Picks :: Beguiled by beats

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April 26, 2010 // UPDATED 10:38 am - April 26, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// So Percussion has drummed up an audience with unconventional instruments and an impossible-to-categorize sound //

It’s like hearing chamber musicians perform an Aphex Twin record. No wait. It’s like doing your calculus homework while listening to Air. No, it’s like a physics professor commandeering the turntables at an ambient dance night.

If reviewers sound a little ridiculous trying to pin down the sound of So Percussion, it isn’t really their fault. The Brooklyn four-piece, an experimental percussion ensemble made up of graduates from the Yale School of Music, is like Teflon to music classification. Genres just don’t stick to them.

You could say they’re chamber musicians, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting are each accomplished virtuosos in the classical realm. Between the four of them, they boast a Doctor of Music degree from Yale and three Masters degrees. But their style treads through the brainier regions of pop music as well, building minimalist electronica, hip hop beats and art rock onto their classical foundation.

The result is cerebral and sexy, a forever shifting latticework of ticks and tocks too hip for the orchestra hall but a bit too anxious for the after hours lounge. Listening to So Percussion, you feel like you should either be playing a game of chess or making out.

And then there are the instruments. In addition to your standard marimbas, xylophones and steel drums, the group has been known to make music with wind-up toys, cooking timers, duct tape, typewriters and even an amplified cactus (if you run your hands over the spikes, it evidently produces a sound like a babbling brook). Such experimental noodling has earned them comparisons to avant-garde composers like John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. But Captain Beefheart and Jimi Hendrix might get mentioned in the same review. One New York Times writer, satisfyingly soothed by one of So’s more ambient tracks, even compared them favorably to “overpriced Manhattan therapists.”

“Percussion allows you to see the connections between the academic side of music and the stuff you’re hearing on the radio,” said Beach. At 27, Beach is the youngest member of So Percussion, joining the group in 2007 after he finished his Masters. “For me, Aphex Twin was big growing up. It was Aphex Twin that got me into Steve Reich.”

Reich, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer and pioneer of minimalist music, wrote a piece specifically for So Percussion, which they will perform for a pair of shows at the Southern Theater before officially debuting it at Carnegie Hall in 2011. The two-day Southern residency, April 29 and 30,  will also feature the world premier of a piece written by Minneapolis-based composer Mary Ellen Childs.

But those pieces will play it pretty straight in terms of instrumentation. The real experiment, Beach said, will occur with Steve Mackey’s “It is Time.” Written specifically for the individual members of the group, “It is Time” calls for musical saw, a sample of an Estey Organ, a Newton’s cradle (those sets of tick-tocking, suspended balls often found on office desks) and a “a lot of other crazy stuff.”

“Hopefully,” Beach said, “it’ll be a lot of sounds you’ve never heard before.”

So Percussion

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 29 and 8 p.m. Friday, April 30
Pre-show receptions at an hour before showtime sponsored by the Red Stag Supperclub
Tickets: $20
The Southern Theater