American Composers
October 17, 2022
5 min read

Composer Spotlight: Viet Cuong + Sandbox Percussion in conversation with Garrett McQueen

ACO's Director of Artist Equity, Garrett McQueen, interviewed composer Viet Cuong and Victor Caccese of Sandbox Percussion in preparation for the NY premiere of Cuong's re(new)al for chamber orchestra and percussion quartet. Originally written for Sandbox Percussion, ACO presents the work as part of its The Natural Order concert at Carnegie Hall on October 20th, 2022. Get your tickets now.

About Viet Cuong

Called “alluring” and “wildly inventive” by The New York Times, the music of American composer Viet Cuong has been performed on six continents by musicians and ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic, Eighth Blackbird, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Sō Percussion, Alarm Will Sound, Atlanta Symphony, Sandbox Percussion, Albany Symphony, PRISM Quartet, and Dallas Winds, among many others. Viet’s music has been featured in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center, and his works for wind ensemble have amassed hundreds of performances worldwide. Passionate about bringing these different facets of the contemporary music community together, his upcoming projects include a concerto for Eighth Blackbird with the United States Navy Band. Viet also enjoys exploring the unexpected and whimsical, and he is often drawn to projects where he can make peculiar combinations and sounds feel enchanting or oddly satisfying. His recent works thus include a snare drum solo, percussion quartet concerto, and, most recently, a double oboe concerto. He is currently the California Symphony’s Young American Composer-in-Residence, and recently served as the Early Career Musician-in-Residence at the Dumbarton Oaks. Viet holds degrees from Princeton University (MFA/PhD), the Curtis Institute of Music (AD), and Peabody Conservatory (BM/MM).

About Sandbox Percussion

Described as “exhilarating” by The New York Times, and “utterly mesmerizing” by The Guardian, GRAMMY®-nominated ensemble Sandbox Percussion has established themselves as a leading proponent of this generation of contemporary percussion chamber music. Brought together by their love of chamber music and the simple joy of playing together, Sandbox Percussion captivates audiences with performances that are both visually and aurally stunning. Through compelling collaborations with composers and performers, Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian Rosenbaum, and Terry Sweeney seek to engage a wider audience for classical music. Read more here.

About re(new)al

In the Composer’s Own Words

I have tremendous respect for renewable energy initiatives and the commitment to creating a new, better reality for us all. Re(new)al is a percussion quartet concerto that is similarly devoted to finding unexpected ways to breathe new life into traditional ideas, and the solo quartet therefore performs on several “found” instruments, including crystal glasses and (reusable) compressed air cans. And while the piece also features more traditional instruments, such as snare drum and vibraphone, I looked for ways to either alter their sounds or find new ways to play them. For instance, a single snare drum is played by all four members of the quartet, and certain notes of the vibraphone are prepared with aluminum foil to recreate sounds found in electronic music. The entire piece was conceived in this way, and it was a blast to discover all of these unique sounds with the members of Sandbox Percussion. 

Cooperation and synergy are also core themes of the piece, as I believe we all have to work together to move forward. All of the music played by the solo quartet is comprised of single musical ideas that are evenly distributed between the four soloists (for those interested, the fancy musical term for this is a hocket). The music would therefore be dysfunctional without the presence and dedication of all four members. For example, the quartet divvies up lighting- fast drum set beats in the second movement and later shares one glockenspiel in the last movement. But perhaps my favorite example of synergy in the piece is in the very opening, where the four soloists toast crystal glasses. We always toast glasses in the presence of others, and oftentimes to celebrate new beginnings. This is my simple way of celebrating everyone who is working together to create a cleaner, more efficient world.

Re(new)al is constructed of three continuous movements, each inspired by the power of hydro, wind, and solar energies. The hydro movement transforms tuned crystal glasses into ringing hand bells as the wind ensemble slowly submerges the soloists in their sound. The second movement turns each member of the quartet into a blade of a dizzying wind turbine, playing seemingly-impossible 90’s-inspired drum and bass patterns. The closing movement simulates a sunrise and evokes the brilliance of sunlight with metallic percussion instruments. This piece was originally written with a sinfonietta accompaniment, and in its original form was commissioned for the 2017 American Music Festival by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire in partnership with GE Renewable Energy. This full orchestra version was commissioned in 2018 by the Albany Symphony and is dedicated to Sandbox Percussion.

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