So Percussion + Joshua Light Show — River to River Festival

A concert featuring So Percussion, to be accompanied by an improvised light show administered by a collective that provided "visual support" to the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and the Who—yup, that pedigree had me raring to go.

I knew So Percussion from an intimate concert given in a private setting in Maine about five years ago, but this performance differed from my memories. Joined by special guests, the quartet launched into discordant compositions that I found disconcerting, and I struggled to make sense of what I was hearing.

So Percussion, courtesy artists' website.

"What am I supposed to be thinking about while I listen?" I wondered. The music provided no melodies to follow, no cohesive arrangement per se. I found myself thinking that the term soundscapes might be more appropriate, that this was like sound mixing in real time. Experimental. The shifting shapes and colors on the backdrop were intriguing and beautiful, but I soon found them not varied enough to be a consuming spectacle; they were better interpreted as a background to the performance on stage. Where then was I to focus my attention?

Answers soon presented themselves. 1) Admire the graceful and complex configurations required to administer chords on a xylophone. Quiet movements deliberately placed, this entailed meditative action that seemed contemplative, mystical. 2) What intriguing instruments! How broad the interpretation of that word! At one point two of the musicians were pulling on long strings, and while I'm not sure what was happening or which sound it created, it certainly raised my curiosity. Rubbing fingers over bubble wrap stretched taut over a drum head produces an interesting sensation, aurally. (It is also oddly sensual to watch, but that's another story.)

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Taken as a whole, the sounds and visuals became somewhat immersive, though being seated to the side I couldn't help but wish for an IMAX-style wall, or a recessed stage and/or elevated screen for better visibility. I had the feeling of missing something. That said, my position meant I could see one of at least two computer screens displaying complex countdowns that led me to ponder time signatures. I wish these flashing numerals had been displayed on the screen; it was most engrossing. Ultimately I had to conclude that what I was hearing emerged from an incredibly complex system, or mathematical logorithms, or something; one performer took on the role of conductor and held up small pieces of paper—I could see that each bore a large letter—to orient the others to their place in the musical score.


Certain elements of the performance were charmingly raw, like when one musician held a microphone against his chest against what may have been a mbira. This caused muffled scraping noises reminiscent of amateur recordings. But these guys know their stuff. This was an intensely elaborate composition, however disjointed it may appear on the surface. Too bad that at one point it was interrupted by the inevitable cell phone ring.


Meanwhile, filaments traversed the screen like so many jellyfish, with jerky movements like those of organisms magnified beneath a microscope. Their texture mirrored that of the music; at times reminiscent of lava lamp blobs, at others inspiring comparisons to the opening sequences of James Bond films, or conjuring memories of the little ink-filled aquariums I played with as a kid (something like that shown below). At other moments the multilayered projections resembled the retinal scan you get at the optometrist, but hey. And, perhaps inevitably, I had to reflect on the similarities between this endeavor and the iTunes Visualizer thing.

In any case, before too long I was really enjoying myself. Yes, the parts I liked most were simply the bits where several people were drumming a lot, and one number—which actually had singing and lyrics—had all the trappings of a Flaming Lips song. The background really worked in concert with the music and, while I hate to be predictable in my tastes, that particular juncture in the program really worked for me.

The performance was weird, yes, but also weirdly hypnotic. And isn't that what art and the avant-garde are? You don't quite get it, but you know there's something there to be gotten… and when it ends, you're left thinking "Wow, what? I'm not sure… Cool."

So Percussion and the Joshua Light Show performed on July 13 at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, as the culminating event of the 2013 River to River Festival.

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