We are standing backstage at Disney Hall in Lost Angeles just before going on. The entire LA Philharmonic is waiting for us, the hall is full, the NPR live broadcast machinery is revved up, and we are commiserating with the Phil’s artistic director Gustavo Dudamel.
“Why don’t we all just get up and go to the bar right now,” he quips, accompanied by a mischievous smile I am accustomed to seeing on a 9 year old boy right before he wreaks havoc. Peals of laughter explode, as that’s about the last thing you expect somebody in that position to say right before walking onstage. Any performer who is honest will admit that some variation of this thought goes through their head every time they are about to play a big concert. It was exactly the tension release we needed, just imagining the world-famous Gustavo Dudamel and moderately well-known So Percussion tossing back Negronis at the bar while the entire orchestra and audience sits there waiting.
This sense of dread morphing into excitement is a ritual, and I think it’s a healthy one. If you’re not a little bit afraid, are you really expecting to do something urgent and risky on stage?
The piece we were about to play was David Lang’s man made, his new concerto for percussion quartet and orchestra. The work was co-commissioned by the LA Phil, and this was the North American premiere. Risk is built into the piece on multiple levels. Aside from just the challenges of performing, there are aesthetic unknowns – we were about to kick off the LA Phil’s subscription season with 7 minutes of snapping twigs. Most of the audience had undoubtedly come to see Dudamel and the orchestra masterfully tackle Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but that was not what they were going to get at first.
Beyond aesthetics, there were substantial performing challenges. Snapping twigs in precise rhythm is surprisingly difficult, and the second movement involved delicately navigating a row of tuned wine bottles. One wrong move and a bottle can go flying, clanging onto the floor and shredding the placid texture of the piece.
Here’s a video of us with the orchestra during rehearsals:
The opening night was a smashing success. We received positive feedback from the audience at Disney Hall, the listeners online, and the LA press. This has been our first major foray into the orchestra world as soloists, and we left the experience in LA feeling like we had established an important presence.
“The program is profound…in ways deep and meaningful [Lang] question[s] progress while embracing it.”
– Mark Swed, LA Times
This year, man made received further performances in The Netherlands, Denver, Cincinnati, Ireland, and Finland. Although the novelty value of the instruments we play in the piece is high, the work seems to reach audiences on a more fundamental level, drawing a meaningful connection between the sophisticated violin and a simple twig. This habit of flinging ourselves headlong into unknown territory is the consistent thread that defines what So Percussion is about. Our activities now spread across the realms of contemporary music, education, presenting, recording, and even social service. But that risk is always there.
II. Music for Wood and Strings
“Percussion” is not actually a thing – it is more like an open-ended proposition. A long time ago, we abandoned the idea that we should only play instruments which are already categorized as percussion instruments. Whenever we begin working with a new composer, the first question is always “what shall we play?” In no other kind of ensemble can I imagine this question being so pervasive and fundamental to their identity.
With most of the pieces written for us, the answer places us somewhere in the ballpark of traditional percussion instruments – after all, that’s where we received most of our training and honed our skills. With Music for Wood and Strings this tendency is abolished. In conceiving the piece, Dessner actually pulled us closer to his world of the electric guitar by designing a new instrument called the “Chordstick.” Resembling a kind of electric guitar/hammered dulcimer hybrid, the instrument design deftly calls upon the sound of a stringed instrument while employing mostly percussion-related playing techniques.
Bryce is best known to the wider world as guitarist and songwriter for the rock band The National. This helped enormously in getting the music out there, but had very little bearing on the content of our collaboration. We have known Bryce since we were all students at Yale. His experience as a classical guitarist and composer runs as a parallel thread along with his career in pop music, so there was really no moment where any of us were trying to “cross over” from any one style to any other.
After the Carnegie Hall premiere in November 2013 and many subsequent performances, we released Music for Wood and Strings on Brassland Records in May of this year. We were incredibly pleased at the reception it got, especially its debut as number 15 on the Billboard classical charts in its first week of release!
The piece seems to have the ability to reach different audiences who enjoy the chordstick’s connection to the electric guitar, the originality of its design, and the visceral excitement of the work’s driving rhythmic patterns. We toured it far and wide this year: Brooklyn, Paris, London’s Barbican Centre, Arkansas, Dublin, and so many more.
Two of our opportunities to perform Music for Wood and Strings this year best exemplified the broad appeal that it has. First, in May we were invited to participate in a live broadcast of the hit WNYC show Radiolab. We collaborated with the host Jad Abumrad on a fascinating story about a woman who happens to have an unnaturally loud heartbeat. This performance to a sold out BAM Opera house in Brooklyn included a segment where we performed an excerpt of Music for Wood and Strings. The crowd’s reaction was incredibly gratifying, and we were even tickled to learn that 80’s movie icon Molly Ringwald was getting into it from the audience as well.
Our Radiolab segment made it onto the podcast:
Second, we were invited to perform a set on the gigantic Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. Normally reserved for major pop acts like Billy Joel and Mumford and Sons, we were somewhat flummoxed but obviously also ecstatic to participate. Bryce’s piece was the perfect fit for this outdoor festival. Curious listeners started to flock from all over the festival grounds, and by the end of the set, we had a huge but also perfectly respectful crowd checking out our 20 minute long pieces.
I managed to get one photo in during our performance of Steve Reich’s “Drumming.”
III. Princeton University
When I was a college student, most performance majors were actively discouraged from pursuing a career in contemporary music. This reflected the economic realities of the music world at the time: orchestras and other classical institutions were seen as stable and relatively popular, while composers and contemporary music ensembles operated on an exciting but impoverished fringe. The greatest legacy of groups like the Kronos Quartet and the Bang on a Can organization is that they actually achieved so much in the face of a heavy cultural crosswind, a fact that is difficult to fully appreciate today. Many performers moonlighted in contemporary music, but very few did it full time.
