Third Coast Percussion Soars After Winning Grammy Award

Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.

Last year’s Ear Taxi Festival put Chicago’s vibrant contemporary art music scene on display, demonstrating a deep and talented community of local composers and performers. One of the brightest lights of our scene is Third Coast Percussion, a quartet of classically trained musicians who specialize in hitting objects with mallets, drum sticks, hammers, hands, fingers—anything that elicits a rhythmic sound from another object. Third Coast Percussion won the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

There are many percussion ensembles out there. Stomp, originally from Britain, offers a wonderful combination of percussion, dance, gymnastics, and athleticism. Street musicians bang lively rhythms on drums, bongos, industrial containers, and garbage cans. Third Coast Percussion is one of a handful of ensembles that call on the full cornucopia of rhythmic instruments. Their music is not centered on bongos or a drum kit; rather, it features marimbas, vibraphones, bells, triangles, cymbals, chimes, gongs, and all manner of resounding objects. Among other things, these instruments allow them to overlay melodies and complex harmonies onto their rhythms.

David Skidmore shares about TCP. Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.
David Skidmore. Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.

In an interview, David Skidmore, founding member and Executive Director of Third Coast Percussion, discussed TCP’s inspiration for this music and for forming. He recalled that they met while studying classical percussion at Northwestern University. He said that, “Chamber music for percussion instruments was an important part of our studies,” and he pointed to their teacher, Michael Burritt, who now teaches at the Eastman School of Music, as a major inspiration. “He was really passionate about this kind of music, and we fell in love with it.”

The three other members of TCP are Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors. Skidmore and Dillon were founding members of the group in 2004, with Martin joining shortly thereafter. Connors joined in 2013. Skidmore recalled that “Rob [Dillon] and I were in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. We had a few chamber music opportunities there, so we started performing percussion concerts. This eventually morphed into Third Coast Percussion. We gave our first performances on our own as Third Coast Percussion in the summer of 2005.”

TCP founding member Robert Dillon. Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.
Robert Dillon, founding member of TCP. Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.

Skidmore recalled those early performances. “It was really very DIY. We performed with instruments that we owned, performed in spaces we were able to get free or very cheap. Charged only a little per ticket—very grassroots.”

They were motivated by the love of the music. Noting that most percussion ensemble performances are mainly used as educational tools in classrooms, Skidmore explained, “We really felt like there’s a place for it outside of student percussion ensemble. We felt that the music could stand on its own in concert halls and for general audiences. Fortunately, we found that people are really interested in it and very receptive to it.”

I pointed out that the repertoire for percussion in a chamber music setting from pre-20th century composers was nonexistent. “One of the very first chamber pieces to include percussion in a chamber music setting was the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Bela Bartok,” explained Skidmore, noting that he had played it as an undergrad. “That piece was written in the 1930s. … It’s a brilliant piece.”

Americans John Cage and Steve Reich are composers whose music all four members of TCP had played as students and continue to play as professionals in Third Coast Percussion. “It is interesting because we are classically trained percussionists, and yet percussion lies outside of, to some degree, the classical repertoire.” Referring to several and 18th and 19th century composers, Skidmore noted, “The legacy we’re a part of has a lot more to do with John Cage and Steven Reich.”

It was the 2016 recording of Reich’s music Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich that won TCP the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance in February 2017. That release included Reich’s Mallet Quartet and Sextet, for which Third Coast Percussion was joined by pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen.

Steve Reich, Mallet Quartet (excerpt), performed by Third Coast Percussion, in Grammy Award winning fashion.

Aside from a few conversations before they recorded his works, TCP did not work with Reich in preparing their performances. However, they have worked with several other contemporary composers and premiered many works they themselves have commissioned. One such composer with whom they’ve worked extensively is Chicagoan Augusta Read Thomas, a professor of composition at the University of Chicago and director of the recently organized Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition. TCP premiered and recorded her work Selene (Moon Chariot Rituals) with Spektral Quartet on Thomas’ CD from 2016, Of Being a Bird.

Resounding Earth, by August Read Thomas, performed by TCP in 2015. Photo by Karli Cadel.
TCP performs Resounding Earth by Augusta Read Thomas in 2015. Photo by Karli Cadel.

