Banging on Cans
And anything and everything else in So Percussion's strange, not-just-percussion universe
"We've never really thought, 'This isn't percussion so we shouldn't do it,'" says Jason Treuting, founding member of New York percussion quartet So Percussion. "John Cage made music where you'd blow into conch shells or crumple paper, and it was never, 'Is this a percussion instrument? Can you play this?' It was just assumed that you would do it.'"
Treuting is discussing the many tools his group uses besides drums--from melodica to duct tape to beer cans--as well as the non-traditional sounds they've produced. The mix of clicking beats and ringing tones on its most recent album, Amid the Noise (Cantaloupe), sounds more like ambient electronica than chamber music. And tonight, the group is calling from a studio while mixing their collaboration with Baltimore electronic duo Matmos.
"The connection between electronic music and percussion is pretty natural," adds Eric Beach, who studied at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University before joining So Percussion. "Edgar Varése used percussion when he wanted sounds that he thought could be only produced electronically. And things like Aphex Twin brought me closer to classical music. I went pretty directly from Selected Ambient Works Vol. II to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians."
So Percussion connect those dots on Amid the Noise, whose 12 tracks somehow avoid much in the way of electronic programming, instead morphing acoustic rhythms into digital-sounding beats. "We tried to get close enough to acoustic instruments that they would take on an electronic quality," Treuting says. "It was basically a hypothesis we were testing--could we get to that sound using fairly acoustic means?"
In fact, the music is not very far from the rangy-yet-precise experiments of Matmos. Though Treuting claims the album they're making together--due out on Cantaloupe next year--will surprise fans, the similarities between the two groups are clear. "Before we met, I knew more about the pop-beat side of what they do than the relationship they have to contemporary music tradition like Stockhausen, Xenakis, and musique concréte," Treuting says. "They're coming from a different world, but we share some roots."
So Percussion's roots began in the late '90s at Yale University, where members pursued graduate degrees in classical and contemporary music. (Treuting is the sole original member remaining, but all who have passed through--including current members Josh Quillen and Adam Sliwinski--studied at Yale). Early on, the ensemble worked primarily with material it didn't write itself. In 2004, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang wrote a three-part piece for the group called The So-Called Laws of Nature, which it paired with a composition by Lang's colleague Evan Ziporyn to create its self-titled debut.
A year later, So Percussion released a version of Steve Reich's minimalist classic Drumming, which, like its predecessor, dealt in tracks often lasting 20 minutes or more. "We made a conscious choice to play longer pieces," Treuting says. "Percussion ensemble music comes out of an experimental tradition, but also a vaudeville tradition, like two-minute, let-me-put-on-my-hat-and-dance-for-you tricks. So we were looking for bigger statements."
Coming after such statements, Amid the Noise was like a mini-revolution, offering much shorter pieces written by Treuting himself. At the time, he was working on a soundtrack for his sister Jenise's documentary. "It just kind of bled into what So was doing," Treuting recalls. "It wasn't a conscious decision to start playing our own music, it was just that I was writing more and we were all into it. Writing shorter pieces that could all relate to each other and be played back to back felt like the best of both worlds."
Since then, So Percussion has continued to work mostly with its own compositions. Last year, it created Music for Trains during a month-long residency in Vermont, performing in train stations in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. And recently it completed Imaginary City, featuring sampled sounds from six cities that co-commissioned it. "It's about what it means to meditate on an urban environment," Treuting says. "I think there are lots of ways to look at what makes a city run, and how cities relate to each other. Making music about something is kind of weird for us--we live in the abstract much more often."
Imaginary City debuted last week in Brooklyn as an 80-minute performance replete with a light show, stage direction, and Jenise Treuting's video accompaniment. The group will play some excerpts when it performs at the Metro Gallery Oct. 28, but don't expect it to replicate the pieces exactly. "We often rely on people providing us instruments when we play live, so we've had to sub things in sometimes," Beach explains. "Sometimes, we'll do two different versions of the same piece in the same set, just because they sound radically different when they're orchestrated differently."
In January, So Percussion debuts a piece Reich is writing for the ensemble called Mallet Quartet, and tours with Matmos not long after. It will also continue to collaborate with artists outside the classical sphere, including another Baltimore-based act, Dan Deacon. "I think we offer him an outlet for another side of his compositional personality," Beach says. "At one point, he was talking about having us put contact mics on coke bottles and then shaking them and opening the caps. I think that idea has gone by the wayside, but he brings a very open-minded, unique perspective."
Despite the chamber-music roots, playing in non-classical contexts has been a natural fit for So Percussion. "We see our music as something we can play anywhere," Beach says. "There's just a lot of cool music out there these days, and we want to be part of as much of it as possible."
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