When Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion announced the first piece on this program — “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich — he also gave the audience a frame for understanding what was to come. “We do two different kinds of shows,” he said. “There are shows where we play all new music, and then there are shows like this one, which is a ‘what we do and why we do it’ show.” From there, the four men, who were joined by UCSB faculty member Jon Nathan for the opener, proceeded to further explore and respond to the work of the two great founding figures of modern American percussion music, John Cage and Steve Reich.
Sō Percussion is Adam Sliwinski, Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, and Treuting. While they are not hard to tell apart physically, and each of them has a distinctive musical style and specialty, there’s not the kind of strict identification with an individual instrument that you see in more traditional quartets. Instead, there’s a lot of shifting among numerous unusual instruments and an overall sense of people moving freely in a space containing an enormous number of options. At any given moment, it feels as though any one of them might do just about anything, as long as it ends in some kind of a bang. In the second piece, an excerpt from Treuting’s composition “Amid the Noise,” the audience was even recruited into the piece. Quillen moved around Campbell Hall, conducting the entire crowd with a simple bell and hand gesture, cuing two basic sounds — a high-pitched group hum and the jingling of hundreds of sets of keys. With the lights up and the room humming and jingling, the three players who remained onstage droned and thumped away at various tempos until the entire room became a giant percussion orchestra. The sensation was very unusual, shifting back and forth between slightly out of the ordinary and breathtaking.
The first half of the evening concluded with Reich’s “Mallet Quartet,” a tightly structured recent composition for two vibraphones and two marimbas. It’s a gorgeous, shimmering, and mostly lyrical work that sounds like it was written for the group — which it was. After intermission, the quartet kicked it up a notch. The excerpt from their new work, “Imaginary City,” was mesmerizing. Video synched loosely with the pulsating, intricate score as audio culled from Lyndon B. Johnson’s March 15, 1965, speech before Congress on voting rights percolated through the mix. Audio mash-ups with historic spoken-word recordings can be maudlin, but this particular instance transcended the genre and the overall effect was ravishing.
What followed was essentially a two-part tribute to Cage, the big daddy of contemporary percussion. The first piece was “Child of Tree,” mostly a solo for Quillen that climaxed with the unmistakable twang of Waldo, the amplified cactus. While this was wacky and intriguing, the real rush came when the full group returned to the stage for Cage’s early masterpiece “Third Construction.” Moving around and deploying a wide range of instruments, Sō Percussion unleashed a holy — and wholly coherent — storm of pounding, throbbing, life-affirming sound. Concerts like this one leave an audience, keys in hand, looking to open the doors of perception.