Mark So grew up in Syracuse and lives in Los Angeles. His varied output includes numerous scores, tapes, and ephemera—some 300 pieces alone involve John Ashbery’s poems. He has given many notable solo and ensemble performances of experimental music, and has worked with a range of artists on collaborative projects, often resulting in work that occupies a unique genre all its own.
So’s work explores ordinary situations in open frames of perception and action, via simple means of recording/transcription/reading as well as changing experiences of silence. Rather than predicate existing categories of realization, his pieces often exhibit casually surprising and elusive horizons. His scores—primarily (but not exclusively) text-based—ground diverse experiences of straightforward literacy, where the possibility of action arises between complete adequacy and pure discovery. Lately he has turned to mostly un-scored practices involving different uses of text, type, and tape, yet remains largely preoccupied with the mysterious and chaotic dimensionality of language—the music of its emergent nature. Often taking place in anonymous, open settings, realizations of his pieces have ranged from instrumentals, readings, and performed actions, to tapes, films, quasi-installations, and other, more fanciful/obscure manifestations. .
In 2005, while students at CalArts, he and composer James Orsher founded the WEDNESDAY HOUR series, a weekly foray into alternate sites for experimental work, ranging from stairwells and breezeways to parking lots. They also established FESTIVAL :, which applied these principles more expansively, designating a chosen site for a 24 hour period of radical inclusion. For FESTIVAL (6) DESERT : (November 2006), composer/violinist Johnny Chang joined So at the abandoned Giant Rock Airport in the Mojave Desert to play some pieces there. Several of So's Ashbery scores were performed the following July, indoors and out, during the 2007 Wandelweiser summer festival in Düsseldorf. The November 2007 retrospective mark so: late-early works at UC Santa Barbara & environs showcased a variety of pieces in settings ranging from the recital hall to the beach. Selected scores of his were realized by the German experimental performance group Maulwerker in July 2008, in and out of the Villa Elisabeth, Berlin. His Heliogabalus opera trilogy (2009-10) for 1, 2, and 3 amplified readers, combining Artaud's text Heliogabalus - Or, the Crowned Anarchist with one of his own in a brutal theater of open reading, had its first complete performance (by Julia Holter, Tashi Wada, and So) in February 2010 at the wulf. in Los Angeles. That June, the Dog Star Orchestra superimposed a group of Mark So's Landscapes (assembled by Michael Pisaro) at Vasquez Rocks, near Santa Clarita, and in September, for the second edition of the Experimental Music Yearbook, So combined a complete reading of John Ashbery's very long two-voice poem "Litany" with his own piece based on that poem, windrows (2007), performed concurrently by two amplified readers and a small, dispersed orchestra at the wulf.. For the July 2011 Dog Star series, he conceived of A Few Rooms Around Town, a loose affiliation of semi-private interior places scattered around the Los Angeles area, designated for the informal exploration of some common materials over the span of one afternoon, including (but not limited to) several recent scores of Istvàn Zelenka. So's reading 'Illuminations' [readings 41], an outdoor work for two readers and 4 tapes using John Ashbery's new translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations, was performed over two evenings in October by So and Julia Holter at Art Center College of Design as part of the 2011 AxS Festival. Later that month, he appeared in Feral Gallery, a pop-up group show curated by Julie Tolentino and Stosh Fila in their studio at Joshua Tree, where he performed intermittently between two scores—PIANO STUDY (2011) and the keyboard notebook a book of palms (2010)—over two days, for ca. 7 hours each day. In March 2012, he presented 4 of his Ashbery scores in How to Continue: John Ashbery Across the Arts at the New School in New York. At the John Cage Festival at FSU in October, So presented a complete 6 hour, 15 minute reading of his essay/score Into Silence - readings 23 [for John Cage] (2007) over two days, together with three tape sources playing nine of his recent cassette tapes. This was expanded to four tape sources and 15 tapes at the next full performance of Into Silence, over a single evening in June 2013 at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, TX. In August, the Heliogabalus trilogy was performed again (by Rick Bahto, Stuart Krimko, and So) over three days, with one opera each day, in three different settings across Los Angeles, from an intimate loft gathering in Lincoln Heights, to a public reading event in Chinatown, to a group art show at the Sepulveda Dam in Van Nuys. Recently, So has presented various scenarios involving his current work with reading and tape (Dortmund, Berlin, and Los Angeles, 2014–15). His series a week at midnight assembled 7 unique events at diverse locations - including a radio station, a diner, and a harpsichord repair shop - throughout the Los Angeles area in March 2015.
