Stretching sonic boundaries with Third Coast Percussion

To most of us acclimated to the world of strings and symphonies, the concept of “percussion ensemble” is somewhat foreign. Percussionists play drums in rock’n roll bands and the timpani in an orchestra. Or, at least that’s what many have thought.

Third Coast Percussion.
Third Coast Percussion.
Photo by Saverio Truglia

That’s slowly changing, however. In Madison, we have our own Clocks in Motion, an ensemble formed only in 2011 with its roots in UW-Madison.  And in Chicago, the group Third Coast Percussion, formed in 2005, has vaulted to the fore, with a brand-new residency at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and three CDs, including a retrospective of John Cage and the new “Unknown Symmetry,” which contains a work, “Common Patterns in Uncommon Time,” commissioned for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Taliesin.

Third Coast will visit Madison in October 9 and 10. Events include a seminar on commissioning new works and the business of chamber music: booking performances, writing grants and professionalism (Oct. 9, noon to 1:15 pm, Morphy Hall),  followed by a free concert the same evening in Mills Hall at 7:30 pm. On the following day, they’ll offer a master class from 12:15 to 2:15 pm in Room 1321.  All events are free and open to the public and are sponsored by the university’s Vilas Trust.

The program includes Fractalia by Owen Clayton Condon (a former member of TCP); Mallet Quartet by Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Reich; Third Construction by John Cage; and Resounding Earth (commissioned work) by Augusta Read Thomas.

[Please note: Clocks in Motion will open its season this Saturday, Sept. 21, with a free interactive concert in Mills Hall at 3 pm. Bring your keys, cell phone and coin stash! ]

“Third Coast Percussion is one of the most exciting and successful young percussion groups in the United States,” says Tony Di Sanza, professor of percussion and sponsor of TCP’s visit. The members of Third Coast Percussion —Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—hold degrees in music performance from Northwestern University, the Yale School of Music, the Eastman School of Music, the New England Conservatory, and Rutgers University.

We asked David Skidmore a few questions about TCP.

Can you tell me some history of percussion ensembles?

A very good question! The concept of a group of musicians playing percussion instruments goes back hundreds, maybe thousands of years to African drum ensembles and countless other indigenous cultures for whom percussion was all-important. The idea of a percussion ensemble such as ours, which reads notated music and is more akin to a string quartet than a culturally-specific drum ensemble, is much more recent. The first music for our type of ensemble was written in the 1920s and 30s. John Cage formed a touring percussion ensemble in the 1930s and 40s that was short-lived. In 1962 the first full-time professional percussion ensemble was formed. This group, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, is still playing concerts. A wonderful ensemble called Nexus was formed in Canada in 1971, and they also still play concerts. More recently, So Percussion formed in 1999. To my knowledge, So Percussion and Third Coast Percussion are the only two percussion ensembles in the states who employ their musicians full-time, which is a big step towards continuing to raise the level of performance and visibility of this exciting art form.

“Percussionists-in-residence” seems like a new concept. Are there others like you at other universities?

Actually our title, technically, is “ensemble-in-residence.” While it goes without saying that our chosen instruments go a long way toward defining who we are as an ensemble, our relationship with the University of Notre Dame and their DeBartolo Performing Arts Center focuses more broadly on the relationship between the performing arts and the campus at large. We are not teaching a studio full of percussion students (Notre Dame already has a wonderful percussion instructor); instead we are performing around campus and in the surrounding community, creating collaborative projects that link the performing arts at ND to the college of engineering and college of arts and letters, and in general spreading the word about the amazing creative work being done in the performing arts at Notre Dame.

I imagine that being a percussionist in an orchestra is a bit like being a trumpeter (except when playing Mahler!); you can practically read a book while waiting for your next measure. Is this one of the reasons driving the formation of percussion ensembles?

Haha – yes. We have many friends, mentors, and colleagues who make a wonderful living playing in symphony orchestras as percussionists, but for the four of us in Third Coast, chamber music was a more natural fit. It’s true that you play “more notes” in a chamber ensemble than in a symphonic percussion section, and you get to be master of your own destiny both artistically and administratively. In other words, we have much more of a say about the music we play, the concerts we play, the projects that we undergo than the average symphonic percussionist. We also have to do all the work though!

Can you tell us a bit about the composers on your program?

Owen Clayton (Clay) Condon was a member of Third Coast Percussion for many years and writes beautiful and exciting music for percussion. Much of this music is inspired by his other passion: composing electronic music, which he has done in collaboration with video artists, sculpture, and architecture. Steve Reich is perhaps one of America’s best known living classical composers. He was stuck early on with the label of “minimalism,” but this doesn’t always do justice to the incredibly groovy, exciting, and powerful music that he writes, which happens to work very well on percussion instruments. John Cage was likewise one of the most important creative figures of the 20th century. Cage’s influence spread beyond just music to all of the arts, where he was part of a shift in how artists think about every aspect of creating a new work of art. Finally, Augusta Read Thomas is one of the most sought-after composers working today. She was composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly 10 years, and has written music for most of the major orchestras of the world. But her chamber music is equally powerful, and the piece we are performing of hers entitled Resounding Earth was commissioned for us and premiered by us last September. It is her first piece of music for percussion ensemble, and features over 125 bells from all over the world.

And the master class?
We plan to frame it around the process of commissioning Augusta Read Thomas, as we will be featuring her piece Resounding Earth on the concert. We can hit on many important aspects of commissioning and one example of how a timeline of commissioning a work can unfold, from the initial idea to fund raising, discussing parameters of the piece (including what instruments can be used and other logistics), workshopping the piece with the composer during the composition process (a particular focus of ours now stemming directly from the project with Gusty), premiering the piece, recording it, continuing to perform the piece.

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