Known for amplifying cactuses and performing on suspended soda bottles, the Brooklyn-based quartet Sō Percussion is tackling a different sort of project this year: since September, the entire ensemble has been on the faculty at the Bard College Conservatory of Music. It’s the first of two institutional appointments for the quartet founded in 1999, whose members are Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting. They’re also amid a yearlong residency at Princeton University, where they primarily instruct composition students and perform their work.
The Bard and Princeton residencies haven’t stifled Sō Percussion’s performance schedule, which includes a recent appearance at Carnegie Hall’s John Cage celebration with electronic duo Matmos (Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt), composers Dan Deacon and Cenk Ergün, and violist Beth Meyers. At that event, audience members were asked to sound their cell phones, switch seats, and watch a performer shave off his beard during the evening. This April at Dartmouth College, Sō performed a new work for amplified tuning forks by composer Oscar Bettison.
Sō frequently shares the stage with orchestras, as it did in 2010 with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in The Road to Zappa, or with the LA Phil in 2011, where they performed Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Ligeti’s Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel. This June, Sō will participate in the Pulitzer Contemporary Music Festival with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, curated by Music Director David Robertson. And there’s talk of a concerto on the horizon.
SymphonyNOW recently caught up with Sō Percussion member Adam Sliwinski, who spoke about the ensemble’s first year at Bard and his hopes for the future of the percussion program there; the ensemble’s dinner dates with choreographer Merce Cunningham (John Cage’s partner); and how playing new music informs the performance of the canonic masterpieces.
Leah Harrison: Sō Percussion is finishing its first year on the faculty at the Bard College Conservatory of Music. How did that appointment come about?
Adam Sliwinski: The unique idea that Bard had was, “We want you all to teach as a group.” And our first question was, “Do you want to have 30 people in the studio, since you’ll have four teachers?” They didn’t. They wanted it to be something like Curtis, where you have 4 to 6 people in the studio. We thought that was awesome. This year, we’ve been up there a lot—we want to have a presence on campus. Last week, we had our first-ever Bard percussion concert. I feel really great that we’re not just teachers and they’re the students. We’re kind of treating it like a laboratory. This concert was all mixed up; we were all playing together. Joan Tower is on the faculty there, so we played a quintet of hers—DNA for Percussion Quintet—with two members of Sō and three students playing.
The entire school is double-degree—all conservatory students have a second bachelor of arts. We’re looking for broadly curious and intellectual students who want to take both those things on, and we want to teach them how to be really great musicians and thinkers. Bard is all about that ethos of the critical-thinking citizen. I think they thought we might be a good fit for that because of the way our career has developed—it’s been sort of unorthodox and very much our own path. It’s a cool fit with the way the school works.
People who are equipped to have a creative and entrepreneurial mindset in regard to a music career—I think that’s becoming very valuable and valued. The idea that the music world could be rich with opportunities, we think is really fascinating, because that’s what we did.
Harrison: The John Cage Trust is in residence at Bard. In what capacity do you interact with them?
Sliwinski: We first got to know executive director Laura Kuhn about five years ago, and she had us up to Merce Cunningham’s apartment, when Merce was still alive. We had two dinners with him up in his loft, which was magical and awe-inspiring because it was the same apartment that he and Cage had shared. It was basically still exactly the way it was when Cage lived there. Their walls were covered with Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Marcel DuChamp—and these were originals, of course. Merce would say, “Oh, Jasper made this one for me, this was the first one of his number series, he made this one before he made all the other ones.”
“The idea that someone would want to take what we do and give it an institutional home is really exciting.”—Adam Sliwinski
You know, 4’ 33’’ was premiered in Woodstock in 1952, at the outdoor Maverick Concert series. It’s a big wooden shed. So if you’re there at night in the summer, it’s got crickets, and all this other kind of stuff, and it’s just right down the road from Bard, about a half-hour or 45 minutes away from Bard. There is something about that area—and of course you say “Woodstock” to people and they think of ’69, and there’s a similar vibe to that as well. It all seemed to fit really nicely. And for us, the idea that someone would want to take what we do and give it an institutional home was really exciting.
Harrison: What’s it like to be able to talk with the composer and play the work of people you know?
Sliwinski: It’s vastly illuminating! It pulls back the curtain from that process, and what you realize is that composers are people. Even Beethoven was a person. He, especially, was an experimenter. I remember going to a Beethoven museum in Vienna, where they have the first five drafts or so of the seventh symphony—which is, to me, the greatest piece of music—and you’re looking at the drafts and thinking, “That was a terrible idea! I’m so glad he didn’t go with that!” You realize that composers are craftsmen, artisans who are trying to make something just right. You retain a healthy respect for what’s on the page—that’s essential—but you start to develop judgment about what a composer might have been thinking or bringing to the table. It helps to bring out your creative side when you’re interpreting the music.
“Every time Steve Reich’s email appeared in my in-box, it was like Beethoven was emailing me. He turned out to be a very collaborative guy.”—Adam Sliwinski
One person who was very interesting for us to work with was Steve Reich, for so many reasons: he’s canonical, someone we studied in school, but he also wrote a piece for us. I have this chain of emails between us, and every time his email appeared in my in-box, it was like Beethoven was emailing me. But he turned out to be a very collaborative guy. He had some ideas, and we tried them out, then we went back and forth—I didn’t expect that at all. I thought, Steve Reich can write whatever he wants and send it to me, but he asked my opinion.
At first it’s surprising how much composers are interested in getting input from you, and then you go back and read music history, and that clarinetist that Mozart always wrote for was probably sitting in the room making suggestions. Collaboration was always part of the process, and the idea that it wasn’t is a myth. Everyone should have the experience of working with the creator at some point to see how wonderfully messy it is. It’s alive.
Harrison: Could you talk about your collaboration with Oscar Bettison, whose composition you’ll premiere on April 20 at Dartmouth College?
Sliwinski: Actually, Oscar was at the studio today, and said he wanted to work on a piece for tuning forks. So we bought chromatic tuning forks and tried to figure out how to amplify them with contact microphones, and then we playing with them, and he was like, “Whoa, do that again!” Now he’s gone back to the drawing board with the new information. It’s an experiential process.
I think we’ll be playing the piece for amplified tuning forks at Dartmouth. The idea is that we’ll have a nice core piece by then that may turn into a larger piece. And that happens all the time—someone will write something for us, we’ll try it out—the first performance is the first part of the process. It’s not necessarily the product. You do get to a place with a lot of composers where they close the book, some more than others, but some pieces continually evolve.
We have to see what will happen. Today, we figured out how to amplify the tuning fork. It was a good day. Check back, and we’ll see how it worked.