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Sō Percussion and Friends Blend Rock and the Avant-Garde at Carnegie Hall

Since Sō Percussion first came across my radar, it’s been abundantly clear that the quartet is all about collaboration, having worked with Dan Deacon, Bryce Dessner of The National, Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase, and Matmos, just to name a few. On Friday, February 12, 2016 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, Sō’s Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Swilinski, and Jason Treuting expanded their musical network even further, this time partnering with three intriguing composer/performers know for their strong ties to rock aesthetic: Glenn Kotche of Wilco, guitarist Steven Mackey of Big Farm, and Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond.

The evening began with a misnomer. Glenn Kotche’s Drumkit Quartet #50 is actually a composition for four hand crank sirens. It would have been rather easy for the musical possibilities of these instruments to be buried under the immediate connotation of an ominous and tension-filled air raid drill. However, with each member of Sō Percussion occupying a different corner of the hall, the spatial effect of being surrounded by constant glissandi brought out out a surprising sonority. The sonic novelty of the work continued as Sō began to incorporate the flash and wind of instant cameras amidst the tinkling of finger cymbals, the groaning of drum heads, and the ticking of metronomes. But the resulting sound collage felt substantive rather than gimmicky.

Kotche would later continue to flout the implication in his composition titles with Drumkit Quartet #51.  As Yuka Honda of the band Cibo Matto recited a simple yet evocative haiku by Kotche–”Blink, fresh, raindrops…placidity…hush”–the percussion quartet manned two marimbas to hocket the melody amongst themselves. As the notes became more closely clustered together and the rhythms became more intricate, the music sounded as if it were bubbling over. Eventually, pre-recorded sounds trickled in, and an ominous electric buzz slowly took over the landscape, casting a kind of pall over the optimism intimated by the marimbas.

Glenn Kotche

Glenn Kotche

For the world premiere performance of Kotche’s Migrations, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the composer joined Sō on the two marimbas. Playing primarily with their hands, the timbral effect was distinctive–softer in tone but with a more immediate sense of accent than if the instruments were played with yarn mallets. The initial sound of finger against wood and the subsequent decay created a kind of natural sforzando. Later, rich and woody intonations abounded when the marimbas were bowed. Slightly whimsical in nature, it was the most successful and imaginative of Kotche’s pieces that evening.

In Mackey’s Before It Is Time, a steel drum and marimba provided the harmonic bed with timbres that were comforting but rhythms that were vaguely unsettling in their complexity. Amidst the tumultuousness created with the addition of a vibraphone, Worden’s voice was the centering constant. This dynamic served as the perfect segue for what was to come. Timeline, a collaborative composition by Sō Percussion and Shara Worden, also began with the steel drum, joined here by Worden in her haunting middle range. Her voice obtained a strange blend of enduring fortitude and emotional vulnerability. As the piece progressed, all the Sō percussionists but Cha-Beach began to play a war-like rhythm on a single orchestral bass drum, with Worden adding stormy guitar distortion and an icy sotto voce.

Shara Worden and Sō Percussion – Photo by Jack Vartoogian

Shara Worden and Sō Percussion– Photo by Jack Vartoogian

The beauty of Timeline resides in the controlled chaos, in the feral energy tamed by tightly wound rhythmic patterns evincing an accessible groove. Worden’s vocal presence was ephemeral, in part due to her subtle use of vibrato. The tone was somehow both stark and warm. It took on the consistency of air with the constancy of a prevailing wind. With playful defiance that quickly gave way to unfettered dancing, Worden sang, “I will no longer give a fu–, I just want to feel better, better, better.” By this point, the concert felt like a My Brightest Diamond show, more than anything else.

Ultimately, Worden’s presence served as a bridge from the at-times stodgy concert avant-garde to refreshing rock/pop soulfulness. While the evening’s previous compositions were all examples of fine craftsmanship, it was Timeline that resonated with a particular vibrancy all its own. The collaboration between Sō Percussion and Shara Worden felt effortlessly engaging in way that the other performances did not. Here’s hoping Timeline will show up on a Sō Percussion recording soon.