A Q+A with Sō Percussion

Known for inventive, driving performances that fill the stage with unusual instruments, objects, and sounds, Sō Percussion returns to the ICA with a new piece that blends their fun-loving performance style with poignant storytelling.

To create Where (we) Live—which explores different notions 
of “home” including the ones they’ve built in their Brooklyn studio, with their families, and in the adopted homes where they’ve toured and performed—Sō asked friends and former collaborators to contribute. M. C. Schmidt, of the electronic
 duo Matmos, shares quirky videos of his home; singer/guitarist Grey Mcmurray adds tender, personal music; and choreographer Emily Johnson issues written directives to the players during the performance. Maria Molteni, a Boston-based multimedia and performing artist who often employs participatory soft sculpture to address public space and social systems in urban environments, has been invited to create artwork on stage during the performance.

Sō’s Eric Beach and Jason Treuting spoke to the ICA about their collaborative process, unexpected inspiration, and playing lamps.

ICA: Where (We) Live poetically explores how our lives intersect with the past and the present; with our family, friends, and colleagues; and ultimately, with ourselves. It feels like a very personal piece. How was it conceived and how has it developed over time?

Eric Beach: Very early on, we were interested in the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and how experience-based it was. Jacobs wasn’t “trained” in urban planning, other than the fact that she lived it every day and thought about it really hard. And her point was that these awesome neighborhoods didn’t spring fully formed out of the mind of a genius—they grew through trial and error, one little piece at a time. We started thinking about what it would be like to build a show that way... instead of starting with one grand idea, try things out, bring in other people, let a community of artists grow its own unique system of working together. The name Where (we) Live referred to “where” we were living as artists, what was “home base” for our work. And over time we also started talking about our individual homes and communities, which was a very natural extension and proved to be the common ground that we could always start from with people: “Tell us about your home, and we’ll tell you about ours.”

Jason Treuting: We took a long time with this piece. We gave ourselves three years to try and fumble and work through and take turns and bumble more and finally get it. In the past we have worked quickly, and this was a new process for us. In retrospect, I think that was because the subject matter was personal in some ways and also because we brought many collaborators into the mix early in the process and challenged ourselves to bend with the conversation instead of staying in our comfort zones. The end result is something hard to explain and something we are all very proud of. The co-ownership between all of us has been a beautiful thing.

ICA: This piece was created during composer John Cage’s 100th birthday celebration. He has had a huge influence on contemporary American art. Were you thinking of Cage when you created Where (we) Live, and do you see any of his influence in the piece?

EB: It’s hard for us to do anything that’s not influenced by Cage. We look at him as the guy that started all of this for us—no Cage, no Sō Percussion. But it’s true that his presence was around even more than usual during 2012. We assembled a big Cage centenary show that we were touring around with, so I imagine that even more Cage than usual seeped into the work.

One of the easiest examples might be my piece “In Our Rooms,” where all the performers on stage wear headphones that give them instructions about something to play or speak or an action to carry out. This happens simultaneously with a video of Martin Schmidt performing an improvisation. It’s a “Double Music” of sorts—our interaction with the video isn’t planned, but spontaneous beautiful moments always seem to pop up.

JT: Early in the process, when we were dealing with ways to put fairly disparate material side by side, we tried some of Cage’s time-based ideas about structure, chance-based ideas, changing the order of events each time. Eventually, we went another direction with the structure and held on to things that we liked. But many colleagues have commented on how much the Cage there is in Where (we) Live. It surprised me at first, but now I see it, in the flexibility built in through the guest artist and through Emily Johnson’s role. You can’t get around his influence. It’s kinda everywhere.

Sō Percussion is known for experimenting with unusual instruments and using ordinary objects musically. What sorts of objects might we see during this performance?

EB: For this show, we set ourselves up a little bit more like a “band” than we normally do. Each person has a setup of stuff that they play, and that’s their stuff for the whole night. There are toy deskbells, a musical saw, synths, a kalimba, a shruti box, lamps played as instruments, a toy piano, sampled gas stove burners, crotales, and a bourbon bottle. I’m sure there’s a lot more, but I’m not sure what everyone else plays!

JT: We each ended up curating a set of instruments that we either felt comfortable with or were interested in exploring more. And these interests complimented each other nicely. I sat down behind a drum set each time we were experimenting, and Josh sat behind his Korg synthesizer. Adam was drawn to the piano in addition to other percussion instruments, and Eric went to a funky sound world that included things like musical saw, kalimba, shruti box, and harmonica in addition to his Ableton rig with samples he has curated. The most object-based music in the piece is a short piece we call “Porch Light”: the six of us on stage play our lamps, both visually and sonically. It has kinda become the breath in the middle of the piece, the intermission of sorts.

