Just Do It vs. Divine Intervention: So Percussion on Songwriting, Stage Arrangement, and Their April 19 Concert
You may have seen So Percussion in various settings, from our stages at Carnegie Hall to smaller community venues, but one thing remains true of this Brooklyn-based quartet—its adventurous knack for thinking out of the box. The group’s program for our Neighborhood Concert on April 19 is no exception. We chatted with Jason Treuting of So Percussion about several New York premieres to be performed on the upcoming concert, the ensemble’s impressive stage presence, and some new and exciting projects on the horizon.
Having performed in our Neighborhood Concert series earlier this season and in past years, what sets your April 19 concert apart? What new and exciting experiences can our audiences expect this time around?
Jason Treuting: We are bringing out two pieces that we haven’t played in New York City yet, including a set of three movements of Elliot Cole’s bowed vibraphone postludes. He has made a set of postludes and preludes that don’t use any mallets on the instrument at all, the way it would traditionally be played. The bars are played with bass bows, which gives the melodies a kind of haunting quality, and occasionally we strike the bars with our fingers to give a bit of diversity and rhythmic propulsion. They are really a beautiful set of pieces, like nothing we’ve played before.
We’re also doing a New York premiere of a Daníel Bjarnason piece. MusicNOW, Bryce Dessner’s festival in Cincinnati, commissioned the piece and we are just putting it together now to premiere it in a couple weeks in Cincy. We’ve gone back and forth a bit with Daníel and the piece is going to be quite impactful. We’re looking forward to the first New York City performance.
So Percussion will be performing “Double Music,” a piece written by your very own Jason Treuting and Josh Quillen. What was your process in writing and performing the piece? Do you have any tips for young composers and percussionists starting out?
JT: This piece is a bit different for us. We decided to make two pieces and lay them on top of each other. Josh wrote music that is played with a stopwatch and involves long notes to build harmonic drones, and I wrote music based on rhythmic cells that are a bit like building blocks to make the form. The idea has been to make a piece that we can put together with additional musicians easily and make something wonderful together. It is a bit different each time depending on who we get in the room. In this case, we’ll be joined by some percussionist friends from in town, as well as some of our students from Bard College upstate. We also have made parts for the audience, a bit of a follow-the-leader situation in which Josh becomes the conductor. It will be a good time!
As for advice, it seems that the more I compose, the more I think of the “just-do-it” side of things and the less about the divine intervention. With So, we are lucky to be able to put new things on stage often and they are always works in progress. They always grow and change, and that is the purpose. So, find places to make music and put it out into the world and find ways to make it better. I believe in that pretty strongly.
So Percussion's stage arrangement for their concert on April 19. Click to see the full diagram.
You have quite an impressive stage arrangement for this concert; how many instruments will you be bringing? What are some of the challenges of touring and performing with all of this gear?
JT: 93 instruments. OK. I made that number up, but it will be up there. Many pieces we play have a way of honing in on a sound and exploring that single sound, so you will hear plenty of music on the concert that is somewhat homogenous. But Fred Frith’s piece, Small Time, is the focus of the second half of the concert and he explores lots of sounds in a set of 17 miniatures: things you would think of at a percussion concert like drums and vibraphones and chimes; and things you may not think of, like an acoustic guitar that’s bowed and strummed, and harmonicas and nails being hammered rhythmically into 2 by 4’s. It’s a wild ride. As for touring, percussionists stick together and we oftentimes get help from the university department in town in exchange for hanging and talking to the students. That’s a nice way to tour. In this case though, we’ll be bringing our Brooklyn studio to Queens and filling the stage ourselves!
If you had to choose one work from your program as your favorite, which would you choose and why?
JT: That’s really tricky. I love them all! I am having lots of fun with Wally Gunn’s Double or Nothing. The sounds are great—all made from small tin cans that are handheld and banged and slid on the table and scraped against each other. But I love playing it because I feel like I really relate to the patterns he develops between the four of us. It is like something I could’ve written ... but I didn’t! It is really great.
So Percussion is very passionate about engaging both the broader percussion community, as well as the community at large. What is your philosophy regarding musical communities and inviting people into the world of percussion music?
JT: As I mentioned before, percussionists stick together and that community can be really tight. At first, we were honestly trying to branch outside of that comfort zone, because it can be easy to preach to the choir. I think we feel like we belong to lots of groups that are constantly overlapping and, things are overlapping enough that it just becomes a singular entity again. Being grounded in chamber music allows us to tap into that scene. Our lineage is really the experimental music scene that had its foundations in New York City with folks like Varèse and John Cage and later Steve Reich.
What are some of the recent projects you have been working on?
JT: We’ve been writing more and more and collaborating with folks from lots of different musical communities, like the Matmos fellas and Dan Deacon—who are both strongly tied to the Baltimore electronic scene—or Grey McMurray and Bryce Dessner, who are both in the Brooklyn rock scene. We’re also working more and more with theatrical voices like Rinde Eckert, who directed a project a few years ago called Imaginary City, and Ain Gordon, who directed our most recent evening-length work called Where (we) Live. We’re dabbling in the dance scene more too with folks like Emily Johnson and a big project we just did with Shen Wei called Undivided Divided. I think our concept is more to look for natural ways that scenes come together and natural collaborators who we share a sensibility with but that also stretch where we are coming from.
Most recently, we’ve been working on a new concerto David Lang is writing for us called man made. He is part of a very important music community for us as one of the founders of Bang on a Can. That is really the community we have been a part of since we moved to New York City 10 years ago. It is a thriving one at that!