COLOR THEORY: PRISM Quartet and Sō Percussion

PRISM — dubbed “one of America’s finest saxophone quartets for three decades” by The New Yorker — partners with the groundbreaking Sō Percussion to present new works combining saxophones with a breathtaking range of percussion instruments.


Color Theory is a music project inspired by science and the visual arts. In the 1670s, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the origin of color by shining a beam of light through a prism, splitting it into the colors of a rainbow. Throughout the centuries, visual artists have developed a body of knowledge (color theory) about mixing pigments to create color combinations that provoke powerful emotional responses. PRISM and Sō, in their first-ever collaboration, are using the idea of “color” as a framework to explore the spectra that make up instrumental sound and pioneer new possibilities of orchestration.

The program includes the jazz/rock-influenced “Blue Notes and Other Clashes” by Steven Mackey and a new arrangement of Donnacha Dennehy’s “The Pale.” Mackey, who previously composed masterful works for both ensembles separately, created the first octet combining saxophone and percussion quartets. In his program notes, Mackey describes “Blue Notes” as a search for “unusual hues” and “fascination with the right wrong notes – the note that hurts so good” to achieve “some sort of crippled grace, and rough beauty.” Dennehy’s work is a musical imagining of the area encompassing Dublin called the Pale, where British rule was at its strongest in the 14th century. According to Dennehy, “they even protected this area with ditches and fences to keep the barbarous, thuggish Irish out—the great unwashed were, as the phrase became, ‘beyond the pale.’” Also on the program: Sō performs Suzanne Farrin’s “A Diamond in a Square,” and PRISM performs “Night Music” by Emma O’Halloran, “Tarnish” by Nina C. Young, and “Fearful Symmetries,” by John Adams, arr. Tim McAllister.

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Behind-the-scenes photos: concert
Behind-the-scenes photos: recording session

Blue Notes and Other Clashes (2016) by Steven Mackey (b. 1956)
PRISM Quartet and So Percussion

The Pale (2003/16) by Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970)
PRISM Quartet and So Percussion

Fearful Symmetries (1988) by John Adams (b. 1947), arr. Tim McAllister+
PRISM Quartet

Tarnish (2019) by Nina C. Young (b. 1984)
PRISM Quartet

Night Music (2014) by Emma O’Halloran (b. 1985)+
PRISM Quartet

A Diamond in a Square (2019) by Suzanne Farin (b. 1976)
So Percussion

Original support for Color Theory was provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Additional support came from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature; the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University; New Music USA; the National Endowment for the Arts; and Conn-Selmer, Inc.

  • Steven Mackey

  • Suzanne Farrin

  • Donnacha Dennehy

  • Nina C. Young

    Nina C. Young

  • John Adams

  • Emma O'Halloran

  • Timothy McAllister, Zach Shemon, and Josh Quillen

  • Matthew Levy, Taimur Sullivan, and Jason Treuting





So Percussion

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Through a mix of consummate skill and quirky charm, this mercurial quartet has helped to ignite an explosive new enthusiasm for percussion music old and new. –The New York Times

For over a decade, Sō Percussion has redefined the modern percussion ensemble as a flexible, omnivorous entity, pushing its voice to the forefront of American musical culture. Praised by The New Yorker for their “exhilarating blend of precision and anarchy, rigor and bedlam,” Sō’s adventurous spirit is written into the DNA passed down from composers like John Cage and Steve Reich, as well as from pioneering ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and Nexus Percussion. Sō Percussion’s career now encompasses 16 albums, touring throughout the USA and around the world, a dizzying array of collaborative projects, several ambitious educational programs, and a steady output of their own music.

Program Notes

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Steven Mackey: Blue Notes and Other Clashes A common thread running through my musical life has been a fascination with the right wrong notes. This is true for me as an electric guitar player, bending blue notes, and as a...

Steven Mackey: Blue Notes and Other Clashes

A common thread running through my musical life has been a fascination with the right wrong notes. This is true for me as an electric guitar player, bending blue notes, and as a concert music composer seeking more unusual hues. I am drawn to the note that subtly bends my ears or snaps them to attention – the note that hurts so good. Writing the right wrong note is not exclusively and act of harmony. There is a whole spectrum of wrongitude that could paint an event with a pronounced color. Blue Notes and Other Clashes employs – off-kilter rhythms, peculiar orchestrations and quirky formal designs, as well as pitch bends, microtonal fingerings, detuned steel pans, ambiguously (un)pitched percussion and the corruption of otherwise simple harmonic contexts in order to achieve some sort of crippled grace, and rough beauty. – S.M.

Steven Mackey was born in 1956, to American parents stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. He is regarded as one of the leading composers of his generation and has composed for orchestra, chamber ensembles, dance and opera. He has received numerous awards including a Grammy in 2012. His first musical passion was playing the electric guitar in rock bands based in northern California.  He blazed a trail in the 1980s and ’90s by including the electric guitar and vernacular music influence in his concert music and he regularly performs his own work, including two electric guitar concertos and numerous solo and chamber works. He is also active as an improvising musician and performs with his band, Big Farm. He serves on the faculty of Princeton University.

