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So Percussion Taps into the Rhythms of Brattleboro and Bellows Falls

July 31, 2008

By Jon Potter, Brattleboro Reformer, Vt.

Jul. 31–MARLBORO — A strange noise comes from an old barn on Augur Hole Road, and a peek inside reveals its source.

Four guys are pounding on oil drums and metal pipes with mallets, and the racket is oppressive. A phoebe perched outside shares that view, voicing her displeasure with an insistent chirp that is almost, but not quite, in time with the rhythmic pounding from the barn.

Inside, is a seemingly random bunch of stuff that when viewed as a whole reveals much about what is actually going on. There are old tractors and tools, three drum sets, vibraphones, a turntable and high-tech recording equipment, old organ pipes, chains, blocks of wood, other industrial detritus and a strange construction that looks like a cross between a saw horse and playstructure.

It is in this barn that the worlds of art, agriculture, the industrial and the post-industrial are being parsed and blended into something new — the music at the heart of Southern Vermont’s hippest and most thoughtful summer happening.

Music for Trains chugs into the area for performances on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 8 and 9. A collaboration between the Vermont Performance Lab, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, the Brattleboro Music Center and the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, the project actually spanned several months and involved workshops, concerts, interviews, construction, composition, capped by So Percussion’s current three-week residency

in the area and the performances/

The result is the unveiling on Aug. 8-9 of a site-specific work that explores Brattleboro and Bellows Falls — the common ground that links the two towns, the distinct characteristics that shape them, the past and present, all tied together by the railroad tracks that connect them.

“In some ways, I think of this project as a tale of two cities,” said Sara Coffey of the Vermont Performance Lab.

To the consternation of that phoebe, and perhaps to the frogs, snakes, wasps and bats that also call the barn home, the four men of So Percussion have made that barn their studio and laboratory for the last two weeks.

There, the ideas, stories and sounds they have gathered in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls since the spring are being pounded like molten metal on an anvil into compositions.

“The barn is our funhouse, a candy shop for the kids that we are,” said So Percussion’s Adam Sliwinski.

To be sure, there is much about So’s work in the barn that is like a funhouse. There’s plenty of good-natured ribbing that goes on among its members, as they create music collaboratively. But the work here is a challenge for So Percussion, a real leap into new compositional and artistic territory.

“I think this is turning out to be one of the most eclectic shows you could ever have. We have never done anything like this, and that’s an exciting thing,” said Jason Treuting, a founding member of So Percussion in 1999.

It may be a leap into the unknown, but the members of So Percussion have embraced it and done it the right way — respectfully, with eyes, ears and souls wide open.

“We knew that our first impressions were going to be really naive. By no means did we think we had a read on the communities,” Sliwinski said.

“We do really realize what a joy it is to come into a community for a month. We also realize summing something up in a succinct way after four weeks isn’t really possible,” Treuting said.

In both communities, the transition over time from industry to something post-industrial was an idea So’s members latched onto and riffed on.

How that idea manifests itself in Music for Trains will be interesting to behold.

“The music that’s grown up in Bellows Falls does reflect that industrial feel. … The music that’s grown up around Brattleboro maybe reflects less industry and more people,” Treuting said.

That banging on the oil drum — that’s part of the Bellows Falls portion.

“The nostalgic vibe between the two places is reflected in the music,” adds So member Josh Quillen. “When you go to Bellows Falls, it’s right in front of you. The railyard is right there. … The way the music is shaping up, in Bellows Falls, the music is really industrial. … When you hit an oil drum with a croquet mallet, you know what it’s going to sound like.”

Some of Brattleboro’s music is different. So’s members took a great interest in the Estey Organ Co. and spent time at the museum talking with volunteers there. They borrowed old Estey Organ pipes and pieces.

On another visit to the barn, the boys weren’t banging on oil drums, but blowing into old Estey pipes, and the effect was mysterious and deeply personal, reflecting their encounters with the ghosts of Brattleboro’s industrial past.

“In Brattleboro, if you don’t know where the train station is, you wouldn’t be able to find it … the same goes for the Estey Organ Museum,” Quillen said.

But So’s members also found common ground between the towns, and their piece is as much about the similarities as differences.

“There’s a little bit of both towns in each,” Quillen said.

Whatever the music, So’s members hopes that the focus stays on the communities.

“It is really important that this project not be about us playing on train tracks,” Sliwinski said. “The exciting thing is that this project is site-specific and time-specific. The audience is going to experience something that’s about place and about time. This can’t be reproduced. It’s not mass culture.”

Along the lines of avoiding mass culture, there’s an interesting nexus between the aesthetics of the project and the materials being used. Many of the instruments So Percussion will be playing are made of found materials, everyday objects and industrial junk.

“There’s an analogy to that and the idea of communities going through growth and development.” Sliwinski said. “I do think that there’s something very beautiful to the of using what you find and reusing it.”

In Music for Trains, So will be performing on crude vibraphones made of metal tubes and wood, on old organ pipes, on some paper packing material they found in a freight car at the Bellows Falls railyard, on bicycle wheels, on chains, on musical greeting cards and tons of other stuff. They even composed the music on old packing boxes left in the barn. Many of the “instruments” are hung on that sawhorse/playstructure that local sculptor Ahren Ahrenholz built for them. The So guys call that “The Machine.”

“I just made a fencepostaphone,” Sliwinski said proudly — this from a guy who is about to earn his doctorate.

Even when they’ve had to buy stuff, they’ve adapted quickly to local mores. In other communities, they shop for materials in big box stores; here, they’ve become big Brown & Roberts fans.

Music for Trains is not just about found objects; there’s a high-tech element. The performances will also involve recorded voice samples, looped sounds, MP3s and video installations and projections in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls. That too, speaks to where communities in transition are headed.

The merging of aesthetics and materials is picked up again in the sheer working of the event.

On Aug. 8 and 9, the event will begin at the train station in Brattleboro, where audience members will board Amtrak’s Vermonter, due at 5:20 p.m., and listen to an MP3 of music titled “Northbound” So has composed as a soundtrack to the ride up.

When the train arrives in Bellows Falls, riders can enjoy a picnic supper and video by Jenise Treuting. At 7 p.m., So will perform in Bellows Falls at the train depot. Then, riders will move to the Waypoint Center in Bellows Falls and take a Connecticut River Transit bus back to Brattleboro. On the bus, riders can listen to a different composition “Southbound,” as they travel to Brattleboro. Once there, there’s a 9 p.m. concert and video project at the Brattleboro train station. When that’s done, there’s transportation back to Bellows Falls for those who need it.

At all times, the project uses existing transportation providers and routes. No extra trips were needed. Infrastructure meets aesthetics.

“We’re tapping into existing routes,” said Coffey, acknowledging that that comes with the risk of delays that occasionally occur in normal operations. “The whole thing is a gigantic chance operation.”

“Adventurists” can join the excursion at any time and take part for any length. The Bellows Falls performance should be particularly good for kids.

“I think the brilliance of this project is the full ride, where you can have the experience of piecing it together,” Quillen said. “We hope that as many people as possible take that whole trip.”

Tickets are available at www.musicfortrains.com or by calling 802-579-3766. There are several price levels to choose from. The full ride includes admission to three performances, transportation between venues, custom-made Playaway and a picnic dinner for $40. The Full Ride Deluxe includes reserved seating and an After Party pass for $50. The Bellows Falls Local or the Brattleboro Local ticket for the concert only is $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

Aside from the four major collaborative partners, the project is made possible with the support of town officials in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls and officials from Vermont Rail Systems, Amtrak and the Vermont Department of Transportation.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Brattleboro Reformer, Vt.

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