So Percussion has been creating some of the most interesting percussion-based music for more than a decade now and this disc, on which the group performs Steve Mackey’s It Is Time, serves as a prime example/reminder of this fact. The five-movement composition finds Mackey incorporating many of his compositional hallmarks — rhythmic motifs that evolve in parallel fashion but never drift far enough away that they become a tangle of noise, plus his strong sense of the hauntingly melodic and an uncompromising and relentless immediacy.
Mackey has indicated that part of his inspiration for the piece was becoming a father later in life and feeling “saddened by the immutability of time and the finite limits of how much of it I will be able to spend with my young family”. The other inspiration came from African poet Isaac Maliya’s “Time is Time”, which suggested to the composer a “terse melody that became a dominant lyrical element in the piece”.
The ensemble features Eric Beach on metronome with delay, as well as pump organ, bells, china cymbal, and various percussive implements, Josh Quillen on steel drums, Adam Sliwinski on marimba and Jason Treuting on drums. Each player has a movement that allows his particular skills to come to the fore. The metronome-driven introduction serves as a reminder that rhythm and time are the core of the piece with melodic sounds hovering in the ether, sounding like a distant train that blinks on the aural horizon before making way for Beach to display his skills on the various objects at hand.
Quillen’s movement traverses from melancholic to absurd to a conclusion rather than a resolution, leaving the listener still hanging for the next line, the next utterance of the conversation, which comes in the form of the foreboding opening passages of the third movement, the gloriously glacial “Marimba”, which finds Sliwinski exploring the full range of beauty which that instrument possesses. At eight minutes, “Drums” may be one of the more aurally unsettling moments of the record as rhythm travels in dissonant directions as we feel time itself changing.
So percussion has become something of an “it” ensemble in recent years, tackling Steve Reich’s Drumming and collaborating with the musical prescient Matmos — dig the 2010 release Treasure State — among others. While So Percussion may not be the most outré, the most fashionable, or the most likely to perform on Good Morning America, it’s one of the most entertaining ensembles working in new music today. Watching the 36-minute or so DVD that accompanies this CD and features the collective tackling It Is Time for the cameras is proof positive of that. Viewers can choose between 5.1 and regular stereo. Either way, the full aural/visual experience is highly recommended.
Here’s hoping that So Percussion remains with us for a long time to come and that the group keeps expanding our horizons as it relates to composition and percussion, whether banging out the new or banging in the old.