The New York-based ensemble So Percussion has played venues across the globe and collaborated with the likes of Dan Deacon, Steve Reich, the Kronos Quartet and, most recently, Bryce Dessner of The National. In anticipation of So’s performance with Bryce Dessner and Matmos at Carnegie Hall on November 23, mxdwn spoke with percussionist Adam Sliwinski about the ensemble’s music and collaborations.
First, I wanted to ask you a few questions about the show that’s going to be at Carnegie Hall on Saturday. This show is going to be with Bryce Dessner, featuring his composition “Music for Wood and Strings,” and you’re also playing with Matmos, I believe.
Adam Sliwinski: Yes, that’s right.
So what will make this performance, this collaboration, different from the collaborations that So has done in the past?
Well, the other big element in the show is this David Lang piece, “the so-called laws of nature,” and that was actually the collaboration that got us on the map. that was the first piece that was really written for us. So, that represents something we’ve been doing for a long time. Bryce’s piece, what’s interesting about that collaboration is that Bryce had a completely new instrument that he invented and built for the piece. So, not only did he not write something like he had before, but he actually made totally new instruments for it. The instruments were built by this guy named Aaron Sanchez, and what they are is pretty similar to hammered dulcimers, because it’s just strings that are laid out horizontally and you hit them with sticks. They’re like guitar necks if you laid a guitar flat instead of strumming it, and just hit it with a stick.
And he wrote all of this music for all four of us, and we have have our own instruments with different ranges, high and low, and he wrote all this music for us to have stuff going back and forth. These things are really unique; one of the coolest things about a percussion ensemble is a lot of times people create new instrumentation for each piece, and it ends up being unique just by that virtue, you know what I mean? Nothing like this has ever happened before because these instruments are new, so that’s something that happens a lot with us, and it’s really cool.
Actually, that was another question I had for you. I see that in some of your past performances you used things like teacups and flowerpots and even a cactus.
What governs your choices? Are they found objects or are you specifically looking for certain things?
It varies, depending on the piece and the composer and what kind of idea we had. All those things you mentioned, a lot of them are actually in David Lang’s piece. The last movement is for tuned flowerpots; tuned flowerpots means found flowerpots because we don’t really tune them, we just go through the racks and shelves at Home Depot until we find the ones that are the right pitch. That movement also has little teacups that we play. The cactus that we used, that was originally an idea that the composer John Cage had, and it’s an amplified cactus, so it makes a really cool sound.
I would say they’re always found objects for us, always. And it’s really similar to the idea of found objects in art that comes from Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, and the idea of a ready-made kind of music, where you take ordinary objects and try to wrangle something really beautiful sounding out of them. Also, a lot of what we do is related to that, and it’s a tradition that’s been in the US for about the past hundred years; people like John Cage have been doing really interesting stuff like that. Actually, one of the reasons we love working with Matmos so much is that one of the things they’re so well known for is taking ordinary objects or objects that you may not even think would be useful for musical sound and doing fascinating things with them through the filter of electronic music. Like, they have a piece of music based around hitting a rat’s cage. So that was kind of where our first inklings of a relationship came from, is that mutual interest in playing with sound out of objects.
Well, that brings me to another question. I know that John Cage is a significant influence for So, since he’s the foundational modern percussionist and the experimental composer. Could you talk a little bit about what Cage’s music means to you, both individually and to So as a group?
Yeah, it’s pretty heavy. So first of all, there’s the fact that he, in some sense, kind of invented the percussion ensemble as an idiom, at least within the realm of western classical music and contemporary music. A lot of how he did it was this idea of taking junk like tin cans and stuff and making music out of them. So, just that alone is really huge for us as percussionists. But in addition to that, his impact on aesthetics and philosophy and dance and literature and all of these things is really far-reaching. When you look at modern music, modern art, all these things, his influence is so pervasive you almost don’t see it all the time. What’s interesting to us, being a part of the classical music tradition that goes back at least a thousand years, is the idea that one of the really important people made his big statement through banging on stuff for percussion is something we’ve latched onto. So for us, the meaning of it, we can think, “Here we are, I’m in my studio in Brooklyn with all these tin cans and drums and stuff,” and he’s the reason I can do that now, just because of his legacy and what he did a couple generations ago. It’s pretty heavy.