Donnacha Dennehy: The Pale

The “Pale” was the area encompassing Dublin and its environs where British rule was at its strongest in the 14th century. In fact they even protected this area with ditches and fences to keep the barbarous, thuggish Irish out – the great unwashed were, as the phrase became, “beyond the pale.” I wanted to write obsequious, fawning music to glorify the wisdom of our great and holy leaders in their attempts to build new Pales for the twenty first century. With healthy bounding major chords and stirring marches I could in my own small way honor their omnipotence and visionary leadership. However like the original Pale I failed. Well, at least, only 700 years later, things are starting to work out. This piece may fawn more 700 years from now too. – D.D.

Born in Dublin in 1970, Donnacha Dennehy has received commissions from today’s leading new music artists and ensembles, including Dawn Upshaw, the Kronos Quartet, Bang On A Can, Lucilin (Luxembourg), Orkest de Ereprijs (Netherlands), RTE National Symphony Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, BBC Ulster Orchestra and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. He has collaborated with writers Enda Walsh and Colm Tóibín, choreographers Yoshiko Chuma and Shobana Jeyasingh, and the visual artist John Gerrard.  He is the founder of Ireland’s renowned new music group Crash Ensemble, and serves on the faculty of Princeton University.

John Adams: Fearful Symmetries

PRISM member Timothy McAllister has arranged an excerpt of John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries. Adams composed the work for orchestra in 1988, after the first series of performances of his opera, Nixon in China. He states, “The music is, as its title suggests, almost maddeningly symmetrical. Four- and eight-bar phrases line up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse… It’s clearly an example of what I call my ‘travelling music,’ music that gives the impression of continuous movement over a shifting landscape. In this piece, however, a cityscape is doubtless the more appropriate analogy as the sound has a distinctly urban feel. It is for sure a seriously aerobic piece, a Pantagruel boogie with a thrusting, grinding beat that governs at least two-thirds of its length… What appeals to me most about the piece is the timbre: It mixes the weight and bravura of a big band with the glittering, synthetic sheen of techno pop (samples and synthesizer) and the facility and finesse of a symphony orchestra.”

Composer, conductor, and creative thinker—John Adams occupies a unique position in the world of American music. His works, both operatic and symphonic, stand out among contemporary classical compositions for their depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of their themes. Le Monde wrote that his music “gives the impression of a rediscovered liberty, of an open door which lets in the fresh air in great gusts.” He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the Grawemeyer Award, and multiple Grammy awards.

Nina C. Young: Tarnish

Rome Prize winner Nina C. Young writes that Tarnish is inspired by the alteration of material on the surface of metal, “the thin layer of corrosion that forms as certain metals undergo a chemical reaction. Only the top few layers react; the outer destruction seals and protects the underlying structure. Tarnish begins and ends with gentle noise. From this initially unpitched sound world the Quartet uncovers (wipes away the tarnish from) timbral layers to expose nostalgic, tonal, almost-saccharinely beautiful music.  These sections are intended to be very precious, but short-lived.  When exposed for too long, they oxidize.”

Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of Electronic Music at UT Austin, Nina C. Young’s unique musical voice draws equally from elements of the classical canon, modernism, spectralism, American experimentalism, minimalism, electronic music, and popular idioms.

Emma O’Halloran: Night Music

“…burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…” – from Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Night Music is a reflection on a year I spent living in Miami in my early twenties. I had never previously lived abroad, and for the entire year I was in sensory overload. I loved the music, the weather, and the people, but I also experienced a lot of culture shock having come from a relatively small town in the middle of Ireland. There were moments when I felt so connected to everything around me, and then other times when things shifted out of focus like I was having an outer body experience. For the times when I felt like parts of me were slipping away, I would go to the beach at night and listen to the sounds of the ocean. I was also influenced by Latin dance music, and this piece tries to recreate some of those sounds – the music you’d hear in the clubs in Miami, and also the music of Miami Sound Machine. – E.O.

Emma O’Halloran is an Irish composer who writes music for acoustic and electronic instruments. In addition to concert music, she composes for theater, and is one half of the electronic duo Games Violet. She lives in New Jersey, and is currently a doctoral fellow at Princeton University.

Press Quotes

  • TheaterScene

    "The results were exhilarating...Superb musicianship, artistic vision, collaborative daring and splendid imagination made for two evenings of thrilling music."

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  • The Log Journal

    "An enviable combination of integrity, individuality, and instant appeal...the PRISM players not only produce a positively beguiling range of tonal colors and shadings on their own, but also mix and mingle with their percussive cohorts in consistently rich and imaginative ways...undeniably beautiful, music that goes straight from the ear to the heart."

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  • The New York Times

    "Mr. Mackey’s evocative titles, combining a word from the visual arts with one from music, showed how subjective the perception of tone color remains. One movement dominated by a blend of saxophones with vibraphone and steel drums seemed to me a beautiful study in growing density and brilliance, its golden shimmer brightening with the addition of high notes in the soprano saxophone. The title of this gleaming gem? ‘Pale Lament.’"

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  • Broad Street Review

    "Their virtuosity is stunning, but never showy. These intense artists are dedicated to getting out of the way of the music and just allowing the composers to express their vision."

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  • Second Inversion

    "The PRISM Quartet teams up with So Percussion and the Partch ensemble to explore the full spectrum of color in music, from the deepest blues to the boldest reds, oranges, and yellows."

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