So Percussion, Playing Pipes Bought for A Song The Brooklyn-based ensemble So Percussion improvises instruments from materials found at Home Depot and other sources associated more with plumbing supplies than with the performing arts. A distinctive sound emerges.



So Percussion, Playing Pipes Bought for A Song

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(Soundbite of music)


The angelic tune you're hearing might remind you of notes from dainty hand bells. Remember that old English song about the flowers, the white choral bells, the lilies of the valley, how you wish you could hear them ring? Maybe they'd sound like this. But the actual source of these notes couldn't be grittier. The sound is reverberating through a loft studio set amid streets called Ash And Box in the still manufacturing, still dock-loading part of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And the notes are coming from a young guy hitting a bunch of aluminum pipes he picked up only that morning from Home Depot.

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LYDEN: Meet a young musical trio called So Percussion. Adam Sliwinski is the baby at 26, then there is the rangy Jason Treuting, and the moptop Lawson White, both 29. The three came together at the Yale School of Music. They studied classical music, minimalism, jazz, they love country-western. Lawson's father was a studio drummer in Nashville and Lawson's done that too. But what they do now as So Percussion is drum a lot of different things in very interesting ways and they build their own things to drum. Boys and their toys. And they have a toy box, a huge wooden red one containing a lot of percussive gear.

They also have traditional snares, kettles, timpani and so forth. What they really enjoy though are their do-it-yourself instruments. So almost every week it's off to Home Depot in Queens, and today aluminum pipes and a pipe-cutting blade are on the shopping list.

(Soundbite of So Percussion shopping)

LYDEN: The members of So Percussion got their name not from, hey man, it's so percussive, but from the Japanese character that means to perform. Jason is fascinated with all things Japanese. His older sister lives and makes films in Japan and has been a huge inspiration in his life. Standing at the Home Depot checkout counter Lawson explains how the group not only experiments by building their own instruments but also how they collaborate with modern composers who seem to trust them a lot when they choose their material.

Mr. LAWSON WHITE (Member of So Percussion): Actually, most of the people we work with trust us in a way and we'll be like, you know, we want something metal and something wood and something...

Unidentified Male: Something something.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. So then we can kind of work out, you know , and that's what will make the piece always different from one group to the next or one generation to the next is, you know, they've put their time into making the music good, not being super controlled about you should use, you know, a number 14 (unintelligible) wood block with a, you know, (unintelligible) number four red stick, because it's so limited in a way.

But this is like, this is a party. We can do whatever we want. It's going to sound really new to everybody; the composer is going to hear new stuff in it. We're always learning from having to solve this problem. But yeah, that's probably the (unintelligible) about that.

LYDEN: A few years back the group went on a hardware shopping trip for the composition So Called Laws of Nature, written by a composer named David Lang. Lang is a founder of the experimental musical collective in New York called Bang On A Can. Adam describes how the composer and the musicians came together.

Mr. ADAM SLIWINSKI (Member of So Percussion): That was a piece where he wrote a whole bunch of cool music and then kind of came to us and said, you know, I want some unusual sounds, I want you to try to come up with some stuff that, you know, we're not used to hearing, and we're like, I don't know, you can use flower pots. He was like, okay, perfect. He wrote this music and was kind of like, So you guys, you know, come up with it, like come up with the flower pots.

So we definitely kind of camped out here for a little while trying to find the right flower pots and getting a lot of the same kind of puzzled looks that we're getting right now from people.

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LYDEN: This is the third movement of So Called Laws of Nature. You're hearing So Percussion performing it.

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LYDEN: Back in the studio, Adam arranges the pieces of the 12-foot aluminum pipes now cut to foot and a half lengths or less into something similar to a Vibraphone(ph) keyboard. The band may tune the pipes to a C-major scale, a standard do-re-mi octave.

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LYDEN: Like soldiers, ball players or race car drivers, these musicians come from those who have practiced the art and science before them, Mom and Dad. We mentioned Lawson's dad, who played drums behind artists like Sonny James and Ernest Tubb. Adam is the son of two singers who encouraged him. Jason though started playing the drums on a dare. A neighbor kept a raggedy rained-upon drum kit in his back yard and Jason wanted it. His dad told him that if he could track down that neighbor's phone number the drum kit was his. He was in third grade. As graduate students at the Yale School of Music, the trio memorized complicated percussion pieces by artists such as John Cage involving cowbells, conch shells and Native American rattles. Hey, they said, this is cool. We could put on a show in the real world.

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LYDEN: So after graduation they built their own studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as well as their own instruments. Jason Treuting is now adding some flourishes to what we'll call the Home Depot Pipe-a-phone. Small metal chains are draped over the pipes we've bought, cut and tuned, and crumbled aluminum foil is stuffed inside them. Why? Lawson explains.

Mr. WHITE: Distortion. It's very similar to distortion in an electric guitar or something, but similar to what distortion does to electric guitar, this does to these instruments. You hear other harmonic tunes, so it's not only like a bzzzzzhhh sound, but then you start to, you know, it complicates the pitch.

Unidentified Man: Let's do it and see if it works.

(Soundbite of pipes)

Mr. WHITE: Really pure pipe sound.

(Soundbite of pipes)

Mr. WHITE: You get the kind of weird thing at the end, yeah.

LYDEN: Who would have thunk it?

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LYDEN: Now it's time to hear if the Pipe-a-phone works magic. The band is putting the finishing touches on their forthcoming CD. They've already recorded part of the music on toy pianos and African thumb pianos. Adam stands before the Pipe-a-phone, drumsticks in hand to lay down its tracks over the pre-recorded stuff. The pressure is on. He alternates his focus between the Pipe-a-phone and the score with the intensity of a maestro. The score consists entirely of numbers, no notes. His eyes intent, he hammers away at the Pipe-a-phone.

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Mr. WHITE: Jason, did you (unintelligible) middle section with that?

Mr. TREUTING: No problem.

LYDEN: The title of their CD in progress, Amid the Noise, comes from the 1952 Max Ehrmann poem, Desiderata, the poem that began, Go placidly amid the noise and haste. It used to hang on the wall in many American households in the 1960's and then it seemed to vanish like the 1960's. By the way, the second line of the poem is, Remember what peace there may be in silence.

(Soundbite of drums)

LYDEN: Once Adam finishes with the album tracks, Lawson White invites everyone to climb the winding staircase to his recording lair to demonstrate what he's tracked and mixed so far. He's producing this CD himself.

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Mr. WHITE: I'll have to edit that. That's when we just punched in and Adam made a mistake so we went back and made it punch, and so the big hole you just heard is just an edit that I haven't done yet.

LYDEN: Who wants to answer this question? What do you think people look for when they come to a So concert?

Mr. SLIWINSKI: I love having people come up afterwards and say, I had no idea what this was going to be. I wasn't even that excited about it because percussion, what do you mean a whole percussion concert? Who does a whole percussion concert? But then if they got something out of it or if they liked the new sounds they heard from the instruments or they liked the music or the performance, I mean that I think is one of my favorite experiences.

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LYDEN: Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting and Lawson White are the members of So Percussion. Later this spring the group performs with the New York City Ballet and performs works by contemporary composers Steve Reich and David Lang in Moscow and St. Peterburg. So Percussion's next CD, Amid the Noise, is scheduled to be released in September on Cantaloupe Music. This piece was produced by Elaine Hindsmen. The engineer was Maja Suba(ph). For pictures from our shopping trip and studio session with So Percussion, plus tracks from the band's previous CD, visit our Web site This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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