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Since 1999, SO PERCUSSION has been creating music that explores all the extremes of emotion and musical possibility. It has not been an easy music to define. Called an “experimental powerhouse” by Village Voice, “astonishing and entrancing” by Billboard Magazine, and “brilliant” by The New York Times, the Brooklyn-based quartet’s innovative work with today’s most exciting composers and their own original music has quickly helped them forge a unique and diverse career.
Although the drum is one of humanity’s most ancient instruments, Europe and America have only recently begun to explore its full potential, aided by explosions of influence and experimentation from around the world. In the 20th century, musical innovators like Edgard Varèse, John Cage, Steve Reich, and Iannis Xenakis brought these instruments out from behind the traditional orchestra and gave them a new voice. It was excitement about these composers and the sheer fun of playing together that inspired the members of So to begin performing together while students at the Yale School of Music. Cage’s Third Construction wove elaborate rhythmic counterpoint using ordinary objects, while Reich’s Drumming harnessed African inspiration to ecstatic effect.
A blind call to David Lang, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and co-founder of New York’s Bang on a Can Festival, yielded their first big commissioned piece, the so-called laws of nature, which appeared with Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-inspired Melody Competition on their first album, entitled So Percussion. In the following years, the thrill of working with amazing composers would yield new pieces by Paul Lansky, Dan Trueman, Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, Fred Frith, and many others.
For their next disc they tackled Drumming, one of the first and few percussion pieces of symphonic scope (well over an hour long). A landmark American work, Drumming fuses African aesthetics, western philosophical concepts, and technologically inspired processes into a minimalist masterpiece. In 2010, So presented the U.S. premiere of Reich’s new Mallet Quartet, written for the group and several other renowned percussion ensembles.
So’s third album, Amid the Noise, heralded a new direction: original music, written by member Jason Treuting. Eager to expand their palette, the members experimented with glockenspiel, toy piano, vibraphone, bowed marimba, melodica, tuned and prepared pipes, metals, duct tape, a wayward ethernet port, and all kinds of sound programming. The resulting idiosyncratic tone explorations were synchronized to Jenise Treuting’s haunting films of street scenes in Brooklyn and Kyoto. This ongoing work has resulted in exciting new projects such as the site-specific Music For Trains in Southern Vermont and Imaginary City, a sonic meditation on urban soundscapes commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2009 Next Wave Festival, in consortium with five other venues.
For the past several years, So has been joining the electronic duo Matmos for shows around the country and in Europe, exploring the sonic and theatrical possibilities of beer cans, hair clippers, ceramic bowls, and dry ice. This collaboration culminated in Treasure State, released on Cantaloupe Music in 2010.
So Percussion is becoming increasingly involved in mentoring young artists. Starting in the fall of 2011, its members will be co-directors of a new percussion department at the Bard College-Conservatory of Music. This top-flight undergraduate program will enroll each student in a double-degree (Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Arts) course in the Conservatory and Bard College, and will expose them to both traditional Western conservatory training and a variety of world traditions. The summer of 2009 saw the creation of the annual So Percussion Summer Institute on the campus of Princeton University. The Institute is an intensive two-week chamber music seminar for college-age percussionists. For their latest festival, the four members of So served as faculty in rehearsal, performance, and discussion of contemporary music to 26 students from around the world.
So Percussion has performed this unusual and exciting music all over the United States, with concerts at the Lincoln Center Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Stanford Lively Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and many others. In addition, recent tours to Russia, Australia, Italy, Germany, Spain, and the Ukraine have brought them international acclaim. They won second prize overall and the Concerto Prize at the 2005 Luxembourg International Percussion Quartet Competition.
With an audience comprised of “both kinds of blue hair... elderly matron here, arty punk there” (as the Boston Globe described it), So Percussion makes a rare and wonderful breed of music that both compels instantly and offers rewards for engaged listening. Edgy (at least in the sense that little other music sounds like this) and ancient (in that people have been hitting objects for eons), perhaps it doesn’t need to be defined after all.
So would like to thank Pearl/Adams Instruments, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth drumsticks, Remo drumheads, and Estey organs for their sponsorship.