Somewhere along the line, Sō Percussion morphed into something of a pop band. Their first album (2004) was comprised of works by Bang on a Can co-founder David Lang and Friend of Can Evan Ziporyn. The next year, they released a recording of Steve Reich’s Drumming. More recently, they’ve been working with musical polyglot Caroline Shaw and, in 2021, released a wonderful digital recording of Julius Eastman’s Stay on It, with multiple guests and bright, (arguably) pop-leaning production. Their concert at 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side furthered what might be seen as pop leanings. If they’re still not precisely a pop band, they’ve certainly learned how to please a crowd – even while, at times, challenging expectations. 

Sō Percussion
© Joseph Sinnott

The concert opened with Sō Percussionist Eric Cha-Beach’s Four + Nine, tight counts on hand-held metal tubes reminiscent of Reich in its shifting complexities. It felt a bit like an exercise, but the contrast between muted taps and ringing chimes was rather nice. Given the stage full of instruments, it worked well as a small introduction. 

It was followed by a pair of songs from quartet member Jason Treuting’s suite Go Placidly with Haste, paired with a song by Iarla Ó Lionáird of Afro Celt Sound System and the more traditional Irish act, The Gloaming. He gave all three a rich and dramatic delivery. The shanty-like songs were played without a pause, strung together by a harmonium drone. 

Composer Bora Yoon joined the quartet for her The wonder that’s keeping the stars apart, inspired by e e cummings. The piece incorporated text (by Yoon and Jeff Dolven) but buried it under constantly shifting instrumental textures. Starting with small percussion and Tibetan bowls that called to mind Cage’s Inlets, the piece built with soft, vocal loops like the incantations of an enchantress. Voice filters and heavy beats, not to mention a waterphone and a Stroh violin, brought the piece into its own realm. It's not Yoon’s strongest work, but she has a way of instilling elegance into everything she does, and to that extent enticed. 

Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion
© Joseph Sinnott

It was a full and boisterous house for the first half, but the energy level only grew after the interval when Shaw and Sō walked out to perform their 2020 album Let the Soil Play its Simple Part. Singer and violinist Shaw is a member of the a cappella ensemble Roomful of Teeth, for whom she wrote Partita for 8 voices which famously made her the youngest ever to win a Pulitzer. Her Narrow Sea, recorded with Sō Percussion, won her a Grammy in 2022 and, the night after the 92NY concert, she picked up another – her fourth – for Evergreen, recorded with the Attacca Quartet. 

Let the Soil Play is a set of ten songs incorporating text by Shaw, James Joyce and poet Ann Carson. Parts could risk being all too clever – the words to the spiritual I’ll Fly Away set to a 12th-century plainchant, ABBA’s Lay All Your Love on Me reworked like a Bach chorale – but Shaw’s sincerity and pitch-perfect voice sold it. The strongest part of the performance was in the interlocking rhythms and layered voices in A Veil Awave Upon the Waves, Shaw’s setting of a selection from Ulysses. It wouldn’t sound out of place alongside, say, a song by Björk, but then the Icelandic singer’s latest album, ripe with reeds, strings and choral arrangements, shouldn’t be too easily dismissed. 

If Sō Percussion is a pop band, they’re a very good one. And with the National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, not to mention Billy Joel and Paul McCartney, challenging the rules of where composers must sit, maybe it doesn’t much matter. Maybe they’re just updating the art songs of Schubert and Debussy, with laptops and a little heart.