PRISM Quartet and Sō Percussion: COLOR THEORY

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 Bryce Dessner’s “Music for Wood & Strings,” and PRISM performs “Night Music” by Emma O’Halloran and “Lullaby” by Jennifer Higdon.

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


So Percussion
Rob Robbins, President
Alliance Artist Management
(212) 304-3538
rob at allianceartistmanagement dot com

PRISM Quartet
Nick DiBerardino, Media Relations and Booking Manager
PRISM Quartet, Inc.
(215) 438-5282
nick at prismquartet dot com

  • Steven Mackey

  • Donnacha Dennehy

  • Jennifer Higdon

    Jennifer Higdon

  • Emma O'Halloran

  • Bryce Dessner

  • Matthew Levy, Taimur Sullivan, and Jason Treuting

  • Timothy McAllister, Zach Shemon, and Josh Quillen

  • Eric Cha-Beach and Adam Sliwinski





Program Repertoire

Lullaby (1996) by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)+
Night Music (2014) by Emma O'Halloran (b. 1985)+
Music for Wood & Strings (2013) by Bryce Dessner (b. 1976)
Blue Notes and Other Clashes (2016) by Steven Mackey (b. 1956)
The Pale (2003/16) by Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970)


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.  Dennehy is the founder of Ireland’s renowned new music group Crash Ensemble, and serves on the faculty of Princeton University.

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.

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. Emma lives in New Jersey, and is currently a doctoral fellow at Princeton University.

Jennifer Higdon: Lullaby

Lullaby is part of a larger work for saxophone quartet called Short Stories. It was originally written for mezzo, flute, and piano, but I kept
hearing it as a saxophone quartet in my head. It is a lullaby whose lyrical qualities seem to lend itself to the saxophone very well. – Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon is a major figure in contemporary Classical music, receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a 2010 Grammy for her Percussion Concerto. Higdon enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, and blue cathedral is one of America’s most performed contemporary orchestral works, with more than 600 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000. Her works have been recorded on over four dozen CDs. One of Higdon’s most current projects is an opera based on the best-selling novel,Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. It was co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia and Minnesota Opera in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. Higdon recently won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere. Higdon holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings

For several years I have been experimenting with simple chorales in my music that utilize triadic chord inversions that are aligned in complex rhythm patterns to create a kaleidoscopic effect of harmony. For this piece, I worked with instrument builder Aron Sanchez to design four string instruments which are played like a dulcimer, but which are specifically built and tuned to implement a more evolved hybrid of the chorale hocket. Each instrument is amplified using piezo pickups and has 8 double-course strings tuned to two harmonies. With the use of dulcimer mallets, the quartet players can easily sound either harmony, or play individual strings, melodies, and drone tremolos.  There are alto, two tenors and a bass instrument which can play fretted chromatic bass lines. With these elements as well as a few pieces of auxiliary percussion – bass drum, wood block.  – B.D.

One of the most sought-after composers of his generation, Bryce Dessner has been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Edinburgh International Festival, The New York City Ballet, Kronos Quartet, and BAM. Dessner composed music for Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, The Revenant, which received a 2016 Golden Globes nomination for Best Original Score. Recordings include Aheym with The Kronos Quartet; St. Carolyn by the Sea (Deutsche Grammophon) with the Copenhagen Philharmonic; Music for Wood and Strings, performed by Sō Percussion (Brassland); and eighth blackbird’s 2015 record Filament, which features his piece “Murder Ballades.” Filament received a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance in 2016.


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.

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

    "An intriguing palette of sounds that included tone colors never heard before."

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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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