Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, co-composed by Sō Percussion and Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw, who is making her solo vocal debut with this piece, will launch on the West Coast on April 20 at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Soil takes on the role of a metaphor for creativity and collaboration. Expect the harmonic stylings of Shaw interwoven with the spirited rhythms of the percussion quartet. The musicians then head south for gigs at UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures (Campbell Hall) on April 21 and Santa Monica’s BroadStage on April 22.
Shaw had been a pupil in the first class Sō Percussion members Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting taught to composers at Princeton. Treuting recalls Shaw was in class when it was announced she had received the 2013 Pulitzer for her composition Partita for Eight Voices. The seeds of Let the Soil began years later, during a recording session for the album Narrow Sea, when Treuting said the quartet and Shaw discovered a kinetic musical synergy, like “lightning striking in the bottle,” that led them to anticipate collaborating again.
“There’s a kind of playfulness with the way we try to approach our instruments,” said Treuting. “This idea for Caroline of working with the soil and her organic trusting way in the world and way with other musicians — those are ideas that she’s tilled for a long time. It speaks to me of Sō’s approach to experimentation.”
Over three days in the studio, the bones of Let the Soil came together in duos between Sō Percussion and Shaw, including the song “Long Ago We Counted,” a conversation between drum kit and voice that works as a giant loop, giving space for going from mayhem to meaning. The title track, a duo between Shaw and Quillen on steel drum, came together in an hour — chords, lyrics, performance — for a number that Treuting describes as another “lightning-in-a-bottle” moment, as some of the other tracks evolved later, outside of the studio. Other influences on Let the Soil include a Bach-inspired ABBA song, plainchant, a poem by Anne Carson, and James Joyce.
Treuting describes Sliwinski as a literature hound and jokes that before he discovered Kindle the band members used to call his backpack “the Library of Congress” because he would cart around “80 pounds of books.” Sliwinski had been reading Joyce’s Ulysses and brought phrases to be untangled into the Let the Soil studio time. Each member of the quartet brought snippets of ideas as prompts informing the music on the album.
“When you put seeds in the ground, you do your part, and then you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. You’re in control for part of it, and then you cede ground,” said Treuting. “With Caroline, it’s a trust in the collaboration of putting some ideas in the room but then not knowing where the process needs to go and being open to what that path is.”
Following Thursday’s performance of Let the Soil at Zellerbach, Treuting’s communal music-making project, Amid the Noise, will welcome local musicians onto the stage. With flexible instrumentation, akin to Terry Riley’s In C, Amid the Noise embodies the mood of a given concert’s participating instruments while its compositional spirit stays intact. In the past, performances have included a variety of percussionists. In Berkeley, the piece will feature pianists, string players, and a clarinetist.