There they were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the So Percussion ensemble performing on a jumble of ripcord-rigged electronics, marching band instruments, and homemade percussion, with software, inventions, and compositions provided by Princeton University Professor of Music Dan Trueman. But what is it? An unholy alliance of Max MSP, country fiddle, bastardized bass drum, vibraphones, and laptops, So Percussion’s Trueman-composed performance art confused while it entertained, awakening the inner gearnerd of everyone in attendance. And far from knowing-it-all, So Percussion seem as delightfully bewildered as anyone.
“We’re a percussion quartet and we’ve played John Cage’s music using drums and tin cans,” explains So Percussion’s Josh Quillen. “There are no tricks to that; what you see is what you hear. We’re used to that world. But as soon as we got Dan’s instruments in the mix— now here’s an instrument I have no idea how to fix if it breaks down live! Rehearsals felt like we were circling the drain because it was so frustrating with these new instruments. But Dan doesn’t get freaked out when a computer crashes; that is his instrument.”
Scenes from Neither Anvil Nor Pulley. A four-piece ensemble of Yale University grads that has collaborated with the crème de la crème of percussion-oriented composers including Steve Reich, Paul Lansky, and Arvo Pärt, So Percussion partnered with nutty professor Trueman on Neither Anvil nor Pulley (Canteloupe), their second project together. Fellow percussionists Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Eric Beach emanated a placid resistance performing Trueman’s music onstage at the June Met performance celebrating the release, concentrating furiously as they maneuvered such instrumental challenges as “Wallpaper,” “120 bpm (or What Is Your Metronome Thinking?)” and “Feedback (In Which A Famous Bach Prelude Becomes Ill Tempered).”
Silences turned to squealing feedback, tick-tock metronomes blipped against cruising fiddle tunes, pastoral vibraphone arpeggios arced against booming bass-drum beats. It was all too much to decipher or easily grasp. What was seen wasn’t necessarily heard. It was symphonic sweet, but sonic-boom heavy.
And the instruments were as devious as the music: Along with the obvious stuff made for banging, each So Percussion-ist stood before a small table that held two metal pipes; a small record player; a PreSonus FireBox; a laptop (running Max MSP, ChucK, and Ms. Pinky applications); a woodblock that “beeped” an electronic metronome; Trueman’s “Tether controller,” which was played by pulling its long strings into the air; a Coke bottle; a controller keyboard; mallets; a drum machine; and in the center of it all, a concert bass drum with another Trueman invention, the “speaker driver,” attached to its skins.
“The woodblock triggers a contact mic that speaks to an electronic metronome in ChucK,” Quillen explains. “We’d strike the woodblock and the metronome beeped at 120 bpm. Every time we hit the woodblock, it reset the metronome. The metal pipes are cut to different lengths and pitches; they also had contact mics. When we struck them, the sound was recorded, processed, and pitch-shifted differently depending on the program preset. Dan’s ‘Tether Controller,’ a repurposed video game controller, holds two samples: piano and fiddle. When we pulled the Tethers from the base, it would sample, stop, and freeze a part of the sample and loop it. We can move the Tethers independently to sweep across the samples. We can also control vibrato and volume with the Tethers. The record player plays a fiddle tune (performed by Trueman) using Ms. Pinky via Max; it’s basically a record with timecode on it. You can load any sample or recording into Ms Pinky. The timecode on the record sounds like you are playing a record.”
So Percussion (left to right)— Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, Eric Beach, and Josh Quillen. Trueman’s toys were played simultaneously with the percussion instruments, making it impossible to know the origin of any one sound. And if even you knew, you still wouldn’t know. But Professor Trueman does.
“The group wanted something involving laptops,” Trueman explains from Princeton University. “I didn’t want samples playing or a pre-recorded track, but something physically engaging, which drummers need. After the performance, they were all dripping with sweat and I thought, ‘This is good!’”
How did So Percussion manage playing Trueman’s inventions alongside their standard instrumentation and laptops? “Dan explained that all of the sounds in the program are delayed in such a way that they always land on something,” Quillen says. “We had to become familiar with that delay to know where to place the notes. At first we had a problem dialing in the Tethers because they were super loud. We devised a monitoring system so we could turn things down. We played the piece for two years before Dan told us there was a volume knob on the program! The slider wasn’t labeled. Dan!”
Dan Trueman Trueman’s first invention, which originated with his first “band,” the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (a.k.a. PLOrk), was the electronic metronome. “I created the metronome instrument with ChucK,” Trueman explains. “It’s a language that was created by Ge Wang, the co-founder of Smule. I use ChucK in all of my work now. It’s different than Max because it’s text-based. It looks more like old-fashioned programming language, whereas with Max you drag objects around and connect them via graphical patch cords.”
Then the cryptic “Tether controller,” which sounds like something used with a zip line, but which produces a Theremin-like gracefulness. “The Tether strings go out about 12 feet so you can use your whole body to manipulate the sound,” Trueman says. “It basically allows you to freeze-frame a sample the way you would through a film. We’ve got a spectral analysis of one sound in each hand, and as you pull the Tether, it goes through the spectral analysis and resynthesizes the sample based on where you have located the cursor. You locate the cursor by pulling the Tether in and out. All the way out and you’re at the beginning of the sample and as you release it, it goes toward the end of the sample. So you could play the sample beginning to end as you might normally hear it. But you can also go very slowly, you can go backward and forward, you can freeze it. The samples change over the course of the piece to produce different chords by hitting a foot pedal.”
Trueman’s most primitive invention is the “speaker driver,” which smacks of a cheap toy found in the back pages of a 1950s sci-fi comic book next to exploding cigars and fart bombs.
“It’s a stick-on speaker that you attach to anything you want to make vibrate,” Trueman reveals. “I put one on each side of this concert bass drum so it became a speaker. Then instead of playing the bass drum with drumsticks, they used microphones. The mics are fed into the laptop where they are filtered with a program I wrote in ChucK. The filtering limits the feedback to particular pitches. So each skin on the drum can feedback at a particular note and the notes change over the course of the piece. So instead of wild feedback, you’ve got feedback that changes pitches, based on the notes from a Bach Chorale.”
Besides teaching music at Princeton, Trueman also founded the (occasionally) 45-member strong Princeton Laptop Orchestra, which sounds a little cutesy, but served its purpose. It set the stage for So Percussion’s magical MET performance.
“In the Laptop Orchestra,” Trueman explains, “each player has a hemispherical speaker coming out of the laptop. The speaker is omnidirectional, filling the room with sound. So each player in the laptop orchestra is a source of sound in the same way as an orchestral musician. It’s great to make music with computers in kind of an old-fashioned way.”
Currently developing a “prepared digital piano” which he also describes as a “piano gone haywire,” Trueman is a man out of time, one foot in tomorrow’s software, the other in yesterday’s folk music.
“I have my fiddles on the wall and if something I have created with the laptop isn’t as fun as playing fiddle, then I lose interest,” Trueman laughs. “The acoustic instruments are the litmus test. I am drawn to this notion of finding out which machines can be made in the computer and how we can interact with them in musical ways.”
Ken Micallef is freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. His work has appeared in many publications, and a few of them still exist, including DownBeat, eMusic, and Modern Drummer.