As part of the concert “American Patterns,” So Percussion debuted Bryce Dessner’s composition “Music for Wood and Strings” and provided a multimedia rendition of their most famous piece, David Lang’s “the so-called laws of nature,” at Carnegie Hall last Saturday, providing a virtuosic performance that pushed the limits of classical contemporary music into the realm of experimental electronics.
The concert, held in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, was a relatively cozy affair; most of its five hundred-some seats were full, and the hall’s all-over wood paneling contributed an air of closeness (as well as incredible acoustics). As the lights dimmed down to a hazy blue, the four members of So Percussion stood in a row across the stage, facing the audience. The concert began with the world premiere of Dessner’s “Music for Wood and Strings,” with the percussion ensemble branching out to a new type of instrument invented solely for the piece. Somewhere between hammered dulcimers and lap guitars, the instruments embodied the spirit of Dessner’s composition—they were, quite literally, wood and strings, straddling the line between percussion and more melodic instruments. With each strike of their sticks, So created a rich, full sound that mimicked a much larger orchestra of guitars and violins, the luscious tones and melodies blending seamlessly together. The sweeping lines built into rushing crescendos, filling the hall until it seemed ready to burst with the ringing tones, cascading and rolling. Quick staccato strokes like the sawing of violins moved through the instruments’ entire registers, from deep, bassy rumbles to lightly plucked notes, playing with the opposition of sound and silence, making the tempo elastic and malleable. “Music for Wood and Strings” was much lighter, almost happier, than Dessner’s compositional debut Aheym, recently released by the Kronos Quartet. Despite the mood change, Dessner’s style shone through: there was the careful attention to melody, the weight and quiet grandiosity of The National’s music, the intensity of Aheym. Though Dessner is relatively new to the classical contemporary scene, “Music for Wood and Strings” confirms that he’s one of today’s most talented rising composers.
The second part of “American Patterns” was “so-called remix,” a multimedia performance by the electronic duo Matmos, including a video by Matmos’s M.C. Schmidt. A large screen descended from the ceiling, showing an extreme close-up of a man’s mouth as he spoke about David Lang’s “the so-called laws of nature,” remixing its history with bits of the piece itself into a swirling meta-narrative of sound, the mouth multiplying and dividing like a hypnotic, growing cell, accompanied by bits of frenetic percussion from the darkened stage.
The remix was followed immediately by the premiere of “Carnegie Double Music,” a collaboration involving all of So Percussion, Matmos and Bryce Dessner on guitar, written by both So and Matmos. As the screen rose back up, the four members of So were illuminated where they sat in a circle on the stage, hitting the outside of small snare drums in slow, rolling cannons. Dessner stood on the very left edge of the stage, playing his guitar with a violin bow. The piece was based around small sounds, small instruments—bells and toy pianos—so soft, at times, that the audiences members shifting in their seats were clearly audible. Matmos, sitting to the right, played ceramic flowerpots with bows, alternately adding a scratchy, sawing sound and a higher, otherworldly tone.
As “Double Music” wound to a close, the musicians slowly stood up and moved around the barely illuminated stage, a one-by-one exodus, until only the four members of So remained onstage, standing in a single-file line facing to the left. The last piece of the evening was Lang’s “the so-called laws of nature,” the first piece that So Percussion became known for—and rightly so. The piece is a bit of a behemoth in three movements, a complex, constantly evolving and mutating storm of pure percussive energy. The ensemble stood in a line, in profile, so the rolling, repeating patterns were visible as they rippled back and forth in waves through the players’ arms. Pounding, pulsating beats cascaded through the hall, deep primal bass drums punctuating the rapping of wood blocks, making a rousing end to a night of precipitous clashings, where classical orchestral music and avant-garde electronics met and, unlikely as it may seem, meshed.