Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
The name Sō comes from a Japanese character meaning, (among other definitions) “to play music.” Within it is another character, the exact image of a person offering a gift, meaning “to present with both hands.”
Both are suitable for the eminent four-man percussion group Sō (pronounced “so”), which combines musical performance with education and philanthropy. The performance aspect can be both intimate and spectacular, as evidenced by Sō’s appearance at Studzinski Recital Hall for one of the new Sunday matinees presented by the Bowdoin International Music Festival.
The first work on the program, “Torque” (2018), is described by composer Vijay Iyer, as follows: “Torque, a twisting force on a body, seems to appear for the listener at music’s formal boundaries, when one movement gives way to another. This piece for Sō Percussion invites them to perform transformations that twist the music’s temporal flow, bringing the micro-relational art of the rhythm section to this virtuosic quartet.”
I call it “too many marimbas.”
The marimba, Vibraphone and its xylophone-like cousins attempt to combine percussion and melody, something the piano does already, and much better. Because it lacks clang, a little soothing marimba music, no matter how well played —and these are masters of the first order— goes a long way.
The next piece, “Taxidermy” (2012), by Caroline Shaw, returned Sō to one of its original specialties, drumming on found objects, in this case tuned flowerpots. The result is grand, awkward, epic, silent, funny and just a bit creepy, (like its title), according to Shaw. It exemplifies a line from T.S. Eliot, repeated rhythmically during the performance: “the detail of the pattern is movement.”
I found it more interesting and imaginative than the opener, with an eerie bell-like effect generated by combining the pot notes with deep bass voices. Fermatas, long periods of silence, became an integral part of the music
“Broken Unison” (2017) by Donnacha Dennehy, was another marimba piece defined by pedantic and incomprehensible program notes, but with more interesting percussion effects, such as the use of a muted bass drum. It “disrupts unisons,” by various means, including the use of canons (think “row, row, row your boat”) created on four xylophones ad infinitum. Its chromaticism is said to have been influenced by that of Gesualdo (1566-1613) a composer best known for killing his wife and her lover.
It was after intermission that Sō was revealed in all its glory, with “Amid the Noise” (2006) by Jason Treuting, a member of the ensemble.
Seven vignettes of street sounds somehow transformed themselves into music, with the help of festival students on piano, violin, saxophone, cello and percussion. The transformations were so profound and inevitable that they became emotionally moving.
There were too many wonderful scenes to recount here. Four on a drum, like Native Americans, revealed Sō’s virtuosity with polyrhythms. I think they could play 13 against 17 beats without breaking a sweat. A session at the piano, keyboard, sounding board and strings, punctuated by real clanging tonic chords, revealed it to be the ultimate percussion instrument that Bartok thought it was. A noise-making machine that looked like a briefcase created a thunderstorm, punctuated by one of those little bells one uses to call a salesperson.
“You had to have been there.” Sō has a website, and the BIMF concert was live-streamed, but there is no substitute for the real thing. The Sunday-afternoon audience, which had itself participated in the show, gave it a prolonged standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can reached at email@example.com.