Mark So grew up in Syracuse and has lived in and around Los Angeles since 1996. Over the past 10 years he has maintained a vast output of scores, including a cycle of some 300 pieces concerning the poetry of John Ashbery. He has been widely active as an experimental musician, having given many notable solo and ensemble performances, as well as a collaborator on projects with artists of many different disciplines, often resulting in work that occupies a unique genre of its own.
So's work explores ordinary situations in various open frames of perception and action, proceeding through simple means of recording/transcription/reading, as well as changing experiences of silence. Rather than predicate standard categories of realization, the horizons in his pieces are often surprising and elusive. The scores—primarily (but not exclusively) text-based—ground diverse experiences of straightforward literacy, where suitable action emerges between complete adequacy and pure discovery. While his work lately has turned from scoring to primarily un-scored practices (to different uses of the typewriter and tape recorder, in particular), it remains largely preoccupied with the material experience of language—its capacity to both hold a line and be struck by the often surprising dimensionality it provokes—and inclined towards a music fully astonished by this emergent nature, drawn directly by the prospects it offers. So's work often takes place in anonymous, open environments, and realizations have ranged from instrumentals, spoken texts, and performed actions, to tapes, films, quasi-installations, and other, more fanciful/obscure manifestations. .
So's work takes place frequently in circumstances notable, questionable, provocative and inscrutable, throughout the US and around the world. In 2005, while students at CalArts, he and James Orsher founded the WEDNESDAY HOUR series, a weekly foray into alternate sites for experimental work, ranging from stairwells and hallways to parking lots. In November 2006, 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. Several of his scores were realized by the German experimental performance group Maulwerker in July 2008, in and out of the Villa Elisabeth, Berlin. So's 'Heliogabalus trilogy' of operas for 1, 2, and 3 readers had its first complete performance, by So, Julia Holter, and Tashi Wada, in February 2010 at the wulf., Los Angeles. In June of that year, 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 with the Ashbery reading by a small, dispersed orchestra at the wulf.. The 'So / Werder Project', sponsored by the New Music Collective of Charleston (SC), took place in April 2011, bringing So and Swiss composer Manfred Werder together, along with Charleston-based musicians Jason Brogan and Sam Sfirri, for a series of events exploring their work through activities at various locations, from public parks to museum and gallery settings in Charleston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. That July, for the annual Dog Star experimental music series, So conceived of 'A Few Rooms Around Town', a loose affiliation of semi-private interior places scattered around the Los Angeles area, designated one afternoon for the informal exploration of some common materials, 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 journeyed to the 'Feral Gallery', a pop-up group show curated by Julie Tolentino and Stosh Fila in their studio at Joshua Tree, where he performed between two scores—PIANO STUDY and the keyboard notebook a book of palms—intermittently over two days, for 7 hours each day. In March 2012, So presented 4 of his Ashbery scores in 'How to Continue: John Ashbery Across the Arts' at the New School in New York.
In addition to the musicians and ensembles who have had a sustained performing relationship with his work (Casey Anderson, Jason Brogan, Nathan Brown, Julia Holter, Cat Lamb, Tashi Wada, and members of the Dog Star Orchestra among others), as well as his own multifarious presentations of his work, a number of artists working outside the field of music—including Rick Bahto, Madison Brookshire, Francesco Gagliardi, and Adam Overton—have advanced their own unique realizations of So's work, provoking its varied potentials in often powerfully unexpected ways, and compelling novel means of presentation and documentation along the way. Madison Brookshire's realization of So's the casual drift, taking place in Brookshire's home studio since June 2010 as a simple, ongoing event of natural light passing through graph paper, has further transformed into a gallery installation piece consisting of projected color slides documenting the event, exhibited in 2011 at Parker Jones Gallery in Culver City and Presents Gallery in Brooklyn. A wide spectrum of So's work, ranging from printed score materials to assorted typed pages, postcards, and tapes, is the subject of the unique "documentary" 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—which was made as part of an ensemble realization of So's piece marmarth at Vasquez Rocks in 2010, documents that event, and itself constitutes a further realization of the piece—as well as undertaken an environmental installation of So's score parallel to the earth (In the angles where the grass writing goes on), initiated in September 2011 when Bahto placed 10 identical clear frames of 35mm film in different spots along streets in Silver Lake near to and passing under Sunset Blvd., a project which has grown into the super-8 document Monument Valley, made up of footage gathered as Bahto has returned again and again to film the installation sites.
So has collaborated on a number of unique, intensive projects with a number of other artists, writers, and musicians, including several unique performance environments with Rick Bahto and Julia Holter (realized at the wulf., Jancar Jones Gallery, and Atwater Crossing in Los Angeles, 2011-12); a performance-based study with Stosh Fila and Julie Tolentino (presented over the course of an entire afternoon at Perform!Now!2010 in Los Angeles; revisited in Tolentino's 'I Defy You Stars' group project at The Palms in Wonder Valley, CA, in 2011); an online encounter between poetry, video, and music with Adam Fitzgerald and Chris Girard (for ONandOnScreen.net Issue 5, Winter 2012); and a pair of notebook scores with Eileen Myles (his (idle.), Myles's Moving whole heart—which they performed together in succession at Murray Guy Gallery in New York City, then together in "conversation" at PIETER in Los Angeles, 2011). He has also composed the score for Gabor Kalman's feature-length documentary film There Was Once... (2011). So's self-published book BANGS (2009), with Swiss composer Manfred Werder, chronicles Werder's years-long performance of So's piece BANGS [to Manfred Werder].
As a pianist, So has given notable performances of solo works by G. Douglas Barrett, Morton Feldman, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben (including a 6-hour performance of Some Tunes, Vols. I-V, 2011), Terry Jennings, Joseph Kudirka, Radu Malfatti, Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Michael Pisaro (including a 5-hour performance of the complete the earth and the sky, 2007), and Christian Wolff (the first performance of Small Preludes, 2009). He has also frequently been involved in performances of music by Casey Anderson, Antoine Beuger, George Brecht, John Cage, Christian Kesten, Cat Lamb, Albert Ortega, James Saunders, Kunsu Shim, James Tenney, Tashi Wada, Manfred Werder, Istvàn Zelenka, and others.
Together with James Orsher and Michael Parker, So organized a unique performance of James Tenney's In a large, open space, which took place in July 2006 at the 40,000 square foot Cold Storage Project in Downtown Los Angeles, with 17 local musicians playing for 3 hours. So co-produced (with the late Stephen "Lucky" Mosko and dorothy Stone) the California EAR Unit's recording of Morton Feldman's For Christian Wolff (Bridge Records), and appears on two CDs of music by Michael Pisaro (harmony series 11-16 and an unrhymed chord, both on Edition Wandelweiser Records), and also in the "Finale" of Julia Holter's LP Tragedy (Leaving Records). He 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" appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of The Open Space Magazine, and Madison Brookshire's article "Uncommon Knowledge: Mark So’s Text Scores" appears in the Fall 2010 issue of the same journal. So's text "Into Silence: The Poetics of Hearing in Experimental Music since Cage" is forthcoming, and his contributions appear in the compendium Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (John Lely and James Saunders eds., Continuum 2012).
Upcoming projects include a pair of tape releases on winds measure records and Recondite Industries, a residency the UCLA Hammer Museum, and a book/tape collaboration, The Hurry/BRITE SPOTS, with poet Brian Blanchfield.
His 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; and a grant through Meet the Composer's MetLife Creative Connections program.