Oscar Bettison

Percussion group redefines traditional music parameters

April 23, 2012
By Sarah Scully, The Dartmouth Staff
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During So Percussion’s performance on Friday night, kitchen timers went off, wind-up toys marched across the stage and cell phone alarms went off in the audience at exactly 8:38 p.m. It was all coordinated as part of So Percussion’s music, which breaks down the traditional parameters of what defines music.

The percussion group performed in Spaulding Auditorium on Friday night after a week-long residency at the Hopkins Center that included workshops for students and a short performance in Novack Cafe. The stage was arranged with instruments ranging from steel drums to wine bottles.

So Percussion has been pushing the boundaries of music since the group was founded in 1999, according to the Hopkins Center program notes. The four musicians in the group today — Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting and Eric Beach — met while in graduate school at the Yale School of Music.

Any sound can be incorporated into music, per So Percussion’s experimental approach. The kitchen timers, wind-up toys and cell phone alarms were all part of two of So Percussion’s pieces, “Amid the Noise” and “It Is Time.”

Their work also includes a song called “Needles” that is played by plucking the needles on an amplified cactus. So Percussion has also collaborated with artists such as Dan Deacon and the band Matmos.

“Music is organized sound,” Sliwinski said in an interview with The Dartmouth, quoting John Cage, one of the group’s favorite musicians.

Cage explored the boundaries of music at a time when most musicians were fixated on traditional instruments, according to Sliwinski.

“Not only organized sound but organized sound and also silence, complementing each other,” he said.

So Percussion embraces an Andy Warhol-esque aesthetic of extracting art from everyday items and sounds.

“If you’re walking around all day thinking that everything around you is so ugly — what a bummer that is,” Sliwinski said.

The group once performed a piece using all flower pots and teacups, which almost turned disastrous when they arrived in Europe to see boxes of pots broken in transit. Luckily, the group found replacements in time for their performance, according to Sliwinski.

As part of So Percussion’s residency, the Hopkins Center commissioned a piece written by Oscar Bettison, which So Percussion premiered on Friday. The piece, called “Apart,” was played using amplified tuning forks in different keys. The four musicians sat around a table, tapping tuning forks on blocks to create vibrations. They then held them up to amplifiers in delicate and rhythmic motions, creating whines in different pitches and pulses.

“It’s so limiting to think that music could only consist of these 12 tones — that [there is] this agreed upon tuning that we came up with in the past few hundred years and that’s all the music we could make,” Sliwinski said.

During another song, “Amid the Noise,” the musicians asked audience members to jingle their keys, read something aloud in unison and hug the people next to them in succession.

Audience members could only wonder how the musicians would next use the instruments on stage as So Percussion shifted between marimbas, vibraphones, toys and other items, including a flexible piece of metal played with the bow of a string instrument.

Percussion performances also lend themselves to a natural choreography on stage, according to Sliwinski and Beach.

“A lot of percussion music has an element of choreography or movement built into it,” Sliwinski said. “You don’t necessarily coordinate it in a really specific way a lot of the time. Every sound you make is very visibly obvious when it happens.”

Beach likened the stage to a musical landscape where the audience anticipates the use of each of the many instruments they can see.

“It’s a dance of moving around the stage,” Beach said. “By having this choreography — and adding this other layer — we got to do something that was even cooler, and it’s this immersive kind of environment.”

In “It Is Time,” the musicians moved cyclically, playing instruments and setting up kitchen timers in rhythm.

Overall, So Percussion’s music was completely stunning and original — there was never a boring moment during all that was taking place on stage and the unexpected sounds produced. The group engaged audience members, pushing them to take part in turning noise into music.

Copyright ©2012 The Dartmouth, Inc.
Photo by Christina Chen / The Dartmouth Staff