“neither Anvil nor Pulley,” the new record from omnivorous new-music quartet So Percussion and composer, instrument inventor and Princeton professor Dan Trueman, explores the relationship between man and machine in the digital age. As cold and calculated as that may be in concept, in execution it's an intriguing juxtaposiiton of the organic and synthetic that stands among So Percussion's most accessible and powerful efforts to date.
In the liner notes, Trueman writes: "Unlike the anvil or the pulley, the computer hides its purpose." In a fittingly transparent move, the physical package of "neither Anvil nor Pulley" includes tools used to generate the music, giving the listeners the opportunity to take control of the technology. While the music itself is only available via digital download, different packages include the speaker driver used to create feedback on the bass drum during one of the movements, and a tether controller with software used toward the end of 120 bmp.
A third option includes a recycled vinyl LP—the anti-digital listening medium of choice—taken from the dollar bin of a used record store. An adhesive tape design on one side represents the ratio of a Springar rhythm, an asymmetrical device taken from Norwegian and Swedish fiddle traditions (another nod to pre-digital artistic expression) used in the album's final movement. On the other side is an itunes download card for the actual audio files.
Then there's the music itself. The record never lacks the intimacy and emotive charge of human touch, while exploring electronically-generated colors and textures. Trueman’s own performance role on the album is an apt illustration of that duality. He never plays “live” with the percussionists—rather, his cameos are made, in a very meta fashion, as a vinyl recording of the composer playing a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.
During Feedback [in Which a Famous Bach Prelude Becomes Ill-Tempered], interwined hand percussion and drum machines emerge from a dystopian hum of feedback. Similarly, on 120 bmp [or What is your Metronome Thinking] woodblocks go in and out of phase with a digital metronome while reversed metallic sounds and bass drum punctuate the sonic periphery.
The record closes with the emotionally poignant Hang Dog Springar [a Slow Dance]. So Percussion accompanies a vinyl recording of Trueman’s fiddle with cymbals, vibes and steel drums. Charged with a reflective and uncomfortable tinge of nostalgia, it's both the sound of the future and of the past; the decay of the analog medium embedded in the primal, human sound of live percussion, and delivered in the digital-audio language of Is and Os.
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