Sō Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski on collaboration and adaptation
The versatile percussion quartet performs November 7 at the Union Theater.
New York’s Sō Percussion are renowned for the sheer span of collaborations they’ve racked up since forming in 1999, ranging from commissioned pieces from modern-classical master Steve Reich and electronic pioneer Paul Lansky to recordings and live performances with younger experimenters like Man Forever (Oneida drummer John Colpitts’ percussion-focused solo project), electronic duo Matmos, and Dan Deacon. What’s more striking is that across all those outings, there’s no unifying gimmick or stylistic constant. The quartet seem to pride themselves on reformulating their approach to the ideas of each new work, whatever the situation—a commissioned new composition, original works written by Sō Percussion members, collaborations with musicians who don’t have a formal background—and whatever instrumentation it demands—from your conventional array of percussion instruments to household objects to software to brand-new instruments invented specifically for a piece.
Take, say, 2011's Bad Mango (a collaboration with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas), Man Forever's 2014 album Ryonen, and the 2010 Matmos-Sō Percussion collaborative album Treasure State. Except for their adventurous spirit and Sō Percussion's name being on all three, nothing in the music overtly screams out that it's the same four Yale-trained musicians—Jason Treuting, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Eric Cha-Beach—making an essential mark on all these releases. With Douglas, Sō's members flesh out a entire soundscape with drum kit and marimba, but also a droning shruti box, throbbing synth, Ableton music software, and even a vocoder. On Man Forever's Ryonen, they help drummer/composer Colpitts realize a vision of overpowering, dense, interlocking percussion phrases. On Treasure State, Sō adds warmth and texture to pleasantly flowing pieces that play to Matmos' more experimental side. Point is, Sō Percussion is marked not by any particular sound, but by a willingness to create improbable things with a wide range of people.
This year, Sō Percussion’s activities have included releasing its recording of The National guitarist Bryce Dessner’s new piece Music For Wood And Strings, and collaborating with choreographer Emily Johnson and playwright/theater director Ain Gordon on a still-in-the-works new piece called A Gun Show, which will use music, text, and “movement” to explore the role of gun violence in American life. Sō Percussion will be performing selections from both of those projects during their Saturday, November 7 show at the Wisconsin Union Theater, plus Steve Reich’s composition “Music For Pieces Of Wood.” Ahead of the show, member Adam Sliwinski talked with us about how A Gun Show is shaping up, the challenge of learning newly invented instruments, and staying flexible when collaborating with musicians of many different backgrounds.
Tone Madison: So at this show you're doing a Steve Reich piece, one of the Bryce Dessner pieces, and then a work in progress called A Gun Show.
Adam Sliwinski: Basically, those first pieces that you mention, those are kind of the standard fare that we go around and play at concert halls. When I say standard fare, I mean our standard fare—it's not necessarily standard fare for the rest of the music world, but it is a sort of repertoire that we've cultivated, pieces that we've commissioned. That's gonna be really fun.
A Gun Show, as you said, is a work in progress, which is gonna be happening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival next fall, in about a year. They're actually quite different things. The Bryce Dessner music, the Reich music, is very post-minimalism and minimalism. It's very joyful music and it's all about these rhythmic patterns. It's really a lot of, kind of almost danceable, it's really fun rhythm and really fun to listen to. The music that we're doing for A Gun Show, I think it's interesting to listen to as well, but it's, uh, heavy. I mean, it's a serious subject, and one that just seems to not want to go away. This idea of us being inspired to make art and to make music around this issue of gun violence seems to continue to be topical, so the presenter in Madison said, "Why don't you show some of that stuff that you're doing? Why don't we go ahead and put that on the program?" So we're enthusiastic about doing so.
Tone Madison: The Gun Show piece, as you said, it's addressing this issue that won't go away. At what point did you as a group decide to craft a project around that issue?
Adam Sliwinski: It very specifically came out of Newtown. The work that we're making is not specifically about Newtown. The way we're doing it is pretty abstract. A lot of it has to do with the emotional resonance of being in a culture that is so violent. It's not that we're making music that "Oh, this piece is about Newtown" or that kind of thing. It really has more to do with this idea of how these things affect us. We have some text pieces.
You know, percussion instruments have a connection with violence. Snare drums, the purpose of the snares on the drum was to be heard on the battlefield to change formations and keep people in step and things like that. It seemed interesting to us to explore how art form might intersect with some of these things. Newtown, I mean, it was a thing for everybody. I know for me, my stepson was almost exactly the same age as those kids when that happened and there was just something about that particular one that was pretty hard. I'm sure that's true for all of us. Pretty hard to handle. So we thought, OK, well, this issue in our society, we like the idea of tackling issues with our original work. This issue is one that seems to make us pay attention to it. So that was what we started doing with it.
Tone Madison: We're in a time right now where people have stopped thinking of these events as aberrations and started to think of it as just the climate that we're living in.
