Sonic Strings Sings in Sioux City

Sonic String Quartet
Sioux City Chamber Music Series
First Presbyterian Church, Sioux City
Sunday, November 10, 2019

What do you get when you mix Jimi Hendrix, Macklemore, and System of a Down with a Presbyterian church on a Sunday afternoon?  It’s not the apocalypse (though that’s a good guess).  Nope, it’s just another great Siouxland music event that I’m very glad I made time for. 

I’m talking about the Sioux City Chamber Music series concert featuring the Seattle-based Sonic String Quartet.  Maybe I wasn’t paying much attention to the concert in advance, or maybe the Chamber Music Association was keeping the cover-only program under wraps.  But what I experienced Sunday at First Presbyterian was incredible.  And a lot of fun. 

The program, full of pop and rock covers, included titles from the Beatles, Nirvana, Pharrell, Queen, and more.  Several of these pieces were arranged by Sioux City native and violist Seth May-Patterson.  He was joined onstage by Sonic String Quartet members Rachel Nesvig and Sarah Chung Malmstrom, both on violin.  Sonic’s regular cellist was out with an injury, so the group tapped Lincoln resident and Associate Principal Cellist of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra Korynne Bolt.  Bolt filled in seamlessly, though she must have had a rough week.  She was simultaneously rehearsing Sonic’s pieces as well as the program for the SCSO’s demanding “Rite of Spring” concert, performed just the night before. 

Let me just say this now, so I can get it out of the way: Sonic String Quartet has game.  Technically, I don’t know if there were any flaws, but if there had been, it wouldn’t have mattered much.  Because the concert was fun.  It was energetic and personable.  That’s one of the things I enjoy most about the Sioux City Chamber Music Series, which I’ve only gotten to know recently.  Instead of absorbing a stage filled with a few dozen musicians, the audience experience at a chamber music performance is much more intimate.  You can see, not only hear, what the musicians have to offer.  You get a sense, over ninety minutes or so, of a player’s style, expression, and temperament.  And on top of that it’s easy to get face time with them afterwards, over refreshments in the church basement. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s talk about the music. 

The set list was diverse, playful, and sometimes surprisingly emotive.  “Pure Imagination,” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, touched me in a way I hadn’t expected.  Put simply, it was hilarious to hear Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” performed by a string quartet.  And Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” incorporated an almost folksy feel at times. 

System of A Down’s “Aerials,” performed by Sonic String Quartet and arranged by Sioux City native Seth May-Patterson.

The best thing about this program, I think, was not how close the performances came to the original.  It wasn’t about faithfulness or even technical virtuosity (of which there was plenty).  I enjoyed how the non-vocal string arrangements got you far enough away from the original that it became a brand new experience.  And as someone who has trained in the use of language most of my adult life, it was liberating to let go of the lyrics, to actively try to forget them, and experience this familiar thing in a new and fresh way.  Words often try to pin things down; they want to recreate an exact experience for you.  (Like, say, a review of a music concert.)  But these music-only interpretations allow you to feel the music, and feel it a couple of different ways at once.  Yes, it’s funny to hear a string quartet perform “Thrift Shop,” but it was funny and beautiful and surprisingly emotive. 

Sonic String Quartet heads back to Seattle soon, but I do hope they’ll be back.  They may not feature in the Chamber Music Series again—at least not for a while—but let’s hope that they find a friendly venue and reason enough to return. 

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home father who is currently reading Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to His Music and More Pricks than Kicks, stories by Samuel Beckett. He curates Art Hub Siouxland and hosts Take Whatever Beauty You Can Find, the podcast that talks to Siouxland artists about Siouxland art.