So Percussion Fights Tragedy With Empathy


The members of Brooklyn’s So Percussion all vividly recall the day in 2012 when news broke of the shooting at Sandy Hook. As they loaded out of their rehearsal space, in preparation for a series of performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, their phones lit up with alerts about the killing of twenty children and six adults at the Connecticut elementary school. “You remember big moments like Columbine, but this felt different,” says the ensemble’s co-founder, Jason Treuting. He thought about his young daughter and her soon-to-be-born sister; Adam Sliwinski, another member of the quartet, realized his stepson was the same age as the victims. “For [the next] year,” Treuting continues, “this is what we were digging into: What could we do to feel less helpless?”

Four years later, the musicians are returning to BAM with their answer. A Gun Show, which runs November 30 to December 3, combines music, movement, storytelling, and projections to dissect America’s obsession with firearms. But despite its divisive subject, the piece is not a polemic. “We didn’t want to make a show that was just like, ‘Guns are bad!’ ” says So’s Eric Cha-Beach. Instead of preaching their own progressive views or offering solutions, the quartet seek to complicate the way BAM’s presumably like-minded audience thinks about guns.

The experimentally inclined ensemble regularly repurposes everyday items, like wine bottles and flowerpots, as percussion instruments. Here that tendency turns sinister: A Gun Show finds three-quarters of So taking drumsticks to Russian sniper rifle parts as onscreen text explains how easy it is to buy them online. “The two starting points were the materials and the numbers and patterns,” Cha-Beach explains.

Some of those patterns are rhythms based on statistics about gun violence. At one point, text projected onto the screen at the back of the stage reveals that an unusual 3-1-5-1-3 rhythm (the musicians play three notes, rest for one beat, and so on) is a reference to the 31,513 lives guns claimed across the U.S. in 2010, the last year for which statistics were available when So Percussion were composing the music. Sliwinski writes, in a book accompanying the show, that this “disorienting” meter never allows listeners’ ears to adjust — unlike our quick acceptance of years of similarly grim numbers. To underline the point, performers periodically read from a live feed of gunshots reported around the country during the show; by the end of each hour-long performance, there are dozens.

Most of the collaborators went into the project with minimal exposure to gun culture, so they began by testing their own prejudices. Of the six artists who conceived A Gun Show, including choreographer Emily Johnson and director Ain Gordon, only Johnson and So’s Josh Quillen had shot a gun before. So, early in development, the rest visited a range in northern New Jersey. “My stereotype was that it was going to be [full of] redneck white folks,” says Treuting, but he ended up learning gun safety from a black Revolutionary War re-enactor. A trip to Vermont taught them that not every hunter supports the NRA, and when they visited a hunting store there, the clerks met them with suspicion, says Cha-Beach: “[They seemed to be wondering,] Who are these guys with horn-rimmed glasses asking me questions about buying a gun?

The artists who did grow up around firearms, like Johnson, had to have difficult conversations with loved ones about the project. “My dad was a hunter, and I would do target practice with him,” she says. “We had a gun cabinet. It was locked. In other homes in the area where I grew up, [guns] were just out. I didn’t feel safe, even then.”

Johnson’s upbringing informs one of the show’s most haunting moments: Speaking in unison, she and Quillen tell a story that jumbles scenes from their rural childhoods into a violent hallucination. While the music of A Gun Show alternates between somber minimalism, frustrated cacophony, and stiff, military-style rhythms that evoke the battlefield histories of drums and cymbals, this surreal storytelling is a complement to Johnson’s uneasy, sleepwalking choreography. She wanted to capture the exhaustion and queasiness mass shootings provoke — “how bodies physically mourn, individually and collectively, as every incident happens.” The movements draw attention to breath, reminding the audience that the core of this controversy is human lives — and the power to end  them.

A Gun Show isn’t strident, but it is impassioned. Although the show offers no solutions to the epidemic of gun violence, it resonates as a plea for communication and empathy. “There are people who feel unsafe around guns, and there are people who feel unsafe without a gun nearby to protect them. Those perspectives are mutually exclusive, but [all of] those people can authentically feel the way they feel,” says Cha-Beach. “Everybody deserves to feel safe, but we all have to compromise to feel safe together.”