The Grammy Award winning percussion quartet, Third Coast Percussion, recently visited the Northwest Arkansas area to perform in the Walton Arts Centers 10×10 series. The 10×10 Arts Series is a season of 10 performances hosted by the Walton Arts Center with the intent to bring new and unique art forms to the Northwest Arkansas Community at the low cost of $10 a ticket. Third Coast Percussion has been performing and expanding the depth of the world of percussion.
Who is Third Coast Percussion?
Each of the four quartet members are classically trained percussionists and composers. Based in Chicago, the Third Coast Percussion is the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Third Coast Percussion put on an outstanding performance that was full of new experiences that blew their audience away.
Throughout the week, the ensemble put on multiple master classes, and performances involving students of all ages and local musicians. Each of the members of Third Coast Percussion have been music educators at some point in their careers. This leads them be very passionate about their community outreach. They believe that “art is an invaluable experience for people of all ages.”
The program they performed Friday night, Lyrical Geometry , is a unique and energetic collaboration of both traditional percussion and unconditional instruments. During the performance, Quartet member, Robert Dillon commented on the diverse selection of instrumentation; asking “What is a percussion instrument?” The definition of a percussion instrument is “a musical instrument that is sounded by being struck or scrapped”, but Third Coast Percussion believe that a percussion instrument is “anything you ask a percussionist to play and they say yes” or anything “that the other musicians wont play.” This seemed to be the general theme for this concert. The program included obscure instruments such as Japanese Temple Bowls and amplified table tops.
The Lyrical Geometry Program :
Composed by Glenn Kotche, Wild Sound, uses a combination of marimbas and vibraphones that create an almost “wild” sound with its very fast and systematic layering of rhythms. At some points the rhythms were complementary, and at others, it was almost overwhelming. However, none of this distracted from the enjoyment of the piece. I was impressed by the way that the musicians maintained their inner pulse and were able to pull off such a feat so that their listeners did not get lost or distracted. This piece was an introduction to the rest of the performance by establishing the traditional percussion techniques with new flourishes and flares to establish a new art form all together.
Composed by Theirry De Mey, Table Music, was by far the audiences favorite piece in the program. After the show, everyone was wondering which of the Third Coast Percussion Albums had a recording of Table Music on it. Sadly, Third Coast Percussion has not yet released a recording of them playing this piece. I was blown away by the use of amplified tables in the Table Music piece performed by Peter Martin, Sean Connors, and David Skidmore. As a tap dancer, the idea of making rhythms with your hands was amazing. The music for this piece includes descriptions of the exact way to hit or touch the table to make a particular sound. This makes the piece resemble both music and choreographed dance at the same time.
Resounding Earth mvt. II Prayer
Composed by Augusta Read Thomas, Resounding Earth, was composed for and dedicated to Third Coast Percussion. This is a very unique piece that requires the use of hundreds of metal instruments including singing bowls and bells from numerous different cultures. This piece celebrates the idea that music brings cultures together and the vast variety of musical instruments.The piece is made up of four movements: Invocation, Prayer, Mantra, and Reverie. As Robert Dillon explained the entire work is about 30 minutes long. So for time’s sake, Third Coast Percussion only performed the third movement, Prayer. Prayer, is an even distribution of eeriness and beauty that seems to grow out of nothingness. Third Coast Percussion had me sitting on the edge of my seat afraid to move or disturb the perfect balance of silence and music.
Composed by Steve Reich, Mallet Percussion, is another composition written for two marimbas and two vibraphones with multiple movements. Third Coast Percussion played all three of these movements: Fast, Slow, and Fast. In the two Fast movements, the two marimbas provide the foundation cannon like background that continues through out the piece while the two vibraphones take turns playing the solo-like melody. I admire Sean and Robert for their fluidity as they seamlessly passed around the melody without delay. During the Slow movement, the instrumentation thins out. I enjoyed how the ensemble did not pause between the three movements and they seemed to just flow into one fluid song despite the contrast between slow and fast movements.
Composed by ensemble member, Peter Martin, BEND, is composed for a percussion quartet using two marimbas. This piece uses various different mallets, bows, and sticking techniques to create a unique sound. The bows create a very different sound when they are run across the edge of the keys that sounds like the bending of music. The piece ebbs and flows in an unpredictable and pattern-less way. As soon as a common theme is established, it is abruptly changed with the introduction of a new sound, or a drastic change of dynamics. This was a very entertaining piece that I was not expecting to hear. I especially enjoyed the use of the other end of the mallets.
Composed by ensemble member, Robert Dillon, Ordering-instincts, is a 10 minute piece including the only two drums in the program, wooden blocks, and a few metal “disks”. It was easy to get lost in all the new sounds you were hearing. But with the aid of a live video streaming to a screen above the stage, you could see the choreographed dance of the musicians. Their music provided a road map to guide them through the traffic of the piece. Creating perfectly organized sound, music.
Composed by Isaac Schankler, Blindness, is composed for 4 percussionists playing on one vibraphone accompanied by an electronic recording. At first I was a little skeptical about how 4 grown men could play the same instruments at the same time, but all of my doubts were put to rest the moment they began playing. In the past, my personal experiences playing with an electronic backing track have not been successful. But in this composition the electronic track did not take away from the ensembles performance, but added additional sound effects resembling sounds one would expect to hear if they were blind.
Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities
Composed by ensemble member, David Skidmore, Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities, was the perfect end to a phenomenal program. This piece incorporated visual art by projecting an animated design that was mesmerizing and moved with the music. This addition to the program emphasized how all art forms are connected in their abilities to express feelings and movement without out the use of traditional language. Art: music, design, dance, and literature are all abstract forms of communication used to express what one does not have the courage to express on their own. I feel that this composition described the diversity of life and talents among people.
I am not a percussionist but as a musician, I am enamored by new art forms and Third Coast Percussion did not disappoint. Each piece introduced a new theme accompanied by a perfect blend of traditional instruments and new sounds. The program was a perfect arrangements of pieces that made a statement: the art world is changing. I had never seen or heard anything remotely familiar to what Third Coast Percussion played. Third Coast Percussion never ceased to impress me.
A Percussion Quartet is not the norm, but Third Coast Percussion despite skepticism from friends, they did it anyway and won a Grammy for it! In the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, the quartet won their first Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance on their album featuring works by Steve Reich, an iconic percussionist and composer. In their Performance at the Grammy Awards, they performed the third movement Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet with jazz saxophonist, Ravi Coltrane. This is a huge game changer for the world of percussion as it is the first time a percussion ensemble has won a Grammy in a Chamber Music category.
Third Coast Percussion is opening doors for future generations of percussionists. Percussion has come a long way since the 18th century and the invention of the drum. Percussionists are constantly looking for new things to play around with to create new sounds. Third Coast Percussion is always pushing the boundaries of what percussion is. Modernist composer, Edgard Varèse, once said that music is “organized sound” when referring to his own musical style. I feel that this definition of music describes Third Coasts Percussion perfectly.
To listen to Third Coast Percussion check them out on sound cloud or my video page: