When it comes to So Percussion, a New York Times reviewer noted that “there are two ways to listen to this music: marvel at its ingenuity and structural intelligence, or simply close your eyes and let the hypnotically colorful sound envelop you.”
The Brooklyn-based quartet has been redefining the notion of a modern percussion ensemble for over a decade, and now it is bringing its artistry to Princeton University.
The Ivy League school, which has dramatically expanded its commitment to the creative and performing arts in recent years, has named So Percussion (“so” is a form of the Japanese verb meaning “to play”) the new Edward T. Cone Performers-in-Residence. The group replaces the Brentano String Quartet, performers-in-residence since 1999.
Professor Steven Mackey, chair of the department of music, says the appointment caps a history of increasingly close collaboration. “Our relationship with So Percussion has been growing over the past eight years: we are home to their annual percussion/composition institute, they have performed many works by our student and faculty composers, and they have co-taught classes with the regular faculty.” For the past six summers, Princeton University has hosted the So Percussion Summer Institute, a two-week intensive musical immersion for college-age percussionists and composers.
According to Adam Sliwinski, a core member of the quartet since 2002, So Percussion will serve as performers-in-residence and teach graduate and undergraduate students, provide workshops, rehearse and perform new works by student and faculty composers, coach chamber music, give master classes, and present two free concerts each academic year.
The first concert will be on Friday, September 12, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall on the Princeton campus.
“For many years, we have been very involved with the composers here at Princeton, but this residency represents an opportunity to interact with the entire Princeton community and hopefully to represent an emerging spirit of adventure and collaboration,” says Sliwinski. “It’s impossible to quantify what this opportunity means to us. In my lifetime, the idea that an ensemble in residence at a major music school might be anything other than a string quartet was basically unheard of. We are so honored that Princeton has given us this opportunity.”
So Percussion was formed by graduate students at the Yale School of Music in 1999 with the initial goal of presenting pieces by 20th-century greats, including John Cage, Steve Reich, and Iannis Xenakis. An encounter with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang yielded the group’s first commissioned piece, “the so-called laws of nature.”
In addition to Sliwinski, So Percussion members are Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, and Jason Treuting. The group maintains a tireless recording and performance schedule, tours widely, and commissions work by some of America’s leading composers, including Reich, Mackey, Paul Lansky, Martin Bresnick, and many others. The group has performed throughout the United States, with concerts at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Stanford Lively Arts, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among other venues. In addition, a recent residency at London’s Barbican Center, as well as tours to Western Europe, South America, Russia, and Australia, has brought them international acclaim. They won second prize overall and the Concerto Prize at the 2005 Luxembourg International Percussion Quartet Competition.
“We are four unique people,” says Sliwinski. “We write our own music, pick collaborators, and curate repertoire according to our own tastes and ideas. As we tell students, our organizational flow chart is very strict and organized, while our artistic process is gloriously messy. Compositionally, we work very much like a band. Each piece always has a main composer, but once it gets in the room everybody starts contributing ideas and sprinkling their own influences into the music.”
Sliwinski grew up in a musical household in Atlanta. His parents, who trained as singers, relocated to Ohio, where his mother leads a children’s choir and his father is an executive at the global accounting firm Ernst & Young. When asked his reason for going into music, he says, “How could I not?” He recalls at the age of 12 telling his parents that he was going to make music his career and has never looked back. Sliwinski went on to do his undergraduate studies at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at the Yale School of Music.
“There’s so much about Princeton that attracts us,” says Sliwinski. “So’s and Princeton’s identities are compatible: rooted firmly in the past but always with a searching eye to the innovations of the future.”
As the conversation veers toward musical influences on the quartet, Sliwinski acknowledges that two of Princeton’s senior faculty, Paul Lansky and Steven Mackey, were very important mentors and influences when the group was first starting out. However, he adds, “the singular influence that we can never escape is the composer John Cage, who laid the groundwork for everything we do.”
According to Sliwinski, the percussion quartet is less than 100 years old. “For us that means nothing is truly sacred. Also, ‘percussion quartet’ only really means four people who could potentially play almost any instrument or type of music. There is no one defining music for it, although we identify very strongly with the American experimental tradition that Cage represents. His impact on the 20th century penetrates so deeply that we often don’t even realize it.”
The September 12 concert will serve as a kind of introduction to So Percussion, offering an overview of its repertoire, old and new. “It’s our hope that many curious people will come and check it out to see the variety of instruments, sounds, and ideas we use,” says Sliwinski. The program contains historically important musical selections, music written specifically for the quartet, and compositions created by quartet members.
Not surprisingly, Cage will be represented on the program with his “Third Construction,” which Sliwinski calls “a masterpiece and a barn burner.” The piece requires some unorthodox instruments, including tin cans, rattles, shakers, tom-toms, cowbells, cymbals, and a conch shell.
The program will also feature Reich’s “Mallet Quartet,” which is scored for two vibraphones and two marimbas. Described by Spin Magazine as “some kind of miniature crystal cathedral of sound, full of light and air,” this 15-minute work was co-commissioned by So Percussion, along with the Amadina Quartet of Budapest, the Toronto-based Nexus Percussion Quartet, and Australia’s Synergy Percussion.
Reflecting So Percussion’s seemingly boundless range, the evening will feature “Music for Wood and Strings,” a commissioned work by Bryce Dessner of the acclaimed rock band the National. “As a guitarist, he has an amazing instinct for what sounds good on string instruments,” says Sliwinski. “Bryce had this vision from the beginning of a new instrument he coined chordsticks. It’s like a hybrid between guitar and a hammered dulcimer. `Music for Wood and Strings’ is very much a percussion piece in the way that it’s performed with many rapid-fire rhythmic figures being tossed back and forth.”
Rounding out the program will be three works from a collection of short pieces called “amid the noise” by Treuting and on the ensemble’s third album.
What’s next on the horizon for this inventive and ambitious quartet? In October it will be the guest soloist when the Los Angeles Orchestra, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, performs the North American premiere of Lang’s “man-made,” a concerto commissioned by So Percussion. The group also has two Princeton-related projects, both collaborations with other quartets: Mackey is writing a new work for them and the Prism Saxophone Quartet, and Princeton professor Dan Trueman, co-founder and director of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, is composing a piece for them and the Jack String Quartet.
But, Sliwinski is quick to point out, “We’ll be spending an enormous amount of time and energy finding our place in the ecosystem of the Princeton community. We want to find all the nooks and crannies of interesting music-making that are already happening and make it even more interesting.”
So Percussion, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, Friday, September 12, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free, advance reservations required. 609-258-9220. Tickets will also be available at Richardson Auditorium two hours prior to the performance.