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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Gun Show—Weaponized Instruments

Photo: Stephanie Berger
By Christian Barclay

An abstract exploration of a visceral issue, Sō Percussion’s A Gun Show (Harvey Theater, Nov 30—Dec 3) uses music, text, and movement to explore America’s relationship with guns. The collective’s signature use of unconventional percussive objects––in this case, a decommissioned Russian army rifle––enrich the compositions and reflect the ensemble’s sonic associations with American gun culture, ranging from militaristic rhythms to mournful blues.

After the jump, Sō Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski discusses the catalyst for the show and the complexities of exploring a multi-faceted issue through music.

Christian Barclay: What was it about the issue of gun control and gun rights that stood out to you as a subject for exploration?

Adam Sliwinski: After Sandy Hook, we were all devastated. My stepson was exactly the age of those children from Newtown, and there was something about that shooting that just pierced you when you heard about it. We’ve long been interested in the idea of art as a response to social issues. Perhaps not a responsive action––and definitely not a substitute for action––but more of a way to process our humanity. We realized that it wasn’t just these dramatic mass shootings that brought the gun issue out. The culture itself was saturated with their use and imagery.

We’ve all had different experiences with guns. Some of us, like Josh [Quillen, of Sō Collective] or Emily [Johnson, choreographer], grew up in rural areas where they are commonplace. Others, such as me, grew up mostly in suburbs where they really weren’t present. My views on guns were formed mostly as political views. I never had that human-object relationship with a gun that many others have, or that I have with one of my musical instruments.

CB: How are percussion instruments uniquely suited for the subject matter?

AS: The primary symbolic importance of percussion in our performance is that many percussion instruments were originally designed to facilitate violence––snare drums, cymbals, and timpani were all military instruments. After a delicate opening in which a quiet piece for snare drums is performed with the drums removed from our hands, the entire ensemble begins a Bolero-like accumulation of drum patterns that clearly references gun and cannon fire. Our “chorus” of eight percussionists returns to this role periodically throughout the show.

Photo: Stephanie Berger
CB: In composing the piece, how did you balance the more literal representations of guns with the more symbolic?

AS: One of the constant compositional elements in the piece would be difficult to discern from hearing the piece. In the year for which we had most recent data, the number of gun deaths in the United States was 31,513. This number stuck in our imaginations, and many of the percussion pieces in A Gun Show are literal soundings of this pattern. It creates an off-balance meter of 13, which rarely allows us to play in a squarely satisfying groove. We’re constantly kept off balance and constantly reminded of this number.

Some of the music symbolically represents an issue that orbits around gun culture. Several times throughout the show, our chorus sings the iconic blues chord progression (I, IV, I, V, IV, I). This is a nod to the fact that gun culture in America is inescapably tied to its history of oppression through enslavement. The weary hopefulness of Afro-American diaspora music has had a profound influence on us, although we try very hard to be respectful and not appropriative of that influence.

CB: Music often taps into emotions or concepts that are otherwise hard to convey through words. Why do you think this is?

AS: Ludwig Wittgenstein has a very famous quote, the last axiom in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” But three axioms previous to that one, he reaches towards what music can do: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”

I think part of the purpose of poetry is to use words to reach underneath their sense, into the inexpressible. Music exists on this level by default. Some of the pieces of music in our show don’t necessarily make clear statements about guns or gun violence. Rather they might reflect preoccupations, impressions, or states of mind that the issue produces in us.

A Gun Show plays the BAM Harvey Theater Nov 30—Dec 3, and tickets are still available.

Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

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