Part of that long-standing structure is the centrality of the string quartet at the top of the chamber music heap. Let me state the obvious, which is that the prestige of the string quartet is extremely well-deserved. When your pioneer is Haydn, your apex is Beethoven and Bartok, and you have had a steady stream of excellent ensembles for 250 years, you have a good thing going. As a result, having a string quartet in residence at any music school has been the standard model for years. Though we dreamed of such a residency for ourselves, it seemed far-fetched if not impossible. Percussion is the late blooming hanger-on in the great classical music tradition. Who would ever be willing to invert this pyramid?
In 2014, the faculty and administration of Princeton University took a chance on a new model, and they asked So Percussion to be Edward T. Cone ensemble-in-residence. Although we had been building our experience up to a point where we were ready for this move, I still couldn’t quite absorb the paradigm shift that allowed it to happen. It reflected not only our work as an ensemble, but also the contributions of countless other artists and advocates towards appreciating percussion’s role in refreshing the culture of classical music and pushing it forward.
During our first full year in the position, we dove in head first. Our two major concerts at the Richardson Auditorium were extremely well-attended and successful. We commenced a number of new projects with Princeton faculty and student composers (premiering 10 new student works), coached undergraduate chamber music from Mendelssohn to Faure, collaborated with other guest ensembles on campus, and taught a semester of writing for percussion in the music department. In the 2015-2016 season, we’ll be performing Lang’s man made with Princeton’s undergraduate orchestra, workshopping our new show for BAM’s Next Wave Festival in their blackbox theater, and continuing to develop new work with composers and working with undergraduate performers.
Princeton is also the site of the So Percussion Summer Institute (SoSI), an annual program for performers and composers that just wrapped up its seventh year. This year, we had 25 percussionists and 10 composers from all over the country and as far away as Brazil and Australia. This year’s theme was “Percussion, Staging, and Movement,” and we immersed the students in sessions with world class directors, choreographers, and performers to focus on how we present our craft onstage.
Although we initially imagined that SoSI would be more like a summer retreat, there are just too many interesting things to do! This year we and the students performed a blistering 11 concerts in two weeks, extending our annual tradition of performing all around the Princeton community.
IV. Brooklyn Bound and A Gun Show
When we first landed in Brooklyn in 2004, opportunities abounded to experiment and try ideas around town. Many of these gigs, at venues like the now shuttered Galapagos, flew just slightly under the radar. Failure is an important part of creativity, and – especially in the performing arts – you need to fail in front of people to really know what’s working and what is not – it just isn’t the same as in the rehearsal studio. These days, we are very happy to have higher profile gigs, but this window for failure shrinks as your work becomes more known and presented more widely.
We now have enough repertoire from nearly 15 years as a group to go out and play concerts with confidence that the work we are presenting will succeed. But we are itchy to keep moving forward, especially when composing our own music. It occurred to us that we could build these opportunities for ourselves at our studio in Brooklyn, while at the same time giving younger groups a chance to do the same.
Brooklyn Bound was born out of this thinking. In six concerts this year, guest ensembles from around New York came to our studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to play for intimate audiences. We told them to come with their work in any state of development to try out in front of a trusted group of friends. We seized the opportunity for ourselves, using the events as a series of workshops for our next show at the BAM Next Wave Festival, which we are now calling A Gun Show.
As a work-in-progress, A Gun Show is still taking shape. It tackles – in a rather abstract way – the emotional resonance and lingering spiritual detritus that gun culture leaves in our society. We’ve decided that the work is not fundamentally political, although you can hardly strip such a fraught issue of all of its baggage. For this project, we are collaborating again with Ain Gordon and Emily Johnson, both of whom helped us bring our last project Where (we) Live to maturity.
We’ve started to call these works, which along with Where (we) Live also includes the show Imaginary City, “multi-genre programs.” They incorporate original music, artistic collaborations, theatrical production values, and visual art into an immersive journey through the 21st century creative experience — or at least through OUR 21st century creative experience.
V. The Future – Expansion and Service
The “open-ended proposition” of percussion is an extraordinary opportunity, but it is also a remarkable challenge. We must constantly ask ourselves not only where we are headed, but why? What does all of this amount to? Obviously we love all of the ongoing artistic adventures, the students whose lives we impact, and just generally having fun at our jobs. But at this moment we also feel that we as artists must engage directly with society through meaningful service.
Music is not a trifle or a luxury — it is a social bond and an effective tool in creating agency and citizenship. That is not the same thing as saying that art itself is “useful.” It may not be, but the social act of creating and responding to art is meaningful. The habits that people develop out of making music together encourage them to think independently, work cooperatively, and share a kind of communion. Music has been the center of ritual life for eons. It is not a compartmentalized and specialized slice of industrial culture, but an entire way of being in the world.
Musicians, as such, are not limited to being agents of advocacy for art in the world, but can directly catalyze social and environmental change. We have started to take our very first steps in making small but meaningful contributions in this way. During this year’s SoSI, all of our students participated in a day of service, packing 25,400 meals for the Crisis Center of Mercer County through the organization EndHungerNE.
Starting this year, So Percussion is committed to purchasing offsets to compensate for our carbon-heavy activities such as touring travel. Within the next couple of years, our annual budget will provide for 100% offset spending. This again is only a partial solution, but it is something we can do right away. We are currently rewriting So Percussion’s vision and mission statements to reflect this increased emphasis on service.
Artistically, there are so many activities we are looking forward to: newly commissioned pieces by Caroline Shaw, Vijay Iyer, Dan Trueman, Steve Mackey, a new collaboration with soprano Dawn Upshaw, return appearances at Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and much more.