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Sō Percussion with Caroline Shaw

Photo of Sō Percussion with Caroline Shaw

So Percussion and Caroline Shaw come together to push music beyond its boundaries.

The creative roots and shoots of Pulitzer-winning composer, violinist, vocalist and producer Caroline Shaw and contemporary chamber innovators Sō Percussion have proved excitingly far-ranging over the years, across unconventional instrumentation and unconstrained styles. These New York-based artists have also connected and entwined in various enticing ways – having originally met as grad students at Yale, and then at Princeton, where Sō members (then performers-in-residence) presented a course on writing for percussion.

‘We designed a year-long experience where composers work through a number of playing techniques and instruments,’ recalls Sō’s Adam Sliwinski. ‘Caroline was enamoured of flowerpots, which became a motif she has employed in every piece we do together.’

Around five years ago, Sō asked Shaw to write a piece for them with the US soprano Dawn Upshaw, which became Narrow Sea: a gorgeously flowing, folky and hymnal five-part work, which would lend its title to a Grammy-winning 2021 release on Nonesuch Records; this collection would also feature an earlier Sō/Shaw collaboration, the unexpectedly stirring Taxidermy (which does indeed feature flowerpots). The recording process for Narrow Sea also gave rise to another batch of collaborative songs, and Shaw’s second widely acclaimed album of 2021: the richly earthy melodies and otherworldly ambience of Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part.

Tonight’s live performance reunites Sō Percussion (Sliwinski alongside bandmates Jason Treuting, Josh Quillen and Eric Cha-Beach) with Shaw, to embrace all the sonic possibilities of their collaborative material, in the atmospheric setting of Milton Court Concert Hall.

Shaw explains: ‘What I love about Sō is the curiosity about how objects make sounds and how they speak to each other. [There was an] underlying thread of thinking about what goes into soil, how we take care of it, how we allow it to be itself, how we contain it, and what can come out of it if you cultivate the right environment, which for me is always this wonderful metaphor for creativity and collaboration: let people be themselves and see what happens.’

Sō Percussion will also open the set with two contrasting examples of their collaborative works. Angélica Negrón’s absorbing, impulsive Gone (2018) and Go Back (2022) has a playful edge, with Sō incorporating Bricolo robotic instruments designed by Nick Yulman. Julia Wolfe’s Forbidden Love (2019) is a kind of serenade to stepping out of the box, described by Wolfe as ‘all the things you aren’t supposed to do to string instruments’.

‘The works on this concert represent some of the experiments we are most proud of over the last few years: Negrón’s robots, Wolfe’s modified string quartet, and Shaw’s song forms each extend the idea of what percussion can mean,’ enthuses Sliwinski. ‘Each also represents a deep collaboration – it would be impossible to imagine any of them arriving in the mail without an extensive process of development first.

‘Julia invented an entirely new vocabulary of sounds and gestures on string instruments with us together in the room, involving bowing with string, playing with thimbles, and both drawing and striking with chopsticks. Angélica’s robots perform precisely timed actions that coincide with what we play. Caroline’s Narrow Sea was workshopped extensively before the final version, and our album Let the Soil Play its Simple Part was co-composed.’

Numerous beguiling details unfold within these sound worlds. Let The Soil… combines original lyrics with the yearning expressions of 18th-century spirituals, excerpts from James Joyce’s 1922 literary opus Ulysses (on The Flood Is Following Me), and perhaps most surprisingly, a heady retake of ABBA’s 1980 Scandi-pop stormer Lay All Your Love On Me: here stripped back to a strangely timeless, emotionally raw choral.

‘Each of us created a duet with Caroline for Let the Soil… and for mine we decided – it was her idea – to take ABBA’s Lay All Your Love… eliminate the verses, slow it way down, and somehow make a medieval motet for voice and marimba.,’ says Sliwinski. ‘It was the weirdest and most unexpected adaptation, and until I heard it all together in the studio I couldn’t even tell if it was working or not. It turned out to be successful, and it creates kind of a lynchpin for the middle of the set of that music that I am extremely proud of.’

Shaw has described this reinterpretation as ‘really a Bach chorale’, adding: ‘Also, the idea of someone singing: “Don’t go wasting your emotion/ Lay all your love on me/ Don’t go sharing your devotion/ Lay all your love on me” over and over again very slowly, there’s a certain tragedy in it. And then Adam did some absolutely exquisite layering that built this stunning world from the marimba.’

These collaborative sparks should prove particularly vivid throughout a set that reflects deep-rooted rapport and boundless vision, as Sliwinski says: ‘The magic we have together comes out of the place where her incredible intuition for harmony, melody, and words meets with our rhythmic cycles. A number of songs on Let the Soil, like our opening song ‘To the Sky’, consist of exactly that: Jason’s patterning creates a bed of propulsion, on top of which Caroline’s melodies, vocoder harmonies, and text choices soar.’

© Arwa Haider

Programme and performers

Angélica Negrón Gone
Go Back
Julia Wolfe Forbidden Love
Caroline Shaw Selections from Narrow Sea
Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion Selections from Let the Soil Play its Simple Part

Sō Percussion
Joshua Quillen
Adam Sliwinski
Eric Cha-Beach
Jason Treuting
Caroline Shaw vocals

Song texts

Artist biographies