Saturday, November 30, 2013

American Patterns: So Percussion and The Violence of Xylophones

So Percussion, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang

In a bill of American experimental compositions performed by percussion quartet So Percussion, Matmos, Bryce Dessner, and David Lang, the Zankel Hall audience was treated to a program called American Patterns last weekend which included a world premiere composition by Bryce Dessner, the debut of instruments invented by Dessner for his composition, David Lang's "the so called laws of nature," and the rhythmic and visual theatrics of a quartet who refuse to be easily categorized. 

Before the show started composers David Lang and Bryce Dessner joined So Percussion on stage to talk about their collaborations.  Lang highlighted his desire to push the limits of the seemingly boundless quartet and his interest in playing to their love of theatricality. Lang celebrated So's view from its earliest days that "the definition of a percussion quartet wasn't big enough to hold them."

Dessner, a well-known member of his own band (The National), emphasized the positive aspects of the personal chemistry of So Percussion as a "band."  The band pointed out they use their own musical language with each other which differs from the language they use with composers and other collaborators. The members of So Percussion talked about their particular interest in "living in the now" and not worrying about posterity with their inventive work.

Once the program began, between the pieces performed and the enthusiasm of So's performance, one could not help but feel the vitality of that "now."

Dessner, for his world premiere composition "Music for Wood and Strings," worked with Buke and Gase artist Aron Sanchez to design instruments called "chord sticks" for this piece.  The chord sticks are something akin to an electronic dulcimer which So plucked, bowed, strummed, and struck with pencils.  The piece utilized an alto, a bass, and two tenor chord sticks alongside a bass drum and wooden blocks. 

From something that looked to be little more than a humble plank of wood with some strings on it came a rich, resonant sound. At moments the chord sticks sounded like guitars, at other times more like bowed strings, and sometimes the sound was just indescribable.   But often the actions (striking for instance) generated a strumming sound. The "mismatch" in aural and visual made for a delightfully twisted experience and thoroughly embraced the evening's experimental perspective.  As someone who processes visually before musically, I was entranced by incongruity of motion and sound.  But it was not just about intellectual experimentation. The thirty minute piece brought a full emotional spectrum as well: moving from strands of melancholy to gusts of wistful to sweeps of joy. Swelling to a vibrating crescendo, the rocking melody seemed hopeful with an eye on the future in its sound, form, and feeling. 

I admit it. I'm addicted to Dessner's experimentation. I've talked before about his guitar improv pieces (which I love) but his formal compositions continue to surprise and move me (check out his recent collaboration with Kronos Quartet: the album called Aheym).  Hopefully "Music for Wood and Strings" will be recorded so a wider audience might get to enjoy it. 
Kronos Performing Dessner's Aheym July 2013

Matmos performed two pieces with So Percussion. First, "so-called remix" used videos and swelling voices in loops to build a burgeoning five minute piece. This was followed by "Carnegie Double Music"--a piece designed to be played together but composed independently. It started with staccato gunfire from mallets on drums and evolved to scraping of pipes on clay pots, with some sort of projections taking place behind the musical action (unfortunately from my seat I could not see the visuals). Dessner joined in the piece bowing a guitar.

The final piece was David Lang's "the so-called laws of nature" or as I ended up dubbing it The Violence of Xylophones.  Written for So Percussion in 2002, the composition was made up of three movements using totally different surfaces and textures.  The piece allowed for the audience to fully appreciate the theatrical flourishes of So and the visual delight of their rhythmic cacophony. Starting with pieces of walnut with gaps between them, the striking of each wooden plank was violent--mostly for my eardrums (the quartet wore ear plugs, alas I did not). But the relief and rests between the strikes made me pay attention to the breaks--it meant I focused on the the spaces in between as much as to the notes.  Eventually the wood lost all meaning and each strike started to sound like the voices of a colony of birds. When the quartet moved on to metal pipes there a lot less space between notes as the metal reverberated after each hit. In the final movement (which I had seen in part at So Percussion's benefit this year*) the surface utilized was primarily flower pots.  After so much big music filling the hall, the quiet delicacy of the sustained bell-like ringing of the flower pots was refreshing and made for a wonderful conclusion to the evening.

*For purposes of FTC disclosure:  I purchased my ticket to the Zankel Hall concert.  However, I made a donation to benefit the group So Percussion and attended a benefit concert they hosted in September 2013. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words! Hope you had a great holiday.
    Josh (from So)