Collaboration Nation: Interview with Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion
“Each night is very different, depending on if it is a noisy addition like a blacksmith or a furniture maker or if it is an intimate addition like a cartoonist or a potter.”
This year FringeArts welcomes back Sō Percussion to the Fringe Festival, having last seen them here as participants in the Bang on a Can Marathon at World Café Live in the 2010 Festival. This year, thanks to the generous support of The Pew Center Arts & Heritage, they are bringing Where (we) Live, a wild composition about experimentation, collaboration, and how our homes influence our personalities. Dance, theater, and video artists as well as guest artisans—a violinmaker, a metalworker, a brewmaster—join Sō Percussion to add unpredictable layers of sound and imagery. We caught up with band member Jason Treuting a couple months ago to find out how Where (we) Live came together. Here are some of the highlights of that interview.
FringeArts: Why the title Where (we) Live?
Jason Treuting: We started with these ideas about what made thriving neighborhoods and communities, mostly Jane Jacobs’s ideas of successful communities and we began to look at our own “homes” in that way. We began to think about how we could look at our artistic home in that way, in a more inclusive way. And we began experimenting to see what would make sense in an evening. It took off from there, but the working title stuck.
Jason Treuting: This one took a long time, with many roadblocks and interesting side roads and such. The first idea was to explore a fifth element. We often did this with video at first and we got away from this type of interaction with video over the course of the development. But we definitely kept the idea of adding new elements to our process and each collaborator that was folded in [to be] folded in a different way.
FringeArts: Tell us about your main collaborators.
The songs with Grey McMurray happened a bit at a time and relatively organically. He was in the room with the four of us a lot from the beginning and we would try things out and see where they went and how they developed when we revisited them weeks later. We would come in with scraps of lyrics to try or we would work at his place recording some ideas for songs and tweaking in that way. Though I think we got to a new process with him, he is a collaborator with a long history and things work really organically in that way. He can do so many things.
We had also worked Martin Schmidt a bunch through an ongoing collaboration with his duo, Matmos. We had worked some with his videos in that context . In this project, his video work evolved from being performance-type videos with him in them, which were really fun to work with but didn’t fit the direction of this project, to being video of an ambient nature. He spent an afternoon in each of our apartments/houses and all the video comes from that source material. He has a special eye and so whenever things start to seem like home video, they quickly snap back in to a quirkier world.
This is the first time we’ve worked with Emily Johnson. She also sent videos at first and this got the ball rolling, but what ended up being the working method started as a wild goose chase of sorts. We were interested in her vocabulary in her choreography with her dancers and we thought that maybe some pieces where she gave instructions could be interesting. The first time we tried it, we were working in Maine and she was at home in Minneapolis. So she would text us instructions while we improvised or played pieces we were working on. It was an interesting and freeing experiment, but she couldn’t hear us and we couldn’t react to her in real time and it came off more Dada than we were going for. The end result with her has been amazing. She now sits on stage and takes things in and reacts and directs and prods.
Lastly, Ain Gordon directs the show and his role developed a little at a time, too. He was checking out music from the early stages and as we pieced this thing together he took on a more involved role or really sculpting the end result. His fingerprints are everywhere, but he has a light touch.
FringeArts: How has the show evolved since its first performance?
Jason Treuting: I would say the show has evolved a ton from the first time we put the music on stage. We would try things out in smaller, intimate venues along the way and I’m not sure you’d always recognize the pieces from the first times out to now. Big, big shifts in direction and reworking of text and music and concept along the way. But, from the premiere at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the structure of the show has stayed the same and held together. Within this structure, there are two big wild cards each night and I think that is where lots of the evolution has happened. With Emily’s role, we are all getting better and better at navigating that unknown in a graceful way. And in addition, each night a different guest from the town we are playing join us on stage. Often, this is a visual artist or crafts person. We’ve been able to explore lots of new territory depending on who is joining us. And each night is very different, depending on if it is a noisy addition like a blacksmith or a furniture maker or if it is an intimate addition like a cartoonist or a potter.
FringeArts: What do you look for in your collaborators?
Jason Treuting: In general, we look for collaborators that actually want to collaborate. Folks that have strong feelings but have a flexible approach as well. I think that is how we see ourselves. We have a strong aesthetic sense of who we are individually and collectively, but we get to this in many ways, through many means. When we commission composers, we look for that quality. And when we create with other people, we look for that, too. Grey and Emily, the two collaborators that are on stage with us, really capture this.
FringeArts: How is Where (we) Live a departure and/or continuation of So’s other work?
Jason Treuting: You know, I think when we started the project, we almost thought it was a bigger departure than I think it actually is. We talked a lot about getting out of our comfort zone to make something. We improvised more together and let the pieces have a looseness to them much longer than we have in the past. We explored lots more material for longer before we honed in on this material that makes the show. We headed directly for dead ends and searched for ways around them. But this is really all process stuff, not really the sound or the structure or the material. I think when I look back, though this piece has more moving parts, has text, both spoken by Josh and sung by Grey, and has an improvised feel at moments, I think it is actually a really logical continuation. To the point where many folks, folks I respect a ton, have thought of the work as Cagean in certain ways. We didn’t really view it in that way, but we were living in Cage’s world lots while we made this one, and I think it makes sense in that light too.
FringeArts: Is there something about being a group being percussion-based that allows you to explore more areas of performance?
Jason Treuting: I am not sure that we should have more liberty in that way than anyone else, but it feels like the music world we are working in is working a bit like that. I mean percussionists have always been the other in this classical tradition. In the experimental lineage we come from, Cage and Varese, percussion was noisy, raw and often became theatrical. And percussionists have never been beholder to playing just percussion instruments. So I think we feel a real freedom when we create. It is okay to jump and see where it takes us. Maybe the walls feel less sturdy around our box, but I really think that should or could go for all of us in this music world we are running in.
FringeArts: How have audiences been connecting to the work?
Jason Treuting: We have felt amazing so far. I think there is enough of a common ground in the material to give folks an in, but there is plenty of mystery, too, in a great way. When I talk with folks after the show, they ask plenty of questions about what the hell was happening on stage, but they are intrigued and really know the answers already. I think we built an inclusive show that an audience can take in on many levels. That was a goal of ours. As for surprises, really every night is surprising to us because this beast really changes every night with the guests and Emily Johnson’s role. I think we surprise each other as much as we surprise any audience.
Thanks Jason, looking forward to the show!
Where (we) Live
Sept 12, 13 + 14 at 9pm
Painted Bride Art Center
230 Vine Street
Git yer tickets here!