A cactus sits onstage. Hazy blue light bathes the myriad of microphones and percussion instruments, ranging from the likes of those little ringing lobby bells to huge bass drums; there’s even a tiny spinet lying quietly in the corner. As impressive as their setup may be, I must admit the cactus is the most intriguing element. This relatively large and bulbous cactus spoke to me (his name happens to be Marvin, a band member later told the audience) of the marvels that are about to assail my ears at any moment.
As the audience waited, a lone member of the group walked out holding a block of wood and a beater. His motions were simple as he tapped a steady beat on the block. Band member Josh Quillen then joined him with a solemn nod, glasses and curly hair in disarray. The audience sat entranced as we saw and heard their percussion beaters ripple to different sounds. One by one the members of So Percussion stepped onto the stage and joined the song. Very soon we heard a syncopated melody, and all I could think was this is what it must sound like when a body comes to life.
The men of So appeared monk-like, heads bowed in concentration, communing with the rhythm and sounds that reverberated off of those simple wooden blocks. Then it changed: We heard the pattering of rain. And then slowly each of them broke off, leaving all but two. In my seat I could scarcely breathe, the beat mimicking the very pulse in my veins. The melodies rose and fell, stopped and started. The tapping of their beaters met in frenetic motion until finally, reaching a crescendo reminiscent of tribal beats, the first piece ended. After such a frenzy, the silence was deafening. Immediately the audience burst into applause.
Following this introductory piece, group member Jason Treuting took the mike and introduced the Brooklyn-based group, which is comprised of himself, Adam Sliwinski, Eric Beach and Josh Quillen. Treuting gave a brief overview of the 1971 piece opener’s origins in percussion history, highlighting its semblance to the sounds of the 1940s during the climax of American percussion.
The full performance featured a four-piece suite of their own creation titled “Embrace the Noise,” inspired by the constant ruckus of a construction company adjacent to their studio.
So Percussion not only embraced any and every noise, but they also urged the audience to embrace it. As Quillen tapped out a specific pitch from a ringing bell, Treuting explained that we must hum this pitch at the indicated moment, “Keep this sound going,” he said, “until I say stop.” As the music began with chiming on the little spinet piano, the dreamlike whimsy of the song’s rising question melded with the next suite’s jarring thrash of the bass drum. The sound was reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. Treuting’s motion ignited humming from the audience, filling the room with energy.
So Percussion’s overall performance varied as much as it astounded, from traditional percussion pieces such as Steve Reich’s “Mallet Quartet” on the vibraphone, to their own “Embrace the Noise,” in which the percussion accompanies a pre-recorded speech whose static quality added to the grittiness of the piece’s shoegaze quality. Some of the songs also featured background videos on a large screen, serving as a visual interpretation of the music we heard.
The second half of the show featured more unorthodox sounds, primarily with the long awaited cactus-playing during Josh Quillen’s solo performance titled “Child of Music.” Though one might describe this particular piece as slightly baffling, if not pretentious (as it involves lots of paused stick-shaking movements, which create something of a lull in the entertainment level), things started looking up as soon as the cactus chimed in and the rest of the band began to play the transition into the next piece. The group ended their show with an ear-shattering work inspired by John Cage, an influential figure in modern percussion, which used both common and unconventional objects. Both physically and musically the artists threw themselves into the sounds with everything they had. It made me wonder why people don’t randomly bang on cans or streetlights.
With their unconventional use of melodicas and even white-board marker sounds, So Percussion’s dazzling performance encourages those lucky enough to experience it to seek out the sounds of everyday.