in: Reviews

February 26, 2013

Musical Street Creds at MFA

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The Remis Auditorium at the MFA attracted an unusually diverse and peculiar crowd for its Saturday night concert, but then again So Percussion, the Brooklyn-based percussion quartet which provided the music for the evening, is an eclectic and peculiar group. Having collaborated with respected composers such as Steve Reich and Paul Lansky, So Percussion have earned respect in the world of concert music, but they have also established street cred with a younger audience by working with art rock luminaries such as The National, and Dirty Projectors, all the while moonlighting in the jazz world with Bad Mango, their collaborative album with trumpeter Dave Douglas. The stage was immensely crowded with numerous instruments and tangled wires connecting laptops and speakers. As I entered the auditorium I wondered how such an array of instruments could be successfully yielded by a quartet.

The night opened with part one of Steve Reich’s Drumming, a modern classic of percussion music. It was listed as second in the program but, as Jason Treuting explained after the piece, they decided last minute that it would make a more exciting opener. The members entered the stage one by one until all four of them were beating away at bongos, with both extreme precision and spirited enthusiasm. Drumming was Steve Reich’s last piece to use his “phasing” technique in which rhythmic figures grow slowly out of sync with each other until they eventually fall apart by an entire rhythmic unit—becoming in sync again but with a new rhythmic relationship created. The effect is rather like one of those optical illusions in which a picture which could appear either as an old lady or a young woman. Hearing the rhythmic shift in a phasing piece, you might initially think you’re about to witness a train wreck as the rhythms pull apart until, in an instant, your perception shifts dramatically and you hear a completely different pattern. You realize that the old woman’s nose is actually a young girl’s chin. Drumming was executed with rigor and a sincere fanaticism—it was refreshing to hear the work performed by musicians who are not only capable of meeting the technical demand required of the music but also with a deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the style.

Next in the evening was Oscar Bettison’s Apart, a commission by Dartmouth University for So Percussion. Bettison, in his program notes, explained that this piece was an attempt to impart an individual identity upon each player while still composing a quartet. It was written for two sets of chromatic tuning forks. The players would strike the metal tuning forks then rhythmically apply them to electrical pickups which would amplify them. The amplified tuning forks created an array of beautiful pure sounding tones, each player applying a different rhythm to his pair bringing to life a rainbow of harmonics that danced around excitedly then quickly flickered out.

The closer of the first half of the concert was a piece called Double Music written by two members of So Percussion. They cited John Cage and Lou Harrison as influences, who, in 1941, had written a piece of the same name in which they had composed parts separately then combined them. Double Music was So Percussion’s attempt at their own version of such a collaboration. Before the piece began, a member of the ensemble, Josh Quillen explained that the audience would be called upon at times to participate. The audience involvement included jangling keys, singing oohs and ahs, and crumbling programs. The ensemble was also joined by several local percussionists who began the piece positioned around the auditorium. The audience was directed throughout the fifteen minute piece by Josh Quillen, as he circled the audience and gave directions to specific rows or sections of the auditorium. The music on stage included a variety of percussion instruments and there was a strong tonal element put in place by vibraphones and melodicas. As the music on stage grew more intense, the audience became increasingly involved. At one point Quillen hugged a few people in the front row, directing them to pass their respective hugs up the row behind them. The piece ended with the entire audience standing, quietly reading aloud from their programs on a single tone, the musicians on stage building to a tempestuous frenzy as a few lingering hugs were still being passed through the aisles. It was an interesting way to close out the first half of the evening but it is this sort of adventurousness in programming that has secured So Percussion as a singular force in the new music world.

The second half of the evening was made up entirely of Dan Truman’s Neither Anvil nor Pulley, a So Percussion commission. The sprawling piece, separated into five movements, showcased the musicians technical proficiency as well as their ability to multitask and control unconventional instruments/sounds. One particular instrument that had a main role in the piece was a concert bass drum with a speaker driver taped to the head that would vibrate the drum and, with a combination of microphones held to it, induce a gentle feedback, the pitch of which could be controlled by tuning the bass drum. The shifting pitch of the feedback at one point took the character of, to quote the movement’s sub-title, a “famous Bach prelude which becomes ill-tempered” and provided a tonal grounding for most of the fourth movement. The piece was a beautiful display of new modes of expression and unique timbres, which combined beautifully to create symphonic textures beyond the scope of what most would imagine a percussion piece is capable of achieving.

Though the concert contained some rather strange moments, it was So Percussion’s conviction and undeniable enthusiasm for the music they performed that made the evening so utterly enjoyable. It is hard to imagine many other new music ensembles taking such risks while maintaining extended audience support. So Percussion can do precisely that simply because they mean every note they play.

Nolan Eley has a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music.  As a composer, he has scored several films and conducted original works in the Czech Republic, Austria, U.S. and China.

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