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Sandbox Percussion engages with music community online

by Phoebe Liu, Yale Daily News

Most classical chamber musicians are certain of at least one thing: the instruments they play.

For example, string quartet performances often feature two violins, a viola and a cello. It would contradict convention for a violinist to suddenly switch to cello. Percussion quartets — like Sandbox Percussion — heed no such expectation. Percussionists play dozens of instruments, ranging from snare drum and marimba to sandpaper and flowerpots, sometimes all in a single piece of music. Composers who write music for percussionists know of their adaptability and ability to quickly learn new instruments.

On Sunday, March 29, Sandbox Percussion — a New York City-based quartet of Yale alumni comprised of members Jonathan Allen MUS ’13 ’14, Victor Caccese MUS ’13, Ian Rosenbaum MUS ’10 ’11 and Terry Sweeney MUS ’15 — began its series of weekly livestreamed events. They livestreamed the session using Zoom and their YouTube channel.

Sandbox’s name is inspired by the honest image of children playing together in a sandbox. According to Caccese, this reflects the group’s desire to “come together for a common purpose.”

Sandbox loves to commission new works and collaborate with composers in the compositional process. After the quartet placed a public call for scores on their website and social media accounts, composers of all backgrounds and skill levels submitted 80 scores. The quartet said they want to use this project to explore new repertoire for percussion quartet, and they hope to engage with a larger range of composers than is often possible in typical commission-to-performance collaborations.

As concerts for spring 2020 were cancelled due to public gathering concerns associated with the coronavirus outbreak, the quartet wanted to continue bringing people together for a common purpose — inviting people into their metaphorical sandbox. The quartet calls these virtual conversation-based sessions “Sandbox Sundays.” This past Sunday, the quartet planned to livestream a performance of some of the original compositions submitted after their public call.

Rosenbaum said that the group “thought the project would be a really fun way to meet composers” and to service a community of composers unable to see their music premiered due to social distancing measures.

Sandbox Sundays started several years ago, when the ensemble did not live together and could not rehearse every day. The group would rehearse for 12 hours a week — all day, all on Sundays. After their rehearsal, they would stay at the home they rehearsed in and spend time with one another. According to Allen, “anytime we would get together and hang out, focus on life and enjoy each other,” the group would call it Sandbox Sunday.

But, mere days before the quartet scheduled their score read-through, New York City issued a shelter-in-place mandate. Because the quartet’s members do not live together, they could not rehearse the scores together, and the program needed to change. So, for their inaugural livestreamed Sandbox Sunday, they instead discussed aspects of percussion composition in a question-and-answer format.

“Like so many others right now, besides talking to each other and the people we live with, we don’t have a lot of [human] connection,” Rosenbaum said. “It was cool to spend an hour and a half with a group of people, and feel like we were engaging socially in a way that we always would in our normal lives.” 

Social isolation policies have prevented even small ensembles from rehearsing. The canceling of concerts and gigs has — and will continue to — hurt musicians who earn much of their income from concert ticket sales. Sandbox Percussion falls into both of these categories. Allen noted that, although “you can’t say that a pandemic is targeting anybody,” it “sure felt like” the pandemic was targeting gig-based workers and small businesses.

According to the quartet members, their concert revenue has decreased to “more or less zero” for the months of March and April. Since nobody knows how long these shelter-in-place mandates will last, the quartet altered its budget and has reached out to potential donor communities to alleviate its economic pressures.

“It’s on the front of everyone’s mind,” Rosenbaum said. “We’re exploring our options. It’s also true that [the stimulus bill] Congress passed last week can help organizations like us, which could be wonderful, too.”

With performances and rehearsal time stripped from their daily schedules, musicians have turned to different means of engaging with music, ranging from not touching their instruments at all to practicing six hours a day. Some have used the time affluence to work on fundamentals and technique drills, while others have focused on new repertoire and creative projects.

“But we should think about, as musicians, what is our purpose?” said Rosenbaum. “We spend most of our lives on stage trying to connect with people and give them an emotional experience. Maybe there’s some creative way to do that now, and if that means holding an internet discussion series with people, that’s cool. If it means making funny videos or podcasts, that’s cool, too. Whatever it happens to be, whatever you think you can do, I think it’s great.”

In Sandbox Percussion’s 90-minute conversation, they spoke about what stands out to them in percussion compositions. According to Sweeney, the group was struck by the variety and imagination in the scores that they received — the pieces explored sounds, textures and techniques innovative even to an already boundary-breaking ensemble.

Percussion pieces often involve sounds that stretch the limits of Western art music’s notation standards. One of Sandbox’s close collaborators, composer and percussionist Jason Treuting, has written music notated with words and numbers — not the typical staff and noteheads.

“Depending on whether the letter was a vowel or consonant, you played an eighth note or dotted quarter note,” Rosenbaum said. He found that when Treuting notated with standard notation, the piece was more difficult to play. He decided to learn Treuting’s translation system in order to perform the piece.

One composer owned a cardboard cello and used a pencil to mark finger placements needed to create certain pitches. Another composer held four pencils, two in each hand, to simulate the motions of a marimba player with four mallets. Another used household items to mimic how the percussion instruments would be arranged on stage in order for performers to reach all necessary instruments.

“When I imagine Beethoven [composing], I don’t think about him slaving over whether his parts are idiomatic or not,” Allen said. “You kind of imagine that he’s just in his mind-cave conceiving of music and then writing it down. But it’s not actually true. These composers had an intimate understanding of the instruments they were writing for.”

Sandbox Percussion has engaged in several other projects during this period of social isolation. On Friday, they performed in a 24-hour livestreamed concert, “Music Never Sleeps NYC.” Over the next few weeks, they will give virtual masterclasses on percussion playing at schools and conservatories across the country.

The increase of exclusively livestreamed concerts creates the opportunity to increase access to these concerts. Normally, an audience member would have to purchase a ticket and transportation. Even then, the audience is often unable to engage in direct dialogue with performers. During livestreamed events, performers like Sandbox Percussion are able to easily answer questions and respond to feedback in the live comment feed. 

Next week’s Sandbox Sunday will feature a conversation with Grammy-nominated composer Christopher Cerrone MUS ‘09 ‘14, who is currently collaborating with the ensemble on a new piece. The group hopes to use technology to play excerpts of music together in real time.

Sandbox Percussion members do not think the livestreaming will necessarily end along with the coronavirus crisis. They plan to continue their Sandbox Sunday series, even when they return to performing live concerts.

“People realize that much of the world has internet access,” Sweeney said. “We’re able to reach like a bigger audience, it’s good for classical music to adapt to a new situation like this. A livestreamed concert is a pretty different feeling than a real concert, but it’s like an opening of a door. It’s something we need.”

Sandbox Percussion released its most recent album, “And That One Too,” on Feb. 28.

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