He became – and still is – a crucial mentor for all of us. Once, when I was in a particularly difficult phase where the scale of my dreams and the size of my bank account were not matching up very well, I asked him whether I should be thinking of a more moderate or careful path for my career. He said, “You already had a chance to take the safer road and become something else, and instead you did this. Why go halfway from here?” His calm, relaxed demeanor reassured us during shaky times in our lives, and his unassuming way of blasting conventional thinking created an emotional and intellectual life raft that we could grasp onto.
Time and again, David provided mentorship that pushed us past the doubts, fears, struggles, and obstacles of establishing a full time percussion group. Of course, he had a self-interest in us playing his awesome piece as often as possible! But why would selfless mentorship need to be divorced from mutual interest?
In subsequent years, we embarked on other collaborations together. The most recent is his piece for quartet and orchestra, titled man made. After more than a decade of working together, this piece contains elements that reflect the intimacy of our relationship. He wrote for specific instruments that he knew we liked, such as Josh’s steel drums and Jason’s drum set in the last movement. He wrote an entire first movement for nothing but snapping twigs, a gesture that he was confident we could pull off. He even carved out space for Jason to improvise, something that I don’t think I’ve seen in any of his other work.
Luckily, I’ll never have to know where we would have ended up without his help. Would there still have been a critical mass of support, or would we have arrived too soon on the larger scene to collect the necessary elements?
I wanted to write this meditation because I’m now in a position to either constrain or enlarge the horizons of students who hold their own big ideas. I could knock these fragile eggs out of their hands with a single dismissive comment, or I could use the power of my own imagination to help set them in directions that neither I nor they could even anticipate.
Years after this first collaboration, David and I were reflecting on So’s first full concert of newly commissioned percussion music at Carnegie Hall, an event I could have scarcely conceived of as a young student. I asked him if this was what he was thinking of when he first encouraged us so much. He told me about a story he had read as a child. He said “the character in the story is told to set out though multiple trials and adventures, and at the end, if he succeeded, he would be rewarded with the answers to his deepest questions. The character completes his many trials. When he gets to the end, he is told the secret, which is that the task was impossible.”
So Percussion performs David Lang’s man made with Louis Langrée and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, Aug. 1 & 2 at 7:30pm. The group also performs a Little Night Music concert at the Kaplan Penthouse Aug 2 at 10pm; www.lincolncenter.org/mostly-mozart
Adam Sliwinski has built a dynamic career of creative collaboration as percussionist, pianist, conductor, teacher, and writer. He specializes in bringing composers, performers, and other artists together to create exciting new work. A member of the ensemble So Percussion (proclaimed as “brilliant” and “consistently impressive” by The New York Times) since 2002, Adam has performed at venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the Bonnaroo Festival, Disney Concert Hall with the L.A. Philharmonic, and everything in between. So Percussion has also toured extensively around the world, including multiple featured performances at the Barbican Centre in London, and tours to France, Germany, the Netherlands, South America, Australia, and Russia.