July 26, 2017

From Wine Bottles to an Amplified Cactus: Sō Percussion Looks For the Unusual

PERCUSSIVE MULTI-TASKING: A typical performance by Sō Percussion, which concludes its summer institute at Princeton this weekend, is never confined to traditional instruments. (Photo by Claudia Hansen)

In a popular YouTube video from 2014, four men seated on a stage with their backs to the Los Angeles Philharmonic are snapping twigs in carefully timed unison. As the orchestra, led by famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel, continues to play a piece called man made by composer David Lang, the four turn their attention from the twigs to rows of wine bottles, which they clink and plonk with precision.

Welcome to the world of Sō Percussion, the 18-year-old musical ensemble that seeks out new and collaborative works for percussion instruments — traditional and otherwise. You may have seen them performing in various venues on the Princeton University campus and in town over the past week (appearances conclude this weekend in the Matthews Theater, Lewis Center for the Arts, at 185 Nassau Street).

Now in their ninth year teaching a two-week summer program to 26 college-age percussionists and eight composers on the University campus, the four members of the Sō Percussion Summer Institute (SoSI) group serve as faculty in rehearsal, performance, and discussion of contemporary music.

“We have a big mix of students,” said Adam Silwinski, a member of the ensemble. “They are playing some of the existing works in the percussion repertory going back about 100 years. Then we have composers who come and write and they play those works, too.”

It was nine years ago that Mr. Silwinski and his colleagues Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, and Jason Treuting decided they wanted to offer chamber music for percussion in a summer institute setting. This was unusual, since most summer opportunities for percussion students are in large orchestras.

“We didn’t know if anybody would come. The faculty said, ‘Try it out here.’ So it happened, and it has kept going,” Mr. Silwinski recalled. Sō Percussion was an ensemble in residence at the University for three years before switching to a year-round presence on the campus three years ago.

The group is hardly the first to explore sounds that can be made on instruments other than what is usually found in a symphony orchestra. “About 80 years ago, the composer John Cage started using tin cans, coffee cups, and instruments from around the world,” Mr. Silwinski said. “We’ve made music using flower pots and an amplified cactus. Part of the percussionist’s trade is to find ordinary objects to use, and see what their possibilities are. A lot of our festival is about the creativity of what you can do with these objects.”

Members of Sō Percussion met at the Yale University School of Music. “We all studied the classical conservatory thing,” Mr. Silwinski said. “Classical percussion is still sort of an oddball category. You’re still kind of the one doing the weird sounds. One of the fun things about the concerto we did with the L.A. Philharmonic is that we were out in front for some of the piece, which is unusual.”

Most everything Sō Percussion performs is music written specifically for those instruments. “This year’s theme is pieces that in their time were way out in left field,” Mr. Silwinski said. “Some people would still feel they’re in left field. They’ve definitely been out there for years.”

The composition program at SoSI culminates with a public reading of a new piece by every participant, developed with the collaboration of visiting artists and composers. The students also write smaller, portable pieces for their colleagues, and have been playing them this week in places like Small World Coffee and Hinds Plaza.

All of the young participants are music majors, mostly on a professional music track. “They aren’t all doing this kind of stuff, primarily,” Mr. Silwinski said. “For some that might have other interests, this rounds out their experience. And I think it serves them well.”

Remaining performances by SoSI are Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at 185 Nassau Street. Open composer readings are on Friday, while the annual closing concert is Saturday. Admission is free.