“My kid could do that.” It’s the stereotypical comment of the Philistine to contemporary art — like the paintings of Jackson Pollock, or the music of John Cage. The best response to that is usually, “Let’s see” — whereupon, it becomes clear that a kid cannot, in fact, do that. Pollock’s virtuosic loopy drips and splashes dominate the canvas in a way an untrained hand can’t emulate. And Cage’s chance processes and juxtaposed phenomena have a kind of ascetic purity that’s a far cry from getting up on stage and doing whatever the hell you want.
So Percussion certainly knows this — in theory. The quartet has been working with Cage’s music for most of its 15-year existence. Yet “Where (we) Live,” the evening-length performance piece they brought to the Atlas Theater Saturday night, showed that they haven’t quite gotten the distinction in practice. Their John Cage tribute here in 2012 was an exciting, joyful event that intertwined Cage pieces with contemporary work to a full and receptive house. But Saturday’s concert consisted of sophomoric ramblings, played — sadly or mercifully — to only a handful of people.
The idea was reasonable enough: Create a scrapbook collection of performance interactions generated by musicians, video artists, songwriters, choreographers and other creatives centering on the theme of home. Home, in the case of So Percussion, is Brooklyn, a locale particularly well-represented these days by this kind of artistic conglomerate.
On the stage was a collection of what one might term workspaces. Seven artists — the four players of So Percussion, as well as the guitarist/vocalist Grey McMurray, the choreographer Emily Johnson and the “interdisciplinary” artist Krista Caballero — were set up in his or her area, with his or her tools: a drum kit or a piano or a desk or, in Caballero’s case, a largish tree branch, which she spent the entire performance wrapping tightly in neon orange yarn. (The piece is conceived to involve different artists at different performances; at the Brooklyn premiere in 2012, a ceramicist threw pots.)
The evening opened with invocations of the idea of home intoned by Josh Quillen, a member of the group who sports a “Duck Dynasty”- style beard and a sonorous voice that soothingly instigated the audience to think about their own homes, and what the term has meant to them in the past. Around the stage, deliberately makeshift video screens offered an array of images: now a door opening; now a stove’s gas burner turned on and off; now a bicycle wheel turning — all with various more or less explicit connections to the theme.
The musicians offered layers of sound, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes gentle, sometimes a straightforward song or solo for a single instrument. Johnson, at a desk, listened and wrote things on pieces of paper, which she eventually began delivering to the players, moving across the stage with the authority of purpose.
In short: A lot was going on. But though it was as impenetrable as Cage’s work in some ways, it was far less inscrutable — and this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Cage’s rigorous focus on process tends to eliminate or discourage individual personality, so that the process becomes the focus of the work. In this piece, though, the meditations got personal in a way that felt less revelatory than self-indulgent. Once the personal becomes the focus, you are left evaluating the work in part on personalities, on the statement of the texts as well as their sound. And when the texts are, for instance, a dialogue between Quillen and McMurray about whether their parents had spanked them — or an extended repetition of the line “Thank you for letting me know there are people out there that get you better than you ever thought you could be got” — what was evoked was less an overarching meditation on home than the atmosphere of a high-school band.
Was banality the whole point? Is the concept of home linked to archetypal childhood notions that we never quite displace? Is that why the five musical performers were male, and the two women on stage were relegated to quasi-domestic, artisanal roles, writing and crafting and supporting the work of the players, the silent mommies? Was the occasional frantic pacing around the stage a statement of aimlessness?
I tried all evening, to find an excitement in the wide array of things presented to me, the way that I find it in Cage’s work, and found it in this same ensemble’s wonderful performances at their previous concert. But ultimately, the sense that this performance gave me about home was a desire to return to it as fast as possible.