When the fellas from So Percussion were looking for a name – before they were So Percussion, that is – they were informed by a friend that in Japanese, the word “So” means “to play.” However, that succinct definition didn’t specify exactly what is to be played, so the members of So, a percussion quartet featuring a handful of Eastman School of Music alumni, improvised a bit.

“Our stuff is all acoustic, mostly home-made instruments,” co-founder and current Eastman doctoral student Douglas Perkins remarked. “Many of the items we got from Home Depot,” he continued, describing the assortment of hand-picked pipes, blocks and tea cups, as well as several other eclectic percussive targets that the group employed.

Clearly, this is not your standard radio fare.

Founded in 1999 at Yale, the ensemble – which is comprised of Perkins, Eastman alumni Jason Treuting and Lawson White, and Adam Sliwinski – quickly made a name for itself, receiving praise in the New York Times after just a handful of appearances. Though the idea of chamber music may seem to lend itself to an older audience, Perkins said that their music is also intended for a younger crowd.

“We never claimed to try and be a pop act, but I think that what we do is relevant and that we can connect to people our age,” he said.

As one way of connecting with that audience, So performed at Eastman two weeks ago, initiating a moderate crowd into the percussion world. Performing with accomplished marimbist Tom Burritt, the band moved seamlessly among a garage sale of percussive instruments, exceeding expectations with the melodies coming from tools that would otherwise be rubbish.

Based on slight rhythmic changes and nuanced patterns, a So Percussion show is not for the musically disinclined or the impatient. Their performance at Eastman ran over an hour and a half, with nearly two-thirds of that time dedicated to the three movements of the band’s flagship “The So-Called Laws of Nature,” a piece written specifically for them by composer David Lang.

With each of the three sections dedicated to a different percussive medium – metals, woods and ceramics – So demonstrated the breadth of instrumentation available to the resourceful percussionist, doing so with an impressive level of precision. Unfortunately, the song isn’t on the group’s Web site, but a variety of others are, as is a schedule of upcoming shows.

The stop in Rochester was one of many such performances that So has lined up over the coming months. Already in the past weeks the band has, in addition to their appearance at Eastman, traveled between New York, Baltimore, Cleveland and Louisville, the last of which was home of the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, at which So was invited to perform. The road tripping shows no sign of relenting either, with both a CD release and a nationwide tour planned for 2004.

Meanwhile, while the other band members pursue interests of their own, Perkins will continue to squeeze in the percussion lessons he teaches at Eastman – a point of which he’s clearly quite proud, laughing “we’re all so pleased to be affiliated with Eastman,” and brandishing his best spokesman’s grin – a grin that, at this rate, he best get used to flashing.

Janowitz can be reached at njanowitz@campustimes.org.

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