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Sometimes music is the only thing that can help. Sō Percussion and Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden) gave a regenerative concert in Baldwin Auditorium, presented by Duke Performances as the first half of a Shara Nova doubleheader (she performed at Motorco the following night with her band, My Brightest Diamond). Everyone knows that drumming affects the heartbeat; Sō Percussion makes you know the complex rhythms of life with your whole body. I swear I could feel my DNA shimmying in every cell.
The program opened with a thrilling rendition of Steve Reich's famous Music for Pieces of Wood. Five players, who came on stage one at a time, beat out the three rhythms that crested and changeed until they all came around to completion. The wood claves the percussionists tapped have particular pitches (A, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, and D-sharp one octave higher), so the beats were not the only thing. Watching the musicians make this music was very much like watching dancers moving to a score by Reich. There was all that exquisitely timed entering and leaving, the precise weaving and alternating, the unison, the almost unbelievable dramatic tension in a pure abstraction. It was so much more absorbing watching the music being made than merely hearing it. Because Sō Percussion is a quartet, its members – Josh Quillen, Jason Treuting, Eric Cha-Beach and Adam Sliwinski – were joined by Eric Willie, who directs percussion studies at UNC-G. Willie, who was actually the first musician onstage for the work, told me that he had played with Sō Percussion before, and that of course he already knew the piece (this is not a work you could fake), but that it still took a combination of extreme focus on one's own clave and mallet, and a hyper-awareness of the other percussionists and the cycle of the beats. The music pulls the listener into the same kind of state. There was no room for errant thoughts, and what a blessing that was.
The program made a beautiful segue, with the second work being Music for Wood and Strings, by Bryce Dessner. The quartet played a nice-sized excerpt, but I wish they had played the whole piece – and so did rest of the "small but mighty" audience, who gave it a roaring ovation. It is played on specially made instruments, designed by the composer and the instrument maker Aron Sanchez. They are a cross between an electric guitar and a hammered dulcimer, amplified, with eight double-course strings on solid wood bodies. The musician can play individual strings or groups of strings, and can generate harmony, melody, and droning sounds, with fingers, mallets or bows. (Their mallets were new pencils, with the eraser ends wrapped in moleskin to create a soft tip.) There were an alto, two tenors and a bass, plus a bass drum, a wood block and a big ridged tin can, used to play this piece. The range of sounds they made was astonishing, and the playing went from the most delicate plucking, to soul-melting harmonies, to regular hammered dulcimer sounds, to absolute thrash music. The composition was vitality made audible. Many people flocked to the stage apron after the piece ended and as intermission began, to marvel at the instruments, which the quartet kindly explained in loving detail before they were taken off the stage, leaving only an arc of xylophones, vibraphones, keyboards with electronica, multiple drum kits of several sizes, a humongous bass drum, a giant gong, and Nova's glittering guitar.
Sō Percussion and protean Nova collaborated to make Timeline, in which her songs and singing are supported and wrapped in glorious orchestral percussion music as their stories progress along life's arcing cycle. Nova's voice is so gorgeous and pliable that sometimes I simply had to let it pour into me and let the words slip by. But the smart, kind, words were audible: the balance between the instruments and the voice was nearly perfect. Nova's a very interesting composer and a strong lyricist; her sincerity bulwarks her musical virtues. She is also simply a fantastic performer. To see her jamming all rock 'n' roll on her sparkling guitar while that operatic voice soars up from the soles of her red sneakers – it was marvelous. But there was something very moving and reassuring about seeing her delicate form and bold spirit within the warm curve of percussion and percussionists, who ranged around behind her playing all the many instruments, getting all the hearts in the room beating together in the circle of sound.