When So Percussion performs for Candlelight Concert Society on Saturday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre, it will take the audience a long way from what one usually hears in a chamber music concert. The group’s emphasis is on cutting-edge contemporary music and the instruments deployed can be just as out of the ordinary.
This musically adventurous spirit explains why the New Yorker magazine once described the group as having an “exhilarating blend of precision and anarchy, rigor and bedlam.”
Specializing in music from the 20th century until the present, So Percussion was founded in 1999 at a time when its members were still students at the Yale School of Music. Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting gave the group a rather enigmatic name that is based on a Japanese word whose meanings include “to play an instrument.” Speaking of instruments, they have been known to play everything from aluminum pipes to an amplified cactus.
The New York-based ensemble really made a name for itself within musical circles in that city, playing at such venues as Carnegie Hall, Park Avenue Armory, Beacon Theater and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. There also have been international tours to take its striking sounds around the world; collaborations with performers including Dave Douglas, Ain Gordon and Dan Deacon; and 13 albums featuring both contemporary composers and the group’s own original compositions.
In terms of educating the ears, the group’s musical mission aptly also includes prominent positions as college-affiliated teachers. The So Percussion musicians are co-directors of a new percussion department at Bard College Conservatory of Music, as well as performers-in-residence at Princeton University.
The upcoming Candlelight program promises to give its Howard County audience an impressive survey of what these percussionists can do.
Although the program is mostly comprised of pieces commissioned by the ensemble within the last few years, it does include one piece by a legendary figure in 20th-century American music, the late John Cage, whose “Third Construction” was composed in 1941. Scored for four percussionists, this piece exemplifies the fact that experimental music itself now fits within an avant-garde tradition.
The rest of the program is very much from the 21st century.
Paul Lansky’s “Springs” premiered at Princeton University in 2016. He is a versatile composer with an affinity for composing pieces for percussion.
Caroline Shaw’s “Taxidermy” premiered at Princeton in 2012. The musical score states that it is orchestrated for “flowerpots, vibraphone and marimba.” Also of unusual note is the composer’s explanation for why she gave her composition such an unusual title: “Why 'Taxidermy’? I just find the word strangely compelling, and it evokes something grand, awkward, epic, silent, funny, and just a bit creepy - all characteristics of this piece, in a way."
Viet Cuong’s “Water, Wine, Brandy, Brine” is a 2015 composition that involves using 15 crystal glasses as musical instruments.#
Bryce Dessner will be represented on the program by an excerpt from his 2013 composition “Music for Wood and Strings.” Dessner, who is also well-known as a guitarist in the band called the National, loves to compose and perform music that is unlike anything you have heard before. Indeed, “Music for Wood and Strings” makes use of a hybrid instrument that he co-designed. The Chordstick essentially combines a hammer dulcimer and an electric guitar. It will be performed by the four members of So Percussion, and in order to play it they will use things including #2 pencils to strike the strings. For musicians looking to make their mark, it makes sense to use a pencil.
So Percussion performs on Saturday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy in Columbia. Tickets are $35; with the purchase of one adult ticket, an accompanying child up to age 17 receives a free ticket. Call 410-997-2324 or go to candlelightconcerts.org