Classically trained percussionists fall into two natural categories: them that groove and them that don’t. This distinction has no firm relationship to performance quality; it has to do with a musician’s incorporation or exclusion of selected aesthetics of the rock/pop music culture in their own performance style and body language. Until recently in concert music history, percussion was solely the rhythm section of the orchestra. Now it appears to be the tempting chamber music apple of every composer’s eye. It is then not surprising that in assuming their new role in the limelight, many percussionists feel tied to the formality of presentation that was and is associated with orchestral performance. A few brave souls, however, (strings and winds as well as percussionists), are now adopting the youthful energy of rock performers alongside the necessary precision of the art music world. When performers combine this rockin’ groove with intense virtuosity and sensitive musical phrasing, my composer’s heart skips a beat and I remember why I’m in this business.
So Percussion is just such a group. Attending a So concert makes my heart go pitter pat, for many reasons. First and foremost is the overwhelming abundance of the groovin’ qualities listed above, but a sentient second is the exciting truth that this quartet of powerhouse drummers is made up of four Yalies! Doug Perkins, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Lawson White have been roaming around campus right under your very noses. Though Perkins and Treuting have already received their degrees, they are often found hanging around the percussion studio (the basement of Hendrie Hall) with Sliwinski and White, who are still working towards the Master of Music degree at the Yale School of Music.
“So,” in Japanese, is one of the forms of the verb “to play,” and boy — do these Elis play. In their concert last Tuesday night at New York’s Merkin Hall, So chose a program that was well suited to their energy and style. The group prides itself on commissioning new works from a variety of composers. This program consisted of four pieces, three of which were written for them in the past few years. First on the program, “Shifty,” by Denis DeSantis, made the most obvious use of the ensemble’s talents. Though it held musical interest with its constantly changing metric contexts of rhythmic motives, the work could easily be retitled “Four Hip Drummers Have a Lot of Fun Being Really Loud.” I thoroughly enjoyed this work, but mostly on a visceral level — I could feel it through my chair. “Waddi Valley Echoes” by Jonathan Leshnoff, an assistant professor of music at Towson University, used the ensemble to a different, but no less powerful, effect. By creating resonant sonorities that drift eerily into silence, Leshnoff’s piece was intimate and ethereal. Bowed crotale and vibraphone notes wafted over the hall.
After a jolly rendition of John Cage’s “Third Construction” and a short, chatter-filled intermission, the group presented a mind-bending commission from New York composer David Lang. “The So-called Laws of Nature” makes use of every drop of talent and skill the ensemble has to offer. The 30-some-minute piece is divided into three movements, each using numbers and patterns in a way that is at once both aurally clear and intellectually opaque. While the setup of (often homemade) instruments in front of each of the four performers is nearly identical, tiny differences in specific tone and color provide an interesting paradox: watching the performers play in physical unison while never hearing unison lines. The effect is stunning and the quality of the work is vastly enhanced by So’s performance style. The combination of fascinating precision and undying groove is perfectly suited to bringing Lang’s piece to life.
So is living, drumming proof that Yale kids can make their way in the wild, mysterious jungle that is the professional music scene. These four are rapidly climbing the ladder from student wonders to New York names. To learn more about them, visit their Web site at http://www.sopercussion.com or look for the group’s first recording, scheduled to be put out by Cantaloupe Music later this year. (And if you have never heard of Cantaloupe Music, just you wait for my next article.)