive show is 2016’s From Out a Darker Sea, which emerged out of multiple residencies in the industrial areas of Northeast England, known for coal mines and the social impact of their accompanying strikes and closure (which many people know from the movie and musical Billy Elliot).
We were originally invited to this residency by the Forma foundation, based in London. Over the course of numerous visits, we spent time interviewing local people, meeting and collaborating with other artists, and developing the possibilities for this work.
The question of what a group of percussionists can “say” about a place – or about anything else, for that matter – has always followed us in these projects. It’s not that we don’t have anything to say or feel that we don’t have a right to do so. As with our expansion into the world of song, it has more to do with testing whether the flexible and collaborative approach that animates percussion repertoire is valuable in telling these kinds of stories.
We believe that it is, and From Out a Darker Sea came together even better than we hoped it would.
Substantial credit for this goes to our collaborators. The Amber Films artist collective, based in Newcastle, has been documenting and creating in the Northeast for decades. Many of their films and collections of photographs capture the lives and of working class people who kept the coal mines and glass factories humming.
Through them, and through our producers and liaisons in Forma and East Durham Creates, we jumped quickly into the stories of the Northeast.
And do they ever like to tell stories…
Our initial research centered around how the coal industry shaped the communities based here. A complicated theme emerged, which remained remarkably consistent: the coal mines, which killed, disfigured, and sickened family members, were a source of nostalgia and fond recollection.
Through the terrors and tribulations of working in the mines, the (mostly) men who went down together formed lifelong friendships, similar to what soldiers experience in war. The families who supported them thought of themselves as belonging to clans, with a sense of loyalty and connection. The older citizens could recall each disaster, and how the entire community would band together to support the victims and their families.
The danger of working down below was remembered as a trial, the workers’ survival a point of pride. But when we asked them if they had wanted their own children to go down as well, most said “are you crazy?”
One gentleman who had worked in the mines for twenty years tried call-center work after the strikes. He quit after one week, calling it “a fate worse than death.” Many former miners work alone as cab drivers. The older citizens feel pity for the younger people who grew up in the wake of the mine closing. Although few of them face the daily danger or breathe the toxic air that their elders had, the elders think that something elemental must be missing from their lives. Our interactions with the people of East Durham only reinforced for us the complexity of class dynamics in England.
The artists at Amber Films interviewed one man in particular, Freddie Welsh. Freddie is a quirky, animated, charismatic storyteller. They documented him telling a heartbreaking story of a young man named Billy who died in a rail car accident right before Freddie’s eyes. The lilt of his voice – especially in the peculiar and ancient dialect of the Northeast – was musically fascinating. His story became the cornerstone of our performance, which also incorporated themes of return and renewal from the sea; video portraits of ordinary modern-day scenes; a mixture of stories about illness; and the contrasts between the blackness of the coal mines and the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
In late November/early December 2017, we embarked upon a tour of England performing the show, staging From Out a Darker Sea entirely in churches (always a cornerstone of the typical English village or town). The original premiere in Seaham occurred in a church for entirely practical reasons: there weren’t any real venues for live music in the entire county. At the premiere performance, we realized that this sacred space was the most appropriate setting for our piece.
The people we honor and the larger themes we want to express are perfectly suited to a place of contemplation and worship. Standing on the sublime cliffs of the North Sea, the ocean churns at its own steady pace while the wind almost knocks you over. Amber’s beautiful time-lapse films of this process, observed in the setting of (usually very old) churches, provide the perfect counterpoint to the human narratives which unfold.
Even as the expressive range of percussion expands in many directions, the percussion quartet never loses its fascination for us.
The history of instrumental music that we as classical musicians come from was itself an offshoot of sacred and theatrical music which was based on stories and texts. Sonata forms provided ways of building longer pieces without the support of text or voice – which means that on some level Sō Percussion’s expansion from abstract musical forms into songs and stories inversely reflects that more ancient trend. And although our pieces may not utilize the same techniques of harmonic drama that animated early classical works, they still work with purely musical ideas.
The percussion quartet is becoming one of the standard genres of contemporary composition. As a catalyst for musical innovation, it is unmatched for diversity of expression and sound. Sō Percussion is in the midst of producing a new generation of percussion quartets, written by some of the most fascinating composers of our time.
Julia Wolfe wrote a piece for Sō Percussion’s Carnegie Hall concert in the fall of 2019. Our first idea for the collaboration was unorthodox: we asked Wolfe to write us a string quartet. We tap, rub, strike the strings, and play them in just about everything but the traditional fashion. This work is officially cataloged as Wolfe’s Fifth String Quartet.