In addition to his own multifarious presentations of his work, as well as the musicians and performers who have made intensive engagements with it on an ongoing basis (including Jason Brogan, Francesco Gagliardi, Julia Holter, Joseph Kudirka, Julie Tolentino, Manfred Werder, and Istvàn Zelenka, among others), several artists working outside of music have made their own unique realizations of So's pieces, provoking their potential in unexpected ways that compel novel means of presentation and documentation along the way. Madison Brookshire's realization of So's the casual drift (2010), taking place in Brookshire's home studio since June 2010 as a simple, ongoing event of natural light passing through graph paper, has transformed into an installation piece of Brookshire's own, consisting of projected color slides documenting the event. A wide spectrum of So's work, ranging from printed score materials to assorted typed pages, postcards, and tapes, is the subject of the documentary project Casual Encounters (for super-8 film and audio cassette) by Rick Bahto and Casey Anderson, performed in 2012 at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles and Artists' Television Access in San Francisco. Bahto has also made a silent super-8 film performing marmarth—done as part of an ensemble realization of So's piece marmarth (2009) at Vasquez Rocks in 2010, which documents that event while itself constituting a further performance of the piece—and made an environmental installation of So's score parallel to the earth (In the angles where the grass writing goes on) (2011), initiated in September 2011 when Bahto placed 10 identical clear frames of 35mm film in different spots along streets in Silver Lake near to/passing under Sunset Blvd., a project which has grown into Bahto's super-8 film Monument Valley, made up of the footage gathered as he returns again and again to film the installation sites.
So has collaborated on a range of projects including the week-long experimental music composition seminar and workshop “100 Jahre nach John Cage—JETZT” led by composers Eva-Maria Houben, So, and Istvàn Zelenka (Dortmund University, 2014); Erika Vogt’s collective endeavor, the Artist Theater Program (EMPAC, 2014); several unique performance environments with artist Rick Bahto and musician Julia Holter (various venues in Los Angeles, 2011–13); a pair of notebook scores with poet Eileen Myles—his (idle.) 51 THINGS TO DO WITH TWO HANDS and Myles’s Moving whole heart—which they made for each other and performed together at Murray Guy Gallery in New York and PIETER in Los Angeles (2011); the So/Werder Project (2011) bringing together So and Swiss composer Manfred Werder, as well as coorganizers Jason Brogan and Sam Sfirri, under the auspices of the New Music Collective of Charleston, SC, for events in locations ranging from public parks to museum and gallery settings in Charleston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia; a performance-based study, UNTITLED (for Tom), with artists Julie Tolentino and Stosh Fila, first presented at Perform!Now! in Los Angeles and revisited in Tolentino’s I Defy You Stars at The Palms in Wonder Valley (2010–11); an online encounter between poetry, video, and music with writer Adam Fitzgerald and media poet Chris Girard (for ONandOnScreen.net Issue 5, Winter 2012); and a series of self-styled programmatic intersections at the wulf. in Los Angeles, with artist Rick Bahto (2010–11) and composers Lewis Keller (2012), Michael Winter (2013), and Sepand Shahab (2014). So contributed a piano solo, underworld, to the performance and forthcoming recording of Ulrich Krieger’s yggdrasil soli project, which combines the music of eight different composers (2010/14); and a performance score, their, to Julie Tolentino’s performance-installation Raised by Wolves at Commonwealth & Council in Los Angeles (2013). He composed the music for Gabor Kalman’s feature-length documentary There Was Once... (2011), and has appeared in various films and videos by Rick Bahto, Pablo Valencia, and Erika Vogt.