Also related to your aesthetic– there always seems to be a significant visual element to your performances. For example, when you guys perform “so-called laws,” you often stand in a staggered line, in profile, and I know that when you did “Where (we) Live,” that involved some visual artists as well. How does that fit in with your overall aesthetic?
I think, again, going back to people like Cage, when he and Mark Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg and all of these people were putting performances together, they were mixing media and mixing art forms in really, really interesting ways, and that’s a big inspiration to us, and we love to do that. One element that you mentioned is when we worked with visual artists and choreographers, something that’s kind of cross-disciplinary ,which is something we love to do. We did that in “Where (we) Live” in a big way. And then there’s the visual aspect to percussion playing, which is something we think about a lot because it’s very dramatic. And in “so-called laws,” like you said, there are these things where, I mean, believe me, standing in a line like that, where my back is to everybody else, is not the easiest way to play that piece. But the composer, David, really wanted it– it was his idea. He wanted to have all these crazy cannon rolls going on in the music where we’re just doing these motors and it’s going down the line over and over and over again, and he wanted people to see that in a very striking way. So he asked for us to do that sort of severe line. He was a big part of the drama of the visual layout of the music.
When you’re playing a piece like “so-called laws,” and your back is to everyone else, are you memorizing all of your pieces? Because some of them are very long, and since this is classical contemporary music, you have all these pieces of written music. How much are you memorizing and how much are you improvising?
We’re not improvising at all, actually. On this concert, I’m not sure that there’s any improvisation at all on our part. Matmos will be doing a little bit of improvising. “So-called laws” has none at all. It’s completely structured, completely written out. Memorizing it is tough because kind of the whole point of the piece is that there’s these constantly shifting patterns and it’s very difficult to keep track of them in terms of memorizing, so we do have music in front of us. We’ve just gotten really good at keeping our place in the music while all of this crazy stuff is going on. For some of it, like in that final movement where we’re in profile, and I’m playing my own part, my quarter of the whole thing, my ears are really used to what everyone else is supposed to be playing; I’m constantly making adjustments based on what I’m hearing, not just what I’m playing. And that’s the kind of high-wire act of chamber music that’s involved with that piece.
So when you have a piece of written music, there’s only so much it can tell you about performing it, because you just have the notes written down, and maybe some instructions for dynamics and tempo and time signature. Could you talk a little about your process of interpretation for written pieces?
Sure. What’s really exciting for us is that the process of interpretation when it’s a piece that’s written for us by a living composer, the actual process of creation is being affected by our influence, by us being in the room. So what you end up having is, the decisions made during the creation are influenced by the work that you’re doing, which is really exciting, actually. So when Bryce was working with us, a lot of the things we ended up doing with dynamics and the type of sticks that we’re using, like “I’m going to use a softer sound here,” and those kinds of things, actually started to emerge once we had the instruments out and we were really playing. He kind of had the notes down and then he wanted to hear how it sounded before he started making more decisions about what was on the score.
So it’s true, if you get something from Stravinsky or Beethoven, you kind of have, “Well, here it is,” but there’s still a ton you can do with that. But most of what we do is music that’s written for us, and so we’re actually going back and forth with the composer from the very beginning. In “the so-called laws of nature,” most of the instruments we play are homemade and they’re sounds that we chose. David said, “I’d love to have a pipe here,” but we chose the kind of metal pipe, what it was going to sound like, we chose the kind of wooden blocks, we picked up the flowerpots. As a percussionist, your choice of sounds is a really big interpretive thing that you bring to the table. So it’s cool because there ends up being an awful lot you can do; you don’t feel at all restricted by the fact that the notes are already on the page because you’ve been there from the beginning, for the whole process.
Speaking of all of this collaboration that So does, you’ve worked with David Lang, with Bryce Dessner now, with Steve Reich, Steven Mackey, Dan Deacon, and Matmos. You’ve worked with so many people. Is there any particular artist or composer that you really want to work with that you haven’t had a chance to yet?
