So Percussion Performs in Cleveland, Wows Audience
One cactus, two mallets, three drums, four percussionists and five golden ringing tones moving in sync physically and musically produced a distinct sound unique to So Percussion, a cutting-edge, new music percussion ensemble. So Percussion performed to a sold out crowd at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History last Friday night as a part of VIVA! & Gala Around Town, the performing arts series sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The stage was set with a mish-mosh of both traditional instruments and bric-à-brac, baffling all those who filtered in through the auditorium doors. Although dimmed lights indicated that the concert was to begin, nothing quite prepared the audience for So Percussion’s first work, in which the ensemble tapped different rhythms on various pieces of wood, producing a myriad pattern of accents in the deftly titled Music for pieces of wood (1971) by Steve Reich.
The rest of the first half of the concert consisted of a selection of works written by So Percussion member Jason Treuting, also featured on one of their albums, Amid the Noise (released in 2005). “Go” incorporated some pretty catchy motifs, all of which were further explored and altered in “the cactus version,” which made full use of a rather tall, spiny, healthy, bright green cactus stretching upward from a tan ceramic pot to the right of the stage. The sounds of the cactus’s needles being plucked were amplified and manipulated to create a range of popping and springing sounds.
Furthering the “dry” theme came a dry erase board with a dry erase marker — who woulda thunk it? Also amplified, the sound of an eraser wiping off numbers scrawled in marker and the sound of that same marker re-scrawling numbers created a muted murmur of sandpaper grinding, painting a backdrop of cool vibrancy that was a tad rougher than the sound of hissing air from a car’s exhaust pipe, which settled behind the crackling cactus.
Moving as far as possible from scratchy, dry desert thoughts came “Water Song,” which focused on, well, water. One of the musicians kneeled center stage behind a large tin pail filled with water; a microphone was suspended above that pail, amplifying the sound of the water being manipulated by his fingers, creating sounds of water dripping back in, sloshing the sides of the pail or creating swirling waves. Coupled with flexible rhythms and steel drum, the work evoked the atmosphere of the peaceful tropics.
After intermission, the ensemble performed Paul Lansky’s ten-movement work, Threads (2005). The piece included three “threads” that drifted apart and coalesced again throughout the work. The arias and preludes highlighted more tinny, metallic sounds, the choruses showcased drum riffs (and flying hair) and the recitatives all created loud, bashing noises. The interwoven “threads” formed characteristic relationships — breaking, snapping, tangling or knotting in numerous ways.
What So Percussion has really got going for then is its attention to textural details. And I don’t mean your basic “thick-or-thin, sharp-or-smooth” questions. We’re talking full-blown exploration and experimentation with textures from shimmery, metallic and spiky, to matte, glossy, liquid and woolly, acrylic and buttery. Everything you can think of from the worst synthetics (poly blends) to the richest fibers (cashmere), from the most coveted marble surface to the most poorly painted imitation granite — that is So Percussion. Add complex rhythms and some head-bobbing action and you’ve got it all.
All four members had their sleeves rolled up by the end of the evening, a testament to their work ethic, which seemed at once self-assured, comfortable and light-hearted, but always looking to confuse the boundaries. And surprisingly, not a single cell phone rang (but with the use of “noise” instruments in Threads, I’m not sure you could even hear phones ringing).
So Percussion had its genesis at Yale University’s School of Music. Since that time, the ensemble has found itself traveling all over the place with works by Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and more, with special collaborations with Steve Reich and other well-known composers.
The ensemble later visited campus to conduct a workshop with the Conservatory’s own percussionists.
A member of So Percussion, Adam Sliwinski, OC ’01, is also part of the International Contemporary Ensemble, another Obie-propelled project with a flexible roster of musicians allowing the group to mix-and-match instrumentation in order to tackle any composition. ICE was featured this past September in The New York Times not only for its innovative moves in pushing boundaries but also for its business savvy, with offices in New York and Chicago and plans for a West Coast base in California.