So has performed solo and ensemble music by G. Douglas Barrett, Antoine Beuger, George Brecht, Madison Brookshire, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Jürg Frey, Mari Garrett, Eva-Maria Houben (including an afternoon-long piano performance of Some Tunes, Vols. I-V, 2011), Terry Jennings, Christian Kesten, Joseph Kudirka, Cat Lamb, Radu Malfatti, Liam Mooney, James Orsher, Albert Ortega, Adam Overton, Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Michael Pisaro (including a 5-hour piano performance of the earth and the sky, 2007), James Saunders, Kunsu Shim, James Tenney, Tashi Wada, Manfred Werder, Christian Wolff (the first performance of Small Preludes, 2009), Istvàn Zelenka, and many others. In July 2006, together with James Orsher and artist Michael Parker, So organized a 3-hour large ensemble performance of James Tenney's In a large, open space… (1994) at the 40,000 square foot Cold Storage Project in Downtown Los Angeles. He appears on two CDs of music by Michael Pisaro (harmony series 11-16 and an unrhymed chord, both Edition Wandelweiser Records), in the "Finale" of Julia Holter's LP Tragedy (Leaving Records), and upcoming releases by Ulrich Krieger and Joseph Kudirka.
With the late Stephen "Lucky" Mosko and Dorothy Stone, So co-produced the California EAR Unit's recording of Morton Feldman's For Christian Wolff (Bridge Records). So also co-edited (with James Orsher and Sara Roberts) Everyone Loves Difficult Music, the companion volume to the 2006 music series at Machine Project, Los Angeles. His essay "nearing/hearing" appears therein, as well as in the Fall 2008 issue of The Open Space Magazine; Madison Brookshire's article "Uncommon Knowledge: Mark So’s Text Scores" was published in the Fall 2010 issue of the same journal. Two of So's scores and a portion of a new essay were included in the critical anthology Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (John Lely and James Saunders eds., Continuum 2012); his full essay "text | composition - scores and structure after 4'33"" appears in the Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue of The Open Space. So created the layered text "In the City" for publication in ARTIST PRACTICE (Matir Boi Press 2014), a collection of artists' writings curated by Clay Dean. Other new texts will be published in upcoming issues of Wolf Notes, The Drama Review, and The Open Space. His self-published book BANGS (2009), with Swiss composer Manfred Werder, chronicles Werder's multiyear performance of So's piece BANGS [to Manfred Werder]. A book/tape collaboration, The Hurry/BRITE SPOTS, with poet Brian Blanchfield, is in the works.
Recent recordings of So’s music include his piece segue, with a poem by z. lawrence-juan, on the 2-CD collection West Coast Soundings (Wandelweiser, 2014) as well as the limited tape releases Pale plumes of dullness (Motor Image, 2013), reading Illuminations/a book of palms (Recondite Industries, 2012), and sitting and listening/let's grasp it, naked as it is... , a split program with Patrick Farmer (winds measure recordings, 2012).
In 2014 he started DEATH-SPIRAL, a publishing initiative which has thus far released three titles: Dark Interiors/Places of the Heart, a cassette of So’s music for tape; New complaints. New rewards, a book & DVD by Stuart Krimko and Mark So; and Immaterial, a collection of text compositions by Jason Thomas.
So's work has been supported by residencies at the Millay Colony, Spiro Arts, Ucross, the VCCA, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, the KHN Center for the Arts, and the Montana Artists' Refuge; commissions from the Pasadena Arts Council and the Maybeck Studio for Performing Arts; a grant through Meet the Composer's MetLife Creative Connections program; and a 2014 emerging artists grant from the Rema Hort Mann Foundation.