TCP recently gave a dazzling performance of Thomas’ Resounding Earth, an astonishing work scored for 300 bells assembled from all over the world. Performing it is quintessential Third Coast Percussion. Each of the four movements employs different types of bells, which were strategically placed around the stage.

When asked about assembling the enormous collection of bells, Skidmore said, “We collected those instruments from a wide range of places.” He recalled that Augusta Read Thomas had approached them about “writing a piece of ringing bells and other ringing objects from around the world. In our studio, she saw what we owned, and we discussed other instruments that we knew of. We started drawing things together from different corners of the globe.” They obtained several Burmese spinning bells from a distributor in Nebraska “who carried a wide range of Southeast Asian gongs and other instruments, … which are occasionally used in concert works, but very, very rarely.” Thomas also loaned them a set of prayer bowls made for her by an instrument maker in Germany. Skidmore summed it up: “It was a motley crew of instruments that we pulled together.”

Peter Martin mallets with fury. Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.

In addition to premiering new music from many composers, Third Coast Percussion has also individually written pieces for the group. Last year for the first time they wrote a piece together: Reaction Yield. Skidmore had much to say about the creative process that led to this work. “It was really fun,” he recalled. “We had been thinking about writing a piece collectively for a little while. Luckily we kind of ended up having the perfect opportunity to do so. Writing a piece collectively by four people is challenging and wasn’t something we ever had done. We needed a process and a way to be creative with each other.”

The impetus came from a commission by Sounds of Science, a Utah-based group that, in the words of its website, is committed to “capturing in music the sounds and emotions that scientists experience in medicine, the life sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering.” They were approached by chemical engineer Glenn Prestwich, who heads Sounds of Science. TCP took inspiration from “a book for chemical engineers that lists every molecule that can exist on its own on the planet, and you order different quantities of these molecules,” explained Skidmore. “Combining them together creates everything from medicine, to fertilizer, to weapons, anything you can imagine.”

Following that inspiration, TCP created a book of musical ideas. “Each of us created 20 or 30 ideas, maybe a rhythm, maybe a melody, maybe a sound, maybe just a little classical concept, and we borrowed from each other’s ideas to write our own sections of the piece. We’re all very happy with the process of how it happened because we weren’t starting from scratch where we would sit in a room and start jamming to come up with something.”

Sean Connors joined TCP in 2013. Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.
Newest TCP member Sean Connors co-wrote Reaction Yield. Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.

Noting that Reaction Yield has four movements, I asked if each member was responsible for the individual movements. Skidmore replied, “We were really sort of figuring it out as we went. In the end, each section sort of started with one person, and then someone would say they had an idea of how they’d like to edit it, and we’d add to each other’s work, a process of refining. It got to the point where there are parts of the piece where each of us would say, ‘Yeah, Sean came up with that, or Pete came up with that,’ but every moment of the piece has a little bit of each of us.”

The performance of Reaction Yield at last October’s outstanding Saturday night concert at the Ear Taxi Festival  demonstrated the importance of choreography to their music, as each movement requires different sets of instruments that must all be on stage. It had the feel of a ballet.

I asked David Skidmore if choreographic considerations had any impact on the piece’s composition. “We do think about that. What we do is so visual,” he said. “Even if we just stay in one place and play, everything is movement for the sound that’s produced. That’s something that’s incredible about our profession. We also of course play a lot of instruments that require moving around.”

Stressing that, “We consider every aspect of the performance,” Skidmore noted that movement on stage had been a consideration since they started performing. “We learned pretty early on that that was an important thing we had to own, take into consideration, and be creative with, in the same way we do with our performance. It can add a lot to the performance, so we spend a lot of time thinking about where the instruments are positioned, how to get the most from each instrument, how we use the set-up on stage to highlight the music in the best possible way, that sort of thing. It’s fun and it’s an important part of performing that we really like.”

I asked if they added movement instructions when they published a new score. Skidmore responded, “With Reaction Yield, I’m sure we’ll include a set-up diagram, but it’s up to the performer. It’s part of the creativity of the piece.”

Third Coast Percussion performs during the 59th Grammy Awards at Microsoft Theater on February 12, 2017, in Los Angeles. Photo by Rich Polk/WireImage.