Adam Sliwinski: Right, and there were two in one day this week. [Editor's note: This interview took place on October 11.] I don't remember that ever happening before, and I sort of feel like everyone went, "Oh, there were two in one day this week." And I was talking to my wife last night, and we remember Columbine. When that happened, I mean, for weeks, it was soul-searching. What had happened, how had this happened in our country, how could this be possible? You know, I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and nobody could believe that it had happened. And we were all trying to figure out what had happened to us that this was happening, and it kind of goes by like a blip now when it happens, and I know most people are well-meaning—it's not like any of us mean to think any less of it when it happens—but it's just kind of a routine now. Obama's recent speech, he was like, "This should not be a routine!"
I would say that our approach to it is not specifically political. Although we all have pretty similar kind of blue-state views on it, it's not quite that simple. One of the guys in our group, Josh, grew up in rural Ohio as a Eagle Scout, and some of his texts are about the way that people in rural areas deal with gun culture and gun ownership, which is not the same as the kind of handgun violence that is happening in our cities. It is a complicated issue, and I think part of our stance is we wish it could be a more complicated issue, in the way that it's talked about, more often. But that's not really what we're getting most of the time.
Tone Madison: In Wisconsin, people are exposed to the whole continuum of that, from a very strong hunting culture to urban gun violence to mass shootings in the suburbs. So I can imagine the response from the audience will be pretty varied and interesting.
Adam Sliwinski: It will be, and I think what we've found is—one of our biggest goals has been that we hope that we create sort of an aesthetic space in the theater where people feel like they could come up and share something with us and talk to us about how this issue has affected their lives, whether they like or dislike various things that are happening. In that sense you could say, if you picture like an avant-garde show that's very confrontational but sort of like a cliche of an avant-garde show that's super in-your-face and that kind of stuff, that's not really our approach. It has more to do with kind of opening up the space that people from different experiences and walks of life might feel like they might share something that has to do with this issue that actually wouldn't be so much about people screaming at each other or mischaracterizing each other.
And that's already happened. As we've been doing work-in-progress showings, we've been shocked, actually. A guy came up once and said, "My son took his life last year with a gun. He had been suffering from depression. I think it was too easy for him to get ahold of one. I think we could have prevented it." That was his position. Other people start to volunteer [their viewpoints and stories]. It is amazing how this issue has affected people's lives, but we don't bring it up every day. We don't say, "Oh, hey, I bet your life has been affected by gun violence. Let's talk about it."
Tone Madison: How is that affecting the way the work grows and evolves?
Adam Sliwinski: It is scary, I'm not going to say it's not a scary thing to delve into, but as it keeps going and as we keep doing it, the first question we always ask ourselves is, "OK, we'd like to make work about this issue. What the heck does that even mean?" And along the way, carefully, we start to add, bit by bit, things that feel right to us. A lot of is has to do with things that I think art does very well, which is complexity, complex states of mind and emotion, shades of grey, and the sort of human experience and human soul. I think the music that has felt like it has dealt with that has been the most successful so far.
Tone Madison: For the Bryce Dessner piece, you played this new instrument that was specifically built for the piece, the chordstick. How do you adapt to a new instrument like that? Is there usually a learning curve, or a lot of thought as to how you make that instrument yours?
Adam Sliwinski: Absolutely. I mean, so the state of being a percussionist is a state of adaptation–constant adaptation. And especially in what we do, we're often encouraging composers to strike out and find new sound-worlds. We've done many pieces where new instruments were adapted or built just for the sound-world of the piece. In this case, it took us a little further afield than usual, because it is a stringed instrument. It is like a guitar. And we do end up hitting on the strings like you would with a hammered dulcimer or something like that. But also, these other things, like placing your fingers to get the harmonics, to get the octave harmonic, or strumming, things that are very much guitar techniques. And Bryce is a fantastic guitarist. Beyond being in The National, he was a classical guitar major at Yale, and that was how we met each other, way, way back when we were students.
He came to the table with a lot of thoughts about how this instrument might be played, what you might do with it, as a guitar player. So yes, there's a learning curve. But one of the things that we get good at as percussionists is bringing a certain set of tools to the process of adapting to something new. It's strange to say, but the more often you do that, the better you actually are, even though it's something new each time. You kind of have a ritual of how you get used to a new instrument.
Tone Madison: In your performance earlier this fall with violinist and composer Dan Trueman, you were using a software program that he developed. In the midst of all this adaptation to different instruments and approaches, is there anything that helps you stay grounded? For instance, any instruments you really like to return to again and again for their familiarity?
Adam Sliwinski: Absolutely. Among the four of us in So, identity has partially been built on the idea of all of us being able to adapt to something together, and partly on going to those corners sometimes. So for me, keyboard instruments, which can include marimba but have recently included a lot of piano playing, is a kind of, not just a comfort zone, but a zone where I'm most interested in exploring what I can do with it. And so this instrument that Dan Trueman built, this software instrument called the bitKlavier, is one that we kind of developed together, for this repertoire of new pieces. That was what I played solo last week. But all of us in the group have something. Josh is a wonderful steel-drum player. He studied in Trinidad. Jason is a drum set player and has done a lot of work incorporating drum set into the kind of music that we play. Eric is somebody who finds—he, for instance, plays musical saw–he finds these kind of cool, weird things that he can put together in these one-man-band kind of setups, in addition to being just a really fabulous percussionist. And so when somebody says to us, "Hey, what do you want to work on, just on your own?" that's kind of where we go to. And that's why I've been doing this piano project with Dan. It's such a wide world you can have as a percussionist. You kind of have to define where you want to spend your time, because you can't do everything at once.
