Developing a career as an artist carries a certain pressure to project inevitability. We are reluctant to admit that the whole thing could have come crashing down at any moment, or that if it weren’t for a certain person or set of circumstances, it might all have turned out differently. My group So Percussion is in the fortunate position of now having a stable career and an established vision. It is extremely tempting to tidy up the past 15 years of our history into a pleasant and digestible narrative.
Our journey has been a happy one, but it has also at times been tortured and messy. Any band that has been together as long as we have will admit to the same. I can recall as many moments of haphazard and chaotic collisions as triumphs of planning and execution.
Early in the group’s history, these sliding doors manifested as huge artistic questions, such as: what will our music sound like? For us this also meant deciding what living composers we would commission music from, as the percussion repertoire was still miniscule. It was not as easy to settle this question as it might now appear. At Yale we were studying all kinds of music, including a heavy dose of European modernists. Steve Reich was already an obvious touchstone, but we also had group members interested in the English composer James Wood, or the ultra-complex west coast composer Roger Reynolds.
We knew that we wanted to have a full-time percussion group. This was an idea almost too large for its moment, although our motivation for doing it was rooted in the traditions of the previous generation of percussion ensembles, such as Blackearth Percussion, NEXUS, and the Amadinda Percussion Group.
During that time at Yale, one of our original members received a medium-sized grant to pursue further educational enrichment. He decided to use it to help So commission a new work. We approached David Lang, who said bluntly, “You either have enough money for me to write you a very short work or a very long one.”
As he explained his reasoning, it started to make sense. Most professional new-music groups at the time were busy premiering many pieces, and it would be difficult to write the kind of huge work he had in mind unless the ensemble had a crazy work ethic and loads of time to devote to it. As graduate students, we had both.
Lang imagined a new kind of percussion quartet, written in homage to Reich’s Drumming, that would go on to spark an entirely new category of percussion pieces. The scale of the work – about 36 minutes long – results partially from the unfolding of “gradual processes” inspired by Reich.
Over the course of two years, we worked closely and carefully with David as his work expanded from one movement of brash woodblocks, to fluttering canons of metal pipes and thundering drums, to the oddest, most melancholy chorale of tuned flowerpots, bells, and teacups. He titled the work the so-called laws of nature.
The few pieces that had been written for us before this were excellent, but they mostly hewed to the accepted percussion dose of eight or ten minutes in length. Somehow, David was ready to write an astonishingly new and bold kind of percussion work at exactly the moment we were ready to launch as a group. The piece is stunning, both in its inventiveness and its originality. An enormous amount of our energy in those early years was spent grasping its scale and seizing its virtuosity.
I think I could start a group 99 times out of 100, or perhaps 999 times out of 1,000, and never get as a first major piece something as breathtaking as the so-called laws of nature. It wasn’t just the quality of the piece that shone, but the fact that percussion-only music had so few statements this bold already. We started our careers with our own masterpiece.
Possessing an exciting work like this might have been enough to set us on our path, but David characteristically imagined something more vivid for us. When we recorded the so-called laws, we hoped that we might be able to place it on an album of David’s music. He was well established by this time, and our association with a known composer would be a major career boost.
David could have easily plopped us onto a portrait album of his music. A nice credit for a sharp premiere recording was as much as we would have hoped for. Instead, he and the other wonderful people at Bang on a Can suggested something else: we would record for their new label Cantaloupe, but not on a David Lang disc. We would launch So Percussion as a band by including both the so-called laws and Evan Ziporyn’s fantastic sextet Melody Competition on a new album titled So Percussion. This made no sense for David’s short-term or composer career-centered perspective. We were almost unknown.
Cantaloupe solicited artwork from the experienced graphic artist Frank Olinsky (designer of the famed MTV logo from the 1980s), who fell upon the concept of the hammer and teacup for the album cover. Our new brand and identity spilled forth from this first statement.
Writing now, I can’t think of how any of this would have happened without David. He knew well that the percussion world was poised for a fresh leap forward, and somehow he must have sensed that his own powers were up to the challenge, and that we were young enough and stupid enough to attempt it. We held frequent meetings together with him to scheme how these all-percussion concerts would spread across the classical music landscape, using his new work as an anchor.
He became – and still is – a crucial mentor for all of us. Once, when I was in a particularly difficult phase where the scale of my dreams and the size of my bank account were not matching up very well, I asked him whether I should be thinking of a more moderate or careful path for my career. He said, “You already had a chance to take the safer road and become something else, and instead you did this. Why go halfway from here?” His calm, relaxed demeanor reassured us during shaky times in our lives, and his unassuming way of blasting conventional thinking created an emotional and intellectual life raft that we could grasp onto.
Time and again, David provided mentorship that pushed us past the doubts, fears, struggles, and obstacles of establishing a full time percussion group. Of course, he had a self-interest in us playing his awesome piece as often as possible! But why would selfless mentorship need to be divorced from mutual interest?
In subsequent years, we embarked on other collaborations together. The most recent is his piece for quartet and orchestra, titled man made. After more than a decade of working together, this piece contains elements that reflect the intimacy of our relationship. He wrote for specific instruments that he knew we liked, such as Josh’s steel drums and Jason’s drum set in the last movement. He wrote an entire first movement for nothing but snapping twigs, a gesture that he was confident we could pull off. He even carved out space for Jason to improvise, something that I don’t think I’ve seen in any of his other work.
Luckily, I’ll never have to know where we would have ended up without his help. Would there still have been a critical mass of support, or would we have arrived too soon on the larger scene to collect the necessary elements?
I wanted to write this meditation because I’m now in a position to either constrain or enlarge the horizons of students who hold their own big ideas. I could knock these fragile eggs out of their hands with a single dismissive comment, or I could use the power of my own imagination to help set them in directions that neither I nor they could even anticipate.
Years after this first collaboration, David and I were reflecting on So’s first full concert of newly commissioned percussion music at Carnegie Hall, an event I could have scarcely conceived of as a young student. I asked him if this was what he was thinking of when he first encouraged us so much. He told me about a story he had read as a child. He said “the character in the story is told to set out though multiple trials and adventures, and at the end, if he succeeded, he would be rewarded with the answers to his deepest questions. The character completes his many trials. When he gets to the end, he is told the secret, which is that the task was impossible.”
So Percussion performs David Lang’s man made with Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, Aug. 1 & 2 at 7:30pm. The group also performs a Little Night Music concert at the Kaplan Penthouse Aug 2 at 10pm; www.lincolncenter.org/mostly-mozart
Adam Sliwinski has built a dynamic career of creative collaboration as percussionist, pianist, conductor, teacher, and writer. He specializes in bringing composers, performers, and other artists together to create exciting new work. A member of the ensemble So Percussion (proclaimed as “brilliant” and “consistently impressive” by The New York Times) since 2002, Adam has performed at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the Bonnaroo Festival, Disney Concert Hall with the L.A. Philharmonic, and everything in between. So Percussion has also toured extensively around the world, including multiple featured performances at the Barbican Centre in London, and tours to France, Germany, the Netherlands, South America, Australia, and Russia.