Three composers have tackled the sub-genre of music for “mallet quartet” (two vibraphones, two marimbas) which debuted with Steve Reich’s Sō Percussion commission Mallet Quartet in 2009. The mallet quartet harnesses both wood (marimbas) and metal (vibraphones); allows for the possibility of complex timbre combinations by having more than one of each; and covers a 5-octave range from the cello’s low C. This means that it mostly covers the same range as a string quartet, and with the addition of glockenspiels – as in Donnacha Dennehy’s piece – exceeds it.
Dennehy has written a cheerfully virtuosic work called Broken Unison, a 22-minute fantasy on a series of tightly wrought canons. Premiered at Carnegie Hall in March of 2018, Broken Unison unfolds in nine movements. At its heart are a series of subtly shifting melodies which the performers spin out. The piece is reminiscent of Reich, but erupts with Mozartean flair.
Vijay Iyer’s first contribution to the percussion repertoire is his mallet quartet TORQUE. A “torque” is a twisting force, and this piece is a dizzying display of his polymathic virtuosity and inventiveness. In the four-movement work the renowned pianist and composer adapts his unique concepts of rhythm to the mallet quartet. Breathtaking accelerations, ambiguous and wonky odd-number grooves, a lyrical marimba chorale, and straight-ahead 4/4 reminiscent of Prince mark a journey that only this combination of artists could imagine. TORQUE premiered at the Caramoor Festival in June of 2018.
Sō Percussion member Jason Treuting’s “sudoku” series of nine pieces explores the possibilities of percussion combinations from solo to nonet. Nine Numbers Four is his take on the mallet quartet. The three-movement piece takes a specific sudoku solution as its basic structural framework, straining the patterns through multiple filters and permutations.
Angelica Negron has written one movement of a larger work for Sō Percussion. Her piece, entitled gone, combines her fascination with visceral robotic music-makers, visual drama, and percussion playing. The piece premiered at SoSI 2018.
The acclaimed choreographer Susan Marshall has created a piece of hybrid music and dance for Sō called Construction. Part of a larger, evening-length project with dancers, we have created a 15-minute quartet version. The work consists of three large boards across the back of the stage, a canvass on which the performers create the musical “score” with strips of colored tape. Three percussionists walk back and forth with microphones, playing the strips of tape as the score morphs and accelerates.
Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir is developing a new piece for Sō Percussion with orchestra. Thorvaldsdottir’s spacious textures and evocative sound worlds will likely evoke the magic of Toru Takemitsu in his From Me Flows What You Call Time.
V. Other Concert Highlights
The 2017-2018 season was marked by many other highlights as well:
In August, we performed concerts at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center (NYTimes coverage) For two nights we presented David Lang’s unique concerto man made with the Festival Orchestra, also stepping into the percussion section to improvise along with the Baroque splendor of Lully’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. We also presented a version of our “Living Room Music” concert on the “A Little Night Music” series.
Inspired by John Cage’s quirky 1940 work Living Room Music, this program of works fits on one table together (with a piano to the side as well). From wine glasses to desk bells to flower pots to radios, we explore the ways in which the world of percussion can encompass many small sounds and intimate moments.
In November, we performed a headlining evening concert at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, where we introduced the percussion community to some of our signature works. PASIC has been a crucial part of our community since we were students in music school.
Our performance with Dawn Upshaw at the Kennedy Center were part of a mini-residency. We also played Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, and Nathaniel Stuckey’s Junkestra on the trippy “KC Jukebox” series curated by Mason Bates.
In April, we returned to Colombia, where we participated in the annual arts festival in Popayan that occurs during holy week.
VI. Princeton Events
The 2017-2018 academic year was Sō Percussion’s fourth as Edward T. Cone perfomers-in-residence and lecturers at Princeton University. I continue to marvel at this, because when we were students the possibility of a percussion quartet as the primary ensemble-in-residence at a major global university was remote.
When I was pursuing my doctorate at Yale, my professors were concerned that percussion didn’t have enough repertoire or substance as a genre to support advanced study. (Read my sentences to this effect with the following disclaimer – “in western music”).
Even today, when we explain the Princeton residency, it usually takes a few minutes of explanation to sink in. The position doesn’t revolve around us managing a percussion performance studio – we teach no private percussion lessons – which would traditionally have been the only reason to have four percussionists on faculty anywhere.
Our position at Princeton relies on us a chamber ensemble, just as it did for the Brentano String Quartet who preceded us. We coach chamber music groups, work with student composers on new pieces, and teach a range of courses: steel band, the history and practice of experimental music, percussion ensemble, writing for percussion instruments, “atelier” courses at the Lewis Center for the Arts, and more.
The music faculty at Princeton has empowered us to shape the residency according to our own vision, requiring only that we play a concert each semester and teach chamber music. This position is the residency opportunity of a lifetime for us, so we do a far more than that.
Princeton’s extraordinary composition department has six professors and usually around 16-20 graduate fellows. Our initial involvement with them was through short-term residencies and performances of new works at the So Percussion Summer Institute (SoSI), which held its tenth annual session at Princeton in 2018.