Tone Madison: When you first started this group in 1999, was the idea for it to be something that would take on a lot of collaborations? How has your conception of the group changed over time?
Adam Sliwinski: The collaborations we had in mind at the beginning were the sort of performer-composer collaborations. In a way, coming out of classical music school, that was radical enough, because most classical musicians are studying dead composers. So this was like, "We're actually going to work with living composers!" That was the first somewhat kind of radical step, to say that we were going to do that all the time. As the group grew, and especially being in a place like New York with so much diverse music going on, other types of collaborations kind of suggested themselves to us and started dropping in our lap. We worked with Matmos... and they mostly do electronic music, some of it coming out of experimental music and some of it from house music and pop music, and that was nothing like we had done at Yale. There was nothing like that for us to do in conservatory. That was very new, and then Jason started writing music for a film that became this project Into The Noise, which was the first time we played our own music. And so from that point on, kind of all bets are off. The rubric we would use is, "Is this cool or not according to our tastes?" Not so much "Is it from this world or that world?"
Tone Madison: You kind of have this habit of spanning a lot of worlds. When you go between someone like Steve Reich and someone like Man Forever or someone like Matmos, how does the experience change?
Adam Sliwinski: It varies from project to project, and some of it has to do with, what are your common languages and common tools? So, when we work with Steve Reich, we all went to classical music school, he hands us a score with notes on it, and that's part of where we begin from. We work with Matmos, two absolutely brilliant guys, fantastic musicians, not people who studied classical music, don't use notation, and so, "Oh! Where are we gonna start? How are we gonna start putting our pieces together if not with that common language?" And [Drew Daniel of Matmos] is like, "Oh, well, I use this sequencing software, you can see on my screen how the piece is built," and you're like, "Oh, OK, I can see of of that," or if somebody is more about improvisation, somebody else is a kind of hybrid of things. And so a lot of what you need to work out has to do with, "Where do we begin together?" And then from there, a lot of different wonderful musicians from different genres want a lot of the same things in the end, which is to make something that feels and sounds great on stage. You end up having a lot in common at that point, but when you begin, you find out, what are our common tools and what's our common language?
Tone Madison: What have been the collaborations that you found most challenging or surprising, when it comes to that process of figuring out the common ground?
Adam Sliwinski: I mentioned the Matmos collaboration. That was the first time we worked with somebody who wasn't from the kind of notated-classical background. So there was a learning curve there of finding what we could do or have in common. For A Gun Show, we're working with this woman named Emily Johnson who is a choreographer, performance artist, dancer. She's not a musician at all, so now you're talking about across different art forms, and I love to see what people look for and listen for and expect when they come from different backgrounds, how their process is different. Musicians and dancers have different processes, so actually sometimes the most challenging collaborations are the most rewarding ones, because you tend to travel a pretty long distance in your personal growth when somebody asks you to come from a different kind of standpoint.
Tone Madison: Going forward, what are some of the collaborations or projects that you have in the works now?
Adam Sliwinski: Yeah, a bunch of stuff. So, a project that we've already composed and performed but is kind of getting its big premiere is with Shara Worden, her band is called My Brightest Diamond, and she's a wonderful singer and composer and musician. We've got a project together called Timeline that's happening at Carnegie Hall in February, Carnegie commissioned it. Shara is just a force of nature—somebody who does happen to be classically trained, so we do work off scores together, but who has this charismatic rock-n-roll persona that's a big part of what she does as well. We have new pieces in the next few years coming from people like Richard Ayres, is gonna write a piece for us, it's looking like Caroline Shaw is gonna compose a piece for us. Lots of other people too. Glenn Kotche has written some music for us that's gonna come out pretty soon. It does kind of encapsulate this idea of working in all kinds of different genres with different people.
Tone Madison: You also have records you've done of original compositions from within the group. Where does that fit into all this for you? Is it a place for everyone in the group to return to or something?
Adam Sliwinski: We think of all these things as branches off the same tree at this point. If someone in the group writes something for the group, there's obviously a familiarity there. They might not even write out a full score. They might just come in with some ideas and we all kind of tweak them and work them out together, but the truth is we've started to work that way more and more with other composers as well. I mean, we rarely just pay a composer money, get a score in the mail, and then play it. That basically never happens with us anymore. It's always a process from the very beginning of tossing ideas back and forth, trying things out. The way we work all across the board has this very involved, very intense kind of collaborative process to it. When we write music for ourselves and together, it was a very crazy new thing to do when we started doing it, and now it's become something where we have our own process among the four of us for how we play each other's music. There's choices we're allowed to make with each other's music that we might not feel licensed to make with somebody else's music. I've been playing Jason's music for 10 years now, so I feel like I have a sense for some instrument substitutions I can make, or what he's trying to get at with a certain kind of rhythm that he's written or something like that.