What: Sō Percussion
When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $37 general, $18.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org, (530) 754-2787.
Also: Question the artists after Saturday’s performance and at 1 p.m. Sunday; pianist Lara Downs will host both talks
Four New York-based musicians known as Sō Percussion will perform at the Mondavi Center on Saturday and Sunday, and they will be paying tribute to a composer who did much to launch the idea of percussion music performed by a chamber group.
In the 1940s, an iconoclastic composer named John Cage and several other “young turks” challenged New York City’s staid musical establishment with several concerts featuring new music written almost entirely for drums, cymbals, gongs, wood blocks and “found objects” that yield appealing sounds when struck with a mallet or tickled with a stick, including sea shells, tin cans, pots and pans.
(Cage, fellow composer Lou Harrison and others tried such found objects at the urging of San Francisco-based composer Henry Cowell. Cage, Harrison and Cowell are among the “American Mavericks” that the San Francisco Symphony venerates nowadays).
In retrospect, it is clear that those pioneering percussion concerts in the 1940s blazed a trail. By the 1960s and ’70s, Cage was in demand as a composer-in-residence at universities around the country. He was at UC Davis for a portion of the 1969-70 academic year.
And nowadays, most university music departments have a percussion ensemble of some kind, and most composers include lots of percussion instruments in the music they create. As critic Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times in 2009, “Contemporary chamber ensembles almost always have at least one percussionist on hand, often more, each with more paraphernalia than the rest of the group combined.”
And percussionists are now accorded a pivotal role throughout most new pieces of music. “If you think about it, drums are the new violins,” Kozinn wrote.
Which brings us to Sō Percussion. For their concerts at the Mondavi Center, they’ll play “Credo in US” (Cage’s first collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham, dating from 1942, many other collaborations followed). Local audiences may recall that Cunningham and his dance company visited the Mondavi Center 2008; Cunningham died the following year at age 90.
Sō Percussion also will play Cage’s “Third Construction” (1941), which is structured in 24 sections with 24 measures each, and incorporates sounds from cowbells and pod rattles.
And there will a simultaneous performance of four different Cage pieces, grouped under the title “18’12” ” (18 minutes, 12 seconds, but also a jocular reference to the famous “1812” Overture by Tchaikovsky, which calls for the sound of cannon shots).
One of the Cage pieces in this simultaneous performance will be “Inlets,” and Sō Percussion will perform “Inlets” using the set of 12 conch shells that Cage and Cunningham used when the piece was premiered in 1977. (The shells are on loan for this occasion from the Cunningham trust.)
Sharing the bill will be pieces written in 2009, 2010 and 2011 by contemporary composers, including “Needles,” which involves a small cactus; “Bottles,” which involves amplified soda bottles; and even a few pieces that include a conventional string instrument: the viola.
Jason Treuting, a founding member of Sō Percussion, told The Enterprise in a phone interview that “If people who play in string quartets trace their tradition back to Haydn, a percussion quartet like ours traces our tradition back to Cage.”
“Often, when we’re in a situation where we’re writing new music, or trying out something new that we think is crazy, we find out that ‘Wow. Cage already did that.’ Cage got to so many things first.”
Treuting attended college in the mid-1990s and helped organize Sō Percussion in New York in 1999. The group has released several albums, commissioned several new works and played concerts around the country.
But Sō Percussion is too recent to actually have worked with Cage; he died in 1992.
“For percussionists, it’s kind of a dividing line — those who got to work with him, and those that didn’t,” Treuting said. “But we did get to know Merce Cunningham; several times we went over to the place where Merce lived with Cage.”
The year 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth. “The November performances of this program at Mondavi and at Stanford are our first times playing this program, which is titled ‘We Are All Going In Different Directions,’ ” Treuting said. “We’ll be playing this program a lot in the spring, including a concert at Carnegie Hall in March.”
The performances in the Mondavi Center’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre will be at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $37 general and $18.50 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787.
Saturday’s performance will be followed by a post-performance discussion with the artists. Sunday’s performance will be preceded by a 1 p.m. question-and-answer session with the artists, with pianist Lara Downes hosting both talks.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.