Because we had so little repertoire to begin with, the process of collaborating with composers became a necessary element in So’s career. We mostly did not have the option to program past greats and sprinkle new pieces in with them. This bonded us with Princeton’s composition faculty, and ultimately made us an interesting and unorthodox choice to succeed the Brentano Quartet.
This year, in addition to our teaching initiatives, we held and participated in two major events at Princeton which perfectly demonstrate our involvement there.
In October of 2017, Princeton held opening festivities for the gorgeous new Lewis Center for the Arts, a three-building facility with connected common areas. We participated in and led as many events as possible, such as performances with Princeton ensembles, a John Cage Musicircus in the common area, a fanfare to open the facility, and an “artwalk” around campus.
The artwalk was a joyful journey through outdoor artworks on Princeton’s campus, created by Ursula von Rydingsvard, Richard Serra, Sol Lewitt, Henry Moore, Tony Smith, and Doug and Mike Starn. For the event, we commissioned 6 new pieces from Princeton alumni as site-specific pieces to pair with those works: Lainie Fefferman, Judd Greenstein, Kate Neal, Seth Cluett, Anne Hege, and Quinn Collins.
In the spring, we held a daylong celebration and symposium of Steve Reich’s music. We convened a distinguished panel in the afternoon lead by graduate student Victoria Aschheim, and then Reich joined us for a marathon evening concert featuring works from each decade of his output.
For this singular event, we were joined by the ensemble NEXUS, soon to celebrate their 50th year of performing together.
SōSI (an independent part of So’s non-profit) is now one of our largest and most well-known programs. We started it in 2009 essentially as a thought experiment: what kind of festival do we wish had existed when we were students? For percussionists, orchestral festivals were the only option in classical music for a long time. Those festivals are wonderful, but for a student who wants to immerse themselves more deeply in percussion chamber music, there was nowhere to go.
The first year, we sent emails out to percussion teachers we knew, and to our delight and surprise students came. This tenth year, we had 41 percussionists and 9 composers for two weeks of non-stop music making and lectures.
The festival now boasts 300 alumni, has spawned professional chamber groups, and has commissioned dozens of new pieces for percussion. It is extraordinary that, through both SoSI and So’s residency, Princeton has enabled us to operate this laboratory of new work and ideas.
VII. Service and Community
Programs like SōSI extend Sō’s reach beyond the scope of a contemporary music, and towards institutional thinking. As such, we have spent more time examining how our activities affect various communities we serve, and where we want to motivate change.
Now in its sixth year, Brooklyn Bound is a popular program of concerts at the Sō studio in Brooklyn. Casual and intimate, the Brooklyn Bound concerts usually feature emerging ensembles from our local scene. The groups are encouraged to try out new material, experiment, or just get another performance under their belt.
The Brooklyn Bound series also represents an opportunity for residencies where other groups share our space and try out music for other people. We are honored to have the support of New Music USA for this residency program, which has already featured the TAK Ensemble and the Dither Guitar Quartet.
Inspired by Sō member Josh Quillen’s experience volunteering at his wife Stephanie’s church, we produced our first food-packing service event at SōSI 2015 through the amazing organization End Hunger NE.
Enlisting the help of our festival participants, in one afternoon this year we packed over 35,000 meals for Arm in Arm, a vital charity in the Princeton area.
Touring is our lifeblood, but it is also carbon-intensive. Every conscientious musician grapples with this reality. To do our part in moving towards a sustainable future, Sō has begun to invest in carbon offsets. Last year we covered two months of touring by purchasing from Native Energy.
Diversity and Inclusion
Percussion is an art form of extraordinary aesthetic and cultural diversity to begin with, and we want this to be reflected in the way that Sō presents itself. Our areas of focus are creative collaboration, concert programming, education/mentorship, and social media.
Our artistic collaborations have taken many forms. In the past, more fluid or unusual collaborations have reflected diversity better than traditional composer/performer projects. We are actively addressing this in our current and future commissions, and also making sure that programs like SoSI reflect as much gender balance and racial diversity as possible. The challenges involved in doing so are often structural (the skill sets required to apply for a program like SoSI are usually acquired through expensive education), but we are committed to addressing them.
Inspired by our close friend Emily Johnson, we have begun the practice of including Indigenous land acknowledgements at the beginning of concerts whenever possible. Land acknowledgements identify the tribe or people who once occupied the land where the concert is taking place, which languages they spoke/speak, and that they still exist today.
thank you so much to our funders who make all of these programs possible!
- The National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov
- The New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature;
- The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council
- The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc
- The Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University
- The Amphion Foundation
- The Brookby Foundation
- The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation
- The Howard Gilman Foundation
- New Music USA’s NYC New Music Impact Fund, made possible with funding from The Scherman Foundation’s Katharine S. and Axel G. Rosin Fund