Currently on view in the Arts Council’s Taplin Gallery is Art and Music: Touching Sound –a collaboration between the visual artists of the Princeton Artists Alliance collective, and Mobius Percussion, a young artists ensemble. The works on display – paintings, drawings, and sculptures – all are inspired by Mobius’ performance of paper melodies (my music box music), by composer Jason Treuting, a member of the acclaimed ensemble Sō Percussion. The exhibit continues through October 24, 2020.
We had a chance to catch up with Jason to talk about music, family time, living in Princeton, and making art during these uncertain times.
Life in the time of COVID-19
Arts Council of Princeton: How has your life changed during the time of COVID-19?
Jason Treuting: Musical life has changed so drastically. So much of my work is playing concerts with my quartet, Sō Percussion. It has been a big shock and change to have that part of life pretty much shut down. But we have been finding new ways to be creative by collaborating in remote ways and teaching in that way as well, with a big emphasis on recording and being creative with that technology.
What did you find most difficult during the early months of this pandemic?
Realizing that I had really started to think about Sō as a live group that thrived in concerts, it was hard to change the way we thought about music. I am still longing to play music for people in the same room with a live audience, but it has also been wonderful to change that mindset and be creative again.
Did you discover or rediscover a skill or hobby during this time?
I became a teacher to my kids! That was new. My partner and I have always cooked a lot, but we dove into food in a big way, both cooking and growing!
How do you think the experience will change us as a society? Personally?
I think we need to learn from and keep the parts of this new time that will serve us well in the future and leave the rest behind. I think collaborating remotely on recordings and finding ways to be creative with people, regardless of distance, is something we should keep. Sō Percussions’ summer festival went remote this past July and there were many barriers that came down in that new format. It became accessible to people all over the world. Travel and housing costs were no longer prohibitive for students. We made music in new ways that also broke down some barriers. It feels like that should stay.
The idea of going back to normal after COVID, while it sounds appealing, doesn’t speak to me. The Black Lives Matter movement that has gained momentum during this time and has led to many great conversations in the musical communities that I am a part of. The absence of Black and brown voices in these communities – committing to programming music of Black voices, committing to partnerships with Black led organizations in our field, committing to bringing in Black voices to the administrations and boards of these groups, etc. – these are crucial and meaningful steps and ones that need to continue with energy and thoughtfulness.
How did you keep yourself production and positive during this time?
Family time means something different now in our house. My partner [violinist Beth Meyers] and I are musicians and that has meant crazy travel and work schedules that often means missing family dinners or bedtimes. COVID has meant that family dinners, bedtimes, movie nights, game nights, family band, etc. have been grounding in really meaningful ways. As for creativity, I am lucky to be a part of an organization that has managed to stay stable during this time and am lucky to teach at Princeton as a performer in residence and that has meant some financial stability. I have been reaching out to friends and making new things happen without worrying about the money involved. Quarantine has meant turning half of our bedroom into a studio and I can record drums and percussion and send tracks to friends and work on ideas of mine, or of theirs. That has been invigorating!
What do you look forward to when we are freely and safely able to gather again?
I love playing music for people together in rooms. Whether it is a bigger concert at Richardson Auditorium or a set at Small World or the Record Exchange. I can’t wait to play music for people again. I also love having BBQs or roasting s’mores around our firepit and look forward to hanging with bigger groups of friends soon.
Has it been a productive time for you as a composer?
It has been, in a weird way. Lots of the music I write is flexible and that has meant that it makes sense to play with limited means/instruments available. A set of music of mine called Amid the Noise has been getting played a lot in this moment, with my group and other groups doing video versions. In fact, one of the first creative things I did during quarantine was release a score of mine for a movement from Amid the Noise called “June‟ for free on Sō’s website. A couple dozen musicians made their own video versions of the piece and we catalogued them in a playlist on YouTube that is fun to check out. It’s called The June Project and has been awesome to see happen.
I have been writing some new music as well and getting together with groups via Zoom to workshop things. It is imperfect but also feels great to keep making things.
What’s your teaching schedule like now? Performance?
Teaching is weird at this moment. I am continuing to try to find the things that can work well in this moment and not try to recreate a normal class or lesson via Zoom. I teach percussionists at the Bard College Conservatory of Music and that has meant creative solutions to video lessons. Sō Percussion teaches a graduate composition seminar every third year and it is a yearlong project that ends with two concerts of new percussion quartet music in May. That has been tricky to figure out, but also fun to rework for this moment. Lots of teaching, less performance.
