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Who Put The Bam-Bam In the BAM?

New York
Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Harvey Theater
10/14/2009 -  & October 15, 16*, 17, 2009
Sô Percussion: Imaginary City (Commissioned by BAM for the 2009 Next Wave Festival)

Sô Percussion: Eric Beach, Josh Quiullen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting
Jenise Treuting (Video), Lawson White (Sound Design), Aaron Copp (Lighting Design), Kary Starr and Mauri Weakley (Costume Design)

Sô Percussion (© Janette Beckman)

Last Wednesday, I had to choose between two programs playing 80 uninterrupted percussion. One was Mitsuko Uchida performing Beethoven’s last three sonatas on the piano. The other, Sô Percussion, played 80 minutes of their own composition, Imaginary City, accompanied only by pictures made by video artist Jenise Treuting.

Since Ms. Uchida performed only on Wednesday, I sat enthralled for every note of her recital. Sô Percussion will have performed four evenings, so last night I sat equally enthralled……though not for every note. That doesn’t seem right, since Ms. Uchida had a mere 88 keys on her piano. The Sô Percussion employed booming drums, gongs, cymbals, marimbas (vibraphones?), auditorially-enhanced drawing, coins, shouts (from audience), whispers (from players), bottles with varying degrees of liquid, and a giant Erector set which tinkled, banged, and battered.

The variety of sounds, the four famed percussionists running around, and the musics which ranged from gamelan to Renaissance to recorded vocal, was more than inventive. It was genius run amok. Genius with humor, with politics (the rules of a Monopoly game showing how the banker never loses) and with musical quotes. As I later discovered, the piece was divided with name–cogs and moments, structures, agreements, voices, etc. But this neither explained nor needed to explain the music.

The point was neither aleatory nor stochastic, but an immaculate-conceived paean to that wonderful fabulist, the late Italo Calvino, and his novel Imaginary Cities. The cities here weren’t quite imaginary. Video artist Jenise Treuting showed seemingly the most mundane videos on a back-screen–people in a subway station, car headlights, empty streets. Part looked like the old train videos of Kenneth Anger, others looked, like Lake Woebegone Days, about ten degrees above reality.

They were not mundane, of course. Any travel writer knows that memories consist not of the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids, but of a crow sitting on a lane behind the Taj, or a blade of grass somehow growing beside a Pyramid. Her images, then, were the images of memories. In Calvino’s case, the memories of cities which never existed yet which should have existed. And in that sense, Ms. Treuting’s commonplaces were other-worldly recollections.

The music was, if not cohesive, certainly singular. The opening was an obvious homage to gamelan. The minimalist sounds harked back to Cage (and an early Tan Dun piece for paper). The action was like the “happenings” of the 1950’s.

The diversity should have led to a glorious evening. But glory is in the mind of the witness. And eighty minutes of supernaturally brilliant invention and playing had its limitations. I loved every minute that I encountered. But at times, the mind wandered off subject. I rationalized and thought, “Okay, it’s Tantric. And I’m being put to sleep.” But that was my own weak excuse, my own shortcoming for an ensemble creating its own auditory worlds to synchronize and frequently even synergize with Calvino’s magical words.

Harry Rolnick



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