As an ensemble you’ve worked with a very diverse group of collaborators, including the electronic duo Matmos, jazz musician Bobby Previte, and musician Dan Deacon. In Where (we) Live, you asked several friends and collaborators to participate in the artistic development of the work. What did each of them bring to the process and how did it shape the performance?

EB: For this particular piece, we had a few different “levels” of collaborators. Guitarist/singer Grey Mcmurray was the closest, writing music with us and bringing his own songs to the table. Martin Schmidt from Matmos is a close friend we’ve worked with a lot, but this was a totally new way of working with him— as a video artist. Emily Johnson is a friend we had never worked with before and started from scratch with. And then each night we work with a different guest artist we’ve never met before. So there are circles of trust radiating out among the collaborators—folks we know really well and folks we’re getting to know on the spot. Ain Gordon (our director) has really done an amazing job of helping us figure out how to make it all work together.

JT: For a long time now, we’ve really been drawn to collaborators who we overlap with aesthetically in many ways, but who will push us. In March we’re playing with Buke and Gase in NYC, and the two bands compliment each other nicely: we think of the world similarly enough to play well together and differently enough to push each other. We’ve had an ongoing collaboration with Matmos for a long time now, maybe seven or eight years. Martin does all the video work for their shows, and when we were interested in exploring that side of things in WwL, it was exciting to work with him in that way. In this piece, Grey has a huge role musically and he is someone we’ve played with lots as well, but this is the first time he has sung as well as played guitar. And Emily and Ain are new collaborators, folks we wanted to find a way to work with.

Each institution invites a local artist to participate in the performance. Why did you want to include this person and how has it shaped the performances?

JT: Early on, we decided that we needed to be able to change things up each night if we were going to have a conversation about community and relationships. So we decided to build in a couple wild cards. One was this guest artist. The collaboration is wonderfully short-term: we meet an artist in the town and share ideas about our work. We check out their workspace or studio and invite them to hear us play a bit ahead of time, but what happens on stage is a one-time-only event. The influence can be overt (we’ve played with a black smith hammering or a ceramic worker with a blow torch), but often it’s wonderfully subtle. Watching the pace of a woodworker or beer brewer off-setting the pace of the music is a new layer for us and the audience.

Emily Johnson, a renowned choreographer, has an unusual role in Where (we) Live. Basically, she passes notes while you are performing. Often, these are actions that disrupt each player’s performance. How have you navigated these interruptions and what were some of her most unusual requests?

EB: This role is one of the best examples of that organic growth we were going—we just let ideas roll until we got to a point where something made a lot of sense.

Emily’s choreography can be very task- or instruction-based. We thought it would be interesting for her to give us some instructions, and at first we did that with her texting things to us while we rehearsed. Over time we realized it would be better to have her in the room, reacting to what we were doing. It’s a sort of improvisation, and we trust Emily to make smart decisions about what she asks us to do. She doesn’t just interrupt us to needle us—she sees potential in a moment; we trust her and go with it.

JT: Emily is the other wild card built in to make sure that the show is flexible and new each time. She has learned the show intimately and shapes things real time. Again, it can be obvious or subtle. She often deals with movement, since the show can be very stationary. And she has learned each of our personalities and how we react, so that she can sculpt things more and more personally. For me, my role on the drums can be very grounding, or it can help provide big shapes to the music. When I get a note, I have to figure out how to fulfill both roles, and my bandmates have to take over for me when a note takes me elsewhere. Most unusual? I had to stand on my drum stool once. Most memorable? I got to show the audience how tall my 2-year-old daughter was and then try to do it again in a drum-solo type of moment. It really does change your energy as a performer and keep things fresh. That is something I place lots of importance on as an audience member and we hope that it comes across.

Sō Percussion has performed in Boston several times, including at the ICA, but you’ve never presented an original performance like Where (we) Live. What do you hope the audience takes away from this presentation?

JT: We love playing Boston. The ICA is a really special place and this will be our second time back. I hope the audience that has never seen us before will be touched by the personal stories, both the ones told through words and told through just music. And I hope they will take in the performance as the one-time-only experience that it is. And for anyone who has seen us before, I hope they can see this as an extension of the experimental music tradition that we’ve been coming from, a logical next step. We are excited to see what the ICA audience thinks.

EB: I just hope people feel open to it and find ways to connect with it!

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