This city is a percussive dream. Here’s a sampling of sounds harvested in ten minutes’ sidewalk idling: heels clicking in intricate cross-rhythms; a jackhammer fitfully laying waste to a curb; the sigh of a bus’s doors; the subway’s scraping brakes heard through a grate; the sloppy chant of a woman handing out free newspapers; eddies of conversation in Spanish, Bangla, and Creole; an aviary of ringtones; and, of course, the ceaseless wash of traffic. It’s as rich and raucous as a rainforest at dawn.
Composers occasionally try to domesticate this urban counterpoint—think of Gershwin’s car horns in An American in Paris, or Steve Reich’s street recordings turned into his 1995 City Life. The virtuosic quartet So Percussion is the latest to harness the city’s cacophony with Imaginary City, a panoramic fantasia that feels puny compared to its vast source. At the New York premiere, bam’s stage was strewn with a tag sale’s worth of noisemakers: cans, pebbles, a child’s pop-up toy, miniature keyboards, electric pencil sharpeners, all of which become orchestral instruments. The piece managed to steer mostly clear of cliché, but it did drift into wan comedy. Two players desperately stacked pipes and paint cans that kept clanking to the stage; a third (named Jason Treuting) viciously attacked a washboard; and the fourth tried to console him by coaxing members of the audience into yelling “I love you, Jason.” The episode, like many others, was not so much tough and trenchant as arbitrary and vague.
The pairing of sprightly music with Jenise Treuting’s video meditation on rail yards, subway stations, and empty streets reminded me of Pare Lorentz’s 1939 documentary The City, a lovely bit of agitprop, with an Aaron Copland score, that pushed the virtues of suburban living as an antidote to urban misery and grime. In Imaginary City, the usually phenomenal So Percussion attempts a paean to a megalopolis’s clangor that comes out sounding disappointingly tame, even a bit, well … suburban.