Yeah, of course, there are. We have met Terry Reilly a few times, and we were part of a big celebration that happened a few years ago at Carnegie Hall, and we told him a couple times, “Man, it would be really cool to have a piece with you,” and he was really receptive, but nothing has come out of that. We would really love to see that happen, at some point. Michael Gordon has written some amazing music. We thought it would be really cool to have him write a piece for us. So, there are always people out there. Radiohead, we really want to work with Radiohead, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.
Well, that would be pretty great.
Yeah, I think so too.
Each of you has written music for the group. Are you still doing that?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Actually, this piece we’re doing with Matmos on Saturday, it’s called “Double Music” because they have written some of it and we have written some of it, and it’s actually an homage to a John Cage piece where there were two parts put together, and that’s sort of what we’re doing. So, the middle of the program is going to be basically stuff that we’ve written.
You mentioned you’re going to be playing the instruments that Bryce invented at the show. Are there going to be any other unique instruments used?
Yeah, all the instruments I was telling you earlier in “so-called laws,” those are all part of that piece, the flowerpots, the teacups, the wooden blocks and the metal pipes. Actually, in this piece the only traditional percussion instruments are the tom-toms and the bass drum. Everything else is some kind of homemade or fabricated instrument. And “Double Music,” I’m thinking, it has a lot of small sounds and small instruments, there’s a toy piano, there are bells, a harmonica, small stuff like that.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever used as an instrument?
I get that question a lot and I cannot always think of what the weirdest thing actually is. The cactus is a really fun one, the fact that Cage did it, and that’s one that people get really into. Anything organic, something that’s alive, people are fascinated by the idea that the cactus could have so many beautiful sounds that are part of it. I don’t know if that’s the weirdest. I’m trying to think of what the weirdest would be. Our album that we did with Matmos is called Treasure State, and we had a whole movement that was just aluminum, a whole song that was ceramic sounds, so breaking ceramics and flowerpots, you know, doing all these things. Each song was different, one was based all on water sounds, so it’s just a lot of different materials and different sounds. I don’t know what the very weirdest would be.
So Percussion works with both the Bard Conservatory and Princeton, teaching. How does your teaching experience fit in with your performing experience?
We all went to grad school at Yale, and we’ve all been involved for a long time. I think teaching is the coolest part of what we do, and we couldn’t live without it. It’s one of the most fun things that we do because we’re sharing with other people. Up at Bard they have a new performance conservatory that they started, so we’re teaching percussion students, giving recitals, all that kind of stuff. And at Princeton we have a summer institute that we do there and we had a year in residence there a couple years ago where we worked with all their composers, so that’s something we do off on and that is exclusively devoted to working with the composers there. A lot of the faculty composers have written music for us. We each have ongoing, long-term relationships with all of the folks at Princeton, which has yielded some amazing music for us.
You guys are involved in this academic community and obviously in the chamber music community, and you guys are based in Brooklyn, right?
How do you feel that So fits in with the rest of the contemporary music community?
That’s a really good question. We are among a group of groups who started around the same time, around 2000, coming out of the conservatories. There are many of them. There was kind of this big movement that started around that time. It seems to me that the most prestigious study used to be of classical music, and then there were a lot of people who went forward and specialized. But actually, that started changing around the same time that we were all in school, and lots of people were getting into playing twentieth- and twenty-first century music. So we’re definitely a part of that movement and that group. Whereas in Brooklyn, we’re just part of a generation that kind of moved here. Originally, it was because we all wanted to be part of New York and Brooklyn was where you could afford to live, but that kind of changed and now it’s really hard to afford to live in Brooklyn. We’re lucky to have a really great studio here, but only one of us still lives in Brooklyn, others live in New Jersey and one up in Westchester. So, a lot of it, ten years ago, was about holding onto people, coming into this area, and it became a scene, a really interesting scene. So we feel like we’re part of that scene that’s been going on for the last decade or so in a really big way.
What’s coming up next for you guys?
After the show on Saturday, we have some fun stuff going on in December. We’re doing a benefit for a museum where we’re playing, that’ll be fun. In the spring, there’s a festival called the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York, and we’ve been involved with that for a long time. So we’re collaborating with Buke and Gase on brand-new material for that. It’s going to be a whole new show of material that the six of us came up with together. I think that should be pretty wild.