Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood
John Cage: Child of Tree
John Cage: Third Construction
Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings
The genuine spring weather we had all been waiting for finally arrived in New York City yesterday, but that still did not keep my friend Angie and me from venturing to a still gritty part of Manhattan's Lower East Side and joining a sizable crowd in the pleasantly intimate Playhouse of the Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement as part of Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concerts series.
Fact is, it was hard to resist the promise of hearing the self-proclaimed "musical innovators, collaborators: Brooklyn-bred and globally minded" So Percussion perform a particularly exciting program featuring Steve Reich, John Cage and Bryce Dessner, which band member Jason Treuting rightly dubbed "New York Experimental Works from the 1940s, 1970s and our present time". And so it was.
The performance started with the unexpected sight of a young woman positioning herself front and middle of the cluttered stage and starting to impassibly beat on the woodblock she was holding, factually opening Steve Reich's "Music for Pieces of Wood". So Percussion's four members eventually joined her, one by one, each of them beating on their own woodblock according to their own patterns, and altogether the five musicians ended up creating a fascinating tapestry of sounds, which was both uncompromisingly minimalist and richly complex. It did not take long for the effect to become downright hypnotic, our minds slowly losing themselves as a subtly and constantly changing musical Web was expertly crafted before us for an indeterminate amount of time up to the impeccably timed ending.
The 1970s piece was followed by two works from the 1940s, during which So Percussion took us on John Cage's endless search for brand new, never thought of or little appreciated sounds that surround us. "Child of Tree" had Josh Quillen play on the spikes of a cactus, break down tree bark and otherwise create sounds from other organic elements for exactly eight minutes; "Third Construction" had the quartet play on all kinds of random things, from a conch shell, to kitchenware, to actual instruments and more, to create some highly purposeful but still unabashedly fun music. Obviously, one can always count on John Cage to keep the audience entertained, or at least intrigued, with the most unusual tools.
Back to the present with endlessly versatile Brooklynite Bryce Dessner’s "Music for Wood and Strings", we were first introduced to four amplified "chord sticks", which are odd combinations of hammer dulcimers and electric guitars, which would be played alongside woodblocks, snares and bass drums. The boldly innovative, inherently appealing composition consisted in various movements naturally transitioning from one to the other, regardless of the multiple changes in sounds, rhythms or moods, from mysterious ethereality to thundering rock ‘n’ roll, from electric modernity to classical rigor. In our days of too many futile gimmicks and pointless cross-overs, this refreshing and groovy trip brightly demonstrated that avant-garde experiments are not only still alive and well, but easily accessible and totally enjoyable too. And definitely worth staying inside on a beautiful spring afternoon for.