Mark So grew up in Syracuse and lives in Los Angeles. He has maintained a vast output of scores, including a cycle of some 300 pieces concerning the poetry of John Ashbery. He has also been active as a performer of experimental music, 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 all its own. His work takes place frequently in circumstances notable, questionable, provocative and inscrutable, throughout the US and around the world.
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 making scores to primarily un-scored practices (particularly, to different uses of the typewriter and tape recorder), it remains largely preoccupied with the material experience of language—its mysterious capacity to hold a simple line, yet be struck by all the chaotic dimensionality of life—and inclined to a music fully astonished by this ever-emergent nature, drawn directly into its prospects. 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.
Several of So's Ashbery scores were performed in July 2007, indoors and out, during the 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. 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. 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.
In addition to musicians/performers who have sustained a relationship with So's work (Jason Brogan, Nathan Brown, Francesco Gagliardi, Julia Holter, James Klopfleisch, Mari, Adam Overton, Tashi Wada, Manfred Werder, and members of the Dog Star Orchestra, among others), and to his own multifarious presentations of his work, several artists working outside of music have taken up their own unique realizations of So's work, provoking its varied potentials in often 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 further transformed into a gallery installation piece 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 unique 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—as well as undertaken 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 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 projects with a number of other artists, writers, and musicians, including several unique performance environments with artist Rick Bahto and musician Julia Holter (realized at the wulf., Jancar Jones Gallery, Atwater Crossing, and MOCA in Los Angeles, 2011-13); a performance-based study, UNTITLED (for Tom), with artists Julie Tolentino and Stosh Fila (presented over the course of an afternoon at Perform!Now!2010 in Los Angeles, and revisited in Tolentino's I Defy You Stars group project at The Palms in Wonder Valley, CA, in 2011); the So / Werder Project (2011), sponsored by the New Music Collective of Charleston (SC), which brought together So and Swiss composer Manfred Werder, along with Charleston-based musicians Jason Brogan and Sam Sfirri, for a series of events exploring their work through activities at locations ranging from public parks to museum and gallery settings in Charleston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia; a pair of notebook scores with Eileen Myles—his (idle.) 51 THINGS TO DO WITH TWO HANDS for Eileen, Myles's Moving whole heart for Mark—which they performed together at Murray Guy Gallery in New York City and at PIETER in Los Angeles (2011); 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 unique events at the wulf. exploring programmatic intersections with artist Rick Bahto (2010-11) and composers Lewis Keller (2012) and Michael Winter (2013). He contributed a piano solo, underworld, to composer Ulrich Krieger's the yggdrasil soli project (2010), and a performance score, their, to artist Julie Tolentino's performance-installation Raised by Wolves at Commonwealth & Council in Los Angeles (2013). So composed the music for Gabor Kalman's feature-length documentary film There Was Once… (2011), and he has appeared on camera in various films and videos by Rick Bahto, Pablo Valencia, and Erika Vogt.
As a performer, So has presented solo works by G. Douglas Barrett, Morton Feldman, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben (including a piano performance of the entire series Some Tunes, Vols. I-V, 2011), Terry Jennings, Joseph Kudirka, Radu Malfatti, Anastassis Philippakopoulos, Michael Pisaro (including a 5-hour piano performance of the complete the earth and the sky, 2007), Christian Wolff (the first performance of Small Preludes, 2009), and Istvàn Zelenka. He has also performed in various ensemble works by Casey Anderson, Rick Bahto, Antoine Beuger, George Brecht, Madison Brookshire, John Cage, Christian Kesten, Cat Lamb, Liam Mooney, James Orsher, Albert Ortega, James Saunders, Kunsu Shim, James Tenney, Tashi Wada, Manfred Werder, and 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. So appears on two CDs of music by Michael Pisaro (harmony series 11-16 and an unrhymed chord, both on Edition Wandelweiser Records), as well as in the "Finale" of Julia Holter's LP Tragedy (Leaving Records).
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. So's contributions, in the form of 2 scores and part of a new text, appear in the compendium Word Events: Perspectives on Verbal Notation (John Lely and James Saunders eds., Continuum 2012), while his full essay "text | composition - scores and structure after 4'33"" appears in the Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue of The Open Space. 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]. His text "Into Silence: The Poetics of Hearing in Experimental Music since Cage" (2007) remains forthcoming.
Two cassettes released in 2012 feature So's music: sitting and listening / let's grasp it, naked as it is...under a storm of stones (a split program with Patrick Farmer) from winds measure recordings, and READING ILLUMINATIONS / A BOOK OF PALMS from Recondite Industries.