Sanders Theater, being Harvard’s largest indoor meeting place, contained a remarkably varied crowd for its Thursday night concert of Sō Percussion for the Celebrity Series of Boston. With exhilarating precision, the Brooklyn-based group gives sensational interpretations of modern classics. The audience appeared ready for an immersion into a world of rhythm. One basic rhythmic pattern prevailed for all of Steve Reich’s Drumming. Though it undergoes changes of phase position, pitch, timbre, all the performers play this pattern, or some part of it, throughout the entire piece, which needs to be seen as well as heard. Inspired by the music of Ghana, Drumming is a powerful and hypnotic piece for nine players considered by many to be minimalism’s first masterpiece. Written in 1970, it introduced Reich’s now-staple technique of phasing (2 players playing a single repeated pattern in unison, while one player changes tempo slightly, until eventually they’re one to several beats out of sync) as well as and some new concepts like rhythmic reduction and whistling effects in imitation of percussion sounds.
Steve Reich longest composition begins with four pairs of tuned bongo drums from the four-man core of Sō Percussion: Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting. Parts two and three adds 3 marimbas, 2 female voices, 3 glockenspiels, whistler, and a piccolo. Supporting artists for tonight’s ensemble were Shelby Blezinger-McCay, David Degge, Amy Garapic, Yumi Tamashiro (percussionists), Jacqueline Kerrod, Beth Meyers (vocalists) and Jessica Schmitz (piccolo). Movement 4 begins after part three reduces its texture to one glockenspiel player, playing a single repeated note from the original pattern. Marimba and bongo players join, and build the pattern up again, note by note, until all nine percussionists have entered. The piece ends abruptly, on cue.
It was refreshing to hear musicians who are not only capable of meeting the technical demand required of the music but also being able to do so with a deep understanding and gusto. Achieving the precision of syncopation among all members required for the clean execution of this piece is so incredibly challenging, but it was also stunningly hypnotic as executed by this fine group.
The core of Sō Percussion quenched listeners’ thirst for an encore with Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. This time instead of phasing, one performer claps a basic rhythm, a variation of the fundamental African bell pattern in 12/8 time, for the entirety of the piece. The other claps the same pattern, but after every 8 or 12 bars shifts by one eighth note to the right. The two performers continue this until the second performer has shifted 12 eighth notes and is hence playing the pattern in unison with the first performer again (as at the beginning), some 144 bars later. The variation of the African bell pattern is minimal, containing just one additional beat. However, this minimal addition provides much interesting variation of syncopation through the progressions, sending us back out into the night after a memorable minimalistic journey.