Sō does a monthly concert series called Brooklyn Bound and it has gone virtual. It features two or three other artists each night in addition to Sō and allows us to show off a 20 minute set of new things we are working on. We also have a WNYC New Sounds Live radio broadcast coming up that we are taping later in October, so some things seem to be starting to come back. But live music will be on the tail end of this recovery and acceptance of that seems to be the first step!
paper melodies (my music box music)
commissioned by Mobius Percussion
What percussion instruments are used in this piece?
paper melodies is in three parts and each part has a different instrument set up. The first is open to the performers to choose. Each players needs an instrument with pitches (percussion instruments like vibraphone or the marimba, etc). They also need unpitched noisier instruments and then instruments that they can play with their feet (like drum set kick drums or hi-hats or stomping on a tambourine). Mobius has chosen awesome sounds for this movement.
The second part focuses on drums with a sung drone and crotales (both are types of percussion instruments). If you were to see the group perform, they start off spread out around the stage or even around the audience and then they gather around one drum for the second half.
The last part is for hole punchers punching paper along with singing and some tuned desk bells. It ends with the players feeding the paper that they have punched through a music box to hear what the melody sounds like.
You’ve been called “the Paganini of the desk bells”, which are also used in paper melodies. Do you still incorporate desk bells into your work?
Ha. I can’t say I am the Paganini of the desk bells, because I don’t feel like I play them very virtuosically, but I have liked their sound. The first job I had in NYC when I moved there was teaching an afterschool music program for elementary school kids. We would make our own pieces with the instruments they had their and they had tuned desk bells and it was super fun to do! so…I suppose that has stuck.
Is the exhibit at the Arts Council of Princeton the first time a collective of visual artists have interpreted one of your music compositions?
It does seem like maybe the first time it has happened in this way. I am so excited about it.
The exchange of ideas between different art forms has always interested me and this project is really awesome in that way.
Interestingly, you are also a visual artist. Do you still create collages and have you ever exhibited them?
I love making visual art and it has mostly been something I do outside of the public zone. I used to be drawn to it because it was a judgement free zone for me, as opposed to the critique that would come with music as a professional. But as I have worked, it has made its way into my work as record covers or video projects. Recently, I have enjoyed live painting on newspaper projected during concerts and am working on a new piece like that. I hope that one will happen in Princeton in the not so distant future.
The New York Times said of Sō Percussion: “There are two ways to listen to this music: marvel at its ingenuity and structural intelligence, or simply close your eyes and let the hypnotically colorful sound envelop you.” Is that a fair assessment of the music performed by Sō Percussion and how do you listen to music? What are pieces by other composers (any genre) that you deem essential?
Yeah, that seems like a pretty fair assessment. I have always been drawn to music that can be enjoyed upon first listen and is intriguing on the surface, but then when it is explored deeper, it can also be enjoyed on deeper and deeper levels. I love David Lang’s music in this way. I also have reconnected with Keith Jarrett’s music. I went deep into his catalogue in my studies at college and love his work on multiple levels. So has been working with Caroline Shaw a lot recently and I find these multiple levels at play in her work as well. In dance, Susan Marshall is inspiring to me in this way and it has been awesome to be able to work with her! I love the way her dance looks and love learning more about the structures that inform them.
Living in Princeton
How long have you lived in Princeton?
I have lived in Princeton for seven years. I moved here for a fellowship through the Lewis Center for the Arts and fell in love. Moving from Brooklyn, Princeton has a slower pace and more green spaces but also has an active arts community made up of interesting people. It feels like the best of both worlds in that way.
What’s on the horizon for Sō Percussion?
We have a few albums coming out soon. I mentioned Caroline Shaw a moment ago and we have two albums of her music coming out soon. One is a piece she wrote for us and the soprano Dawn Upshaw, which is gorgeous! The other is a set of songs that we co-composed and are really excited about as well.
We also have a few commissions coming up that we will premiere virtually in the spring, including a few piece from Princeton-connected composers Kendall Williams and Bora Yoon along with a piece by Darian Thomas, an alum of our summer fest. These are flexible pieces that we will be able to premiere online and then take in to the real world when the world allows.
Are you all Zoom’d out?
I am! But I am trying to also appreciate it for what it is. I enjoy connecting with people and Zoom has helped. I am really feeling for my kids! Remote school is Zoom-tastic and they aren’t used to that long on a laptop. The teachers at Riverside Elementary School are amazing though and I really appreciate them. This seems like a time that we all need to be generous and understanding and realize that most of us are doing the best we can to get through this in a positive way. That has been my mantra.