Monday, January 13, 2020

Third Coast Percussion and Something Completely Different

Members of Third Coast Percussion prepare to Organize the Mallets
Christmas has come and gone (whether or not your neighbor's decorations have), the New Year – the New Decade – has arrived, and now even 12th Night is a thing of the past. So maybe we don't have twelve Drummers drumming for our first concert of 2020 but we do have 4 Percussionists ...percussing. And it's not your grandfather's quartet that will be performing at Whitaker Center on Wednesday night at 8:00.

This Chicago-based ensemble calls themselves “Third Coast Percussion” (TCP for short) and they met while studying at Northwestern University near Chicago, hence the name “Third Coast” (a standard nickname for the Great Lakes shoreline).

While there are four percussionists (not just “drummers”) – David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors – it's not like a string quartet where four players play only four instruments: before the evening is out, these guys will be playing 32 different instruments from around the world, not just marimbas and xylophones and glockenspiels, big and little cymbals and gongs and – oh yes – drums, there are also temple bells, automobile brake drums and something that looks like planks of wood (called “planks of wood”) and some “steel conduit pipes,” basically anything can you hit, strike, stroke or bang on and get a sound out of – even, if necessary, the kitchen sink. (I once asked a percussionist what he looks for in something he can use to make “new sounds” and he said “it must fit in the van.”)

This video will give you a bit of insight into this particular program featuring works from their latest album, “Perpetulum,” nominated for what could become their second Grammy Award (we'll find out on Sunday, January 26th; check the Grammy website that Sunday night for the complete list of winners. Good luck, guys!)

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Their NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” – just look at all the stuff they cram into that space! (reminds me of my old cubicle) – opens with their collectively composed “Niagara” (which will also open their Whitaker Center concert on January 15th), and continues with their arrangement of Philip Glass' “Amazon River.” Their program here (or to use “rock band jargon,” set list) will include, instead, Glass's first work originally composed for percussion ensemble which gives its name to their most recent album, “Perpetulum.”

One of the main things an ensemble like Third Coast Percussion can do is to expand their ensemble's repertoire by commissioning and premiering new works, but it's also handy when the performers – band-members, if you want – are composers themselves. The Whitaker Center concert will include not only their collective “Niagara,” but individual works by three of them:

Back to the Tiny Desk Concert. It concludes with David Skidmore's “Torched and Wrecked” which he says is about “something sad” that once happened to his fellow performer Sean Connors' car (one can only imagine). As the video's notes mention, “it's also a butt-kicking ride that includes those steel conduit pipes, which the band cuts to specific lengths to get the desired pitches. Skidmore wrote the piece, but it's Connors who appears to achieve a kind of cathartic glee pounding on the metal tubes.”

Another member of the band, Peter Martin, contributes “Bend” to the program:

And last in the random order I'm posting these videos in is band-member Robert Dillon's “Ordering-Intentions” (it seemed appropriate):

Phillip Glass has written so much for percussion instruments in his music – chamber, orchestral, operatic – as part of the ensemble, yet “Perpetulum” is his first work written solely for percussion ensemble, commissioned and premiered by Third Coast Percussion. The Chicago Tribune praised its “… score [which is] rich in musical incident, its meters and textures constantly changing. Its embrace of pitched and non-pitched instrumentation [is] immensely appealing to hear,” also noting “a sense of joy pervaded all this music, thanks to the intricately interlocking figures Glass wrote and TCP’s fastidious execution of them.”

They've also commissioned several works from Augusta Read Thomas, the one on this program called “Resounding Earth II”. Here's an interview with her about “Resounding Earth” (No.1) which, speaking of numbers of instruments, calls for over 130 bells!

Pop polymath Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) grew up listening to and playing classical music (cello and piano) till he was 13 and then branched out from there, heavily influenced initially by discovering Philip Glass's music. Here's an interview with him about his piece, “Fields,” written for and previously recorded by Third Coast Percussion.

And TCP doesn't just play percussion instruments. There's one work on the program where they don't play instruments at all. The group posted this video excerpt from Mark Applebaum's “Aphasia” on Facebook, promoting concerts last November, saying “We love touring this zany piece by our friend and colleague Mark Applebaum, called Aphasia. Mark wrote the piece for a single performer, but we do a quartet version (which means we had a lot of fun lining up all these crazy gestures...).” You'll have to check out our Facebook page to watch this one because TOL (this old Luddite) couldn't figure out how to post TCP's clip in the blog... (Still, I'm wondering how this piece works on a CD...? but I digress.) LOL...

Not just performers and crusaders for the percussive arts, they're also committed teachers, having been an ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center from 2013-2018. While in Harrisburg, in addition to the performance at Whitaker Center, Third Coast Percussion will offer a free educational program for elementary and middle school children called “Think Outside the Drum” at Whitaker Center on Thursday, January 16th, as well as a masterclass for percussion students at Messiah College the same day.

- Dick Strawser

The Third Coast Percussion Residency was supported by New Music USA.  To follow the project as it unfolds, visit the project page: