Andrew Choate on Green Umbrella

Photo by Andrew Choate.

Photo by Andrew Choate.

The Sō percussion ensemble originally commissioned David Lang’s “the so-called laws of nature” in 2002, and their physical familiarity with this elaborate composition made watching their performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall intensely visually captivating. The piece is divided into three sections, and the four performers gradually moved further and further away from the audience to access their respective percussion stations. The first section focussed on the sound of mallets on a thin wood plank, and each performer looked like they were playing ping pong with themselves, bouncing sounds back and forth on the plank. A syncing and de-syncing of rotating patterns gave me the impression of the sound of corrugation, or a jug full of water gurgling over. I found the actual tone of the mallet on the wood to be a semi-shrill clatter, like when you drop a long piece of wood, or a couple of 2x4s stacked poorly fall on their side. But that harshness dissipated almost instantly, lasting only for the duration of the split second of the strike.

Because this music depends on the patterns and speed of the music, and less on variety of tone, hearing wood over and over again felt like listening to a kind of sawing, like something might break in half before it was over. Not knowing what was to come, I started imagining these patterns on different materials like rubber, cloth, metal, fur, bullets, bushes, ozone.

And then the first part was over, and the musicians took a couple steps back, turned their bodies 90°, and started playing similar patterns on some sort of metallic tubes. I again found the blast from the initial strike harsh, almost emotionally flinch-worthy, and yet this time the ringing dissipations were even warmer to my ears, timbrally and psychologically, possibly as contrasting relief from the attack.

My favorite moment was when an incredible sequence of single notes played by each member oscillated from side to side of the stage, increasing and decreasing from half-times and full-times and double-times in hypnotizing fashion. Every part of my body was involved in listening at that point and the richness of the simplicity had me totally transfixed. Unfortunately, the tension and satisfaction of that sequence ended and was replaced by standard drum rolls and the resolution of the tension I felt never flourished, it was just disrupted, like when a dog barks, breaking the momentum during sex.

I don’t know exactly what kind of material was being struck in the third section, but every sound was deeply pleasing and the vision of all the musical gestures required to make the sounds was so compelling that I absorbed this part as choreography. The musicians had turned back 90° to face the audience straight ahead again, with clusters of colorful bowls and cups lined up in front of each one, like a table setting. (The bowls had such a soft purr that they may have been made of clay or ceramic.) Holding thin sticks that looked like chopsticks, and moving to touch little cups at the front of each place setting, then swinging to circle and stir something at the back of the table conjured images of cooking and eating, like dipping a sandwich in au jus or shaking pepper on a potato. I internalized the rhythm of a nice meal with lots of people––strangers and friends––and with lots of things happening with hands and mouths and sensations and so many things to be unconscious about. You can’t control digestion with rationality.

The other piece in the concert was Michael Gordon’s “Timber”, an hour-long percussion piece for six performers playing six 2x4s of various lengths and contact microphones. I invited a friend to attend this concert with me, as she had helped coordinate a performance of this piece a few years ago at MASS MoCA, and was excited to hear it again. Unfortunately for both of us, we were disappointed and not engaged with this performance. This reaction seemed to be not uncommon, as I have never seen so many people walk out of a concert before in my life; at least 30-40 left.

My problem was with the amplification. In a piece ostensibly investigating the sonic properties of wood, I kept hearing blurry, muddied, over-reverbed electronic mush. Strangely, that mushy hum sounded choral, like chanting waifs with protruding giant bellies, deep voices, and no necks. That tonal quality was distressingly distracting, as the crescendoes and diminuendos were lost in a murky, droney web. I tried focussing on the patterns and rhythms, and honed in on a sequence that sounded like a wave breaking in slow motion, which was wonderful, and wished I didn’t have to fight the background hum so hard to make it out.

The musicians always perform this piece in a circle, and my friend Sara told me that the audience was also in a circle around the performers in the version she saw, and that sitting in that formation, and in close proximity to the musicians, allowed you to hear and feel the movement of the music much more tangibly: how it sweeps from high to low, and how it switches from one person to the next in a spiraling vortex of poly-rhythmicality. I can imagine how meditative this piece could be with the electronics removed or adjusted, but the closest I came to a revelation was the vision of a snake’s vertebral skeleton as biological domino clusters about to be toppled: tim-ber!


Andrew Choate is the author of “Too Many Times I See Every Thing Just The Way It Is” (Residual Press, PRB Editions), “Langquage Makes Plastic of the Body” (Palm Press) and “Stingray Clapping” (Insert Blanc Press). His next book, “Learning,” will be published by Writ Large Press in 2015.  His most recent piece of music writing was about the 2014 Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen. He is the host of The Unwrinkled Ear radio show on KCHUNG every other Tuesday from 5-7pm PST. He is currently working on a book investigating writing as landscape, which will combine his “Horizon Poems” with his bollard photographs.

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