The Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion has been praised by for its “palpable groove” by Time Out New York, its “precisely timed wit” by the Washington Post and its “inspirational sense of fun and curiosity” by the Minnesota Star-Tribune – descriptions not typical of percussion groups.
But these four classically trained percussionists have gone rogue with a common mission, to explore and expand the sonic possibilities of the percussion repertoire.
“Percussion ensemble is inherently new music, at least within the context of the classical music tradition,” says Robert Dillon, ensemble member and development director of TCP. “The oldest pieces for percussion ensemble are from the 1930s and ’40s … The music of John Cage, Steve Reich and Iannis Xenakis were some of the experiences that made us all want to play in a percussion ensemble, but we still felt like there were still a lot of unexplored possibilities, a lot of great percussion ensemble music yet to be written. So, we started commissioning and composing new works right from the beginning, and mixed those in with the existing repertoire we loved.”
Third Coast Percussion will bring its “mind-tingling rhythmic lucidity,” as MusicWeb International calls it, to the Science Hill High School Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, sponsored by ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. TCP’s “Lyrical Geometry” program will feature music from Third Coast’s Grammy-winning album of Steve Reich’s work; pieces by Philip Glass and Thierry De Mey; and original music, composed by Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore.
These four musicians – Dillon, Skidmore, Martin and Sean Connors – share not only a musical bond, but also an educational one. They all attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., overlapping at slightly different times and finally intersecting as a group because of their passion for new music and sharing it with others. “We loved playing this type of music and decided we wanted to see how far we could go with it …” Dillon says.
In Dillon’s “Ordering-Instincts,” the percussionists share eight wooden planks, an octave of loose crotales and two tom-toms to create a variety sonic colors in tightly interwoven rhythms, while Skidmore’s “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” explores the idea that the same piece of music can move at different speeds at the same time. “Aliens” also incorporates an electronic audio track and video.
Third Coast Percussion’s imaginings have become reality – and an acclaimed niche, inspiring The Washington Post to say that the ensemble proves “just how vital and fertile new American music really is.” Another indicator that their musical experimentation is working is their 2017 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble performance for their recording of Steve Reich’s works for percussion. The CD “just knocked my socks off,” says Reich in a TCP You Tube video.
The Chicago Tribune has credited the ensemble with contributing to a “youthquake” in Chicago’s new-music scene, especially with its Emerging Composer Partnership, commissioning two new artists every year. “It’s very natural for us to feel connected with contemporary music because most of the music we have experienced has been written within the last few decades,” Connors told KUAF Radio. “As artists, we feel really strongly that we should be interacting with our contemporary culture and what’s going on right now.”
All educators – and Ensemble-in-Residence at University of Notre Dame – Third Coast also interacts through educational outreach programs, such as “Waves” and “Think Outside the Drum,” at elementary and high schools, as well as universities, such as East Tennessee State University.
“Third Coast is another group that I have long wanted to bring to ETSU and the area,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Martin School of the Arts. “We will not only get to enjoy their unique musical talents, but ETSU and Science Hill students will benefit from their musical vision and expertise in outreach at Science Hill and on campus.”
In the Thursday evening performance and the Wednesday and Friday sessions with students, the Third Coast percussionists will showcase what percussion is capable of, Dillon says. “There will be music that is rhythmic and visceral, music which is beautiful and introspective, music which is tuneful and music which is humorous and theatrical,” he says. “There will be sounds people have never heard and musical experiences that they wouldn’t have imagined percussion instruments would be capable of creating.
“We work really hard to craft a finely-tuned performance, and it’s always a lot of fun.”
For more on the ensemble, visit http://thirdcoastpercussion.com or download their free apps for iPhone/iPad on iTunes.
For more information about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors 60-plus and $5 for students of all ages.
Photo by Saverio Truglia