The conversation shifted to a high point in 2017, winning of the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, the first time TCP was nominated. Skidmore recalled that occasion. “It was incredible!” he exclaimed. “It is etched in all of our memories as a really special, special moment. Especially to be up there with the three other guys, because we built this thing from scratch, everything TCP has achieved we did with our bare hands. It was a nice moment in time, a little milestone. And, then we woke up the morning after the Grammys and went to Missouri for another concert. Life goes on.”

Had winning a Grammy Award changed them in any way? “It’s allowing us to do things we wouldn’t have been able to do, which is all we could ask for,” reflected Skidmore. “Being universally recognized is great. It gives us more opportunities to bring our music to more people, Gives us more opportunities to do cool and crazy projects, work with new collaborators, that sort of thing.”

Watch the video Torched and Wrecked, by David Skidmore. Performance by Third Coast Percussion. Video by Vic Firth.

The members of TCP met while they were students at Northwestern University. Even after starting their own ensemble, they’ve continued to call Chicago home. “What we found about Chicago is that it is an incredibly thriving artistic scene,” explained Skidmore, “but it doesn’t come with the prohibitive price tag of NY, SF, or certain other cities. To be an artist here, you can start young, really scrappy, just pulling together work here and there, and doing what you’re really passionate about. It’s hard, just as hard here as anywhere else. But there’s a support structure, there are other people who are into what you’re doing. … I think it’s an amazing place to be as an artist.”

Here’s TCP performing Ordering Instincts by Robert Dillon. Video by Vic Firth.

One of the biggest challenges facing classical music today is attracting an audience, which, for more traditional classical music, seems to be getting older and smaller. The Ear Taxi Festival showed that, under the right circumstances, contemporary classical music can attract a wider following.

Asked how TCP approaches the challenge of growing its audience, Skidmore offered several strategies. “One of the things that we’re doing to build audiences that lines up with what we want to artistically is that we’re constantly looking for connection with our art form and other art forms or other media outside of music, other areas of study, other areas of interest. I think that’s one thing that really helps. We’ve done a project at the Adler Planetarium, a piece based on astronomical phenomena, a project that involves local architecture, a project exploring connections between music and engineering.”

Third Coast Percussion holds up the mallets. Photo by Saverio Truglia.
Third Coast Percussion uses many tools. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

He also noted that that, “We work with a number of different composers with a wide range of backgrounds, including composers from the U.S., Ireland, France, China, Colombia, Brazil…composers who have studied composition at a conservatory, composers who make their living in a rock band, other composers with  other musical experiences. All of these collaborations are about finding connections between what we do and other people. I think that, if you do that, and you just put out the best music you possibly can, that’s how you build an audience. It takes years, but it’s fun, and it never gets old for us.”

While TCP has achieved considerable success, they are determined not to stand still; they’re always exploring new and different musical styles. “We have a lot of influences, and a lot of curiosity and interests in what’s out there,” explained Skidmore.

In the past few years, they’ve been studying Shona music from Zimbabwe, which has become part of their performances. “Other cultures have something to teach us, and that’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Skidmore explained. “We continue to reach out to more and different people who make music, whether or not they call themselves a ‘composer.’ Anyone who is a creative music-maker and is interested in trying something new can offer a really fun opportunity for us to grow.”

Third Coast Percussion. Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.
Third Coast Percussion Play in Stride. Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Percussion.

Skidmore has several successful recordings and a Grammy Award with Third Coast Percussion. I asked him, if a major orchestra offered him a choice seat in a percussion section, would he take it?

He laughed. “No. I have a tremendous respect for orchestral percussionists. And the friends I know who do that love it. But orchestras are playing primarily music written hundreds of years ago by men who lived in Europe.” He thought a moment and continued, “I like some of that music, but I’m more interested in music that’s being written today by a wide variety of people from all over the world. That variety feels a little more in touch of what it’s like to be alive today. That’s what I find inspiring.”

In reflecting on TCP’s aspirations, Skidmore said, “To continue to reach new audiences is a big thing for us, and that means not just here in the States but also overseas. We’d like to do more international touring, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America.” Summing it up, he said, “I think that the work that we’ve done so far is indicative of the work that we want to do. We want to continue to champion this music. It will always be new to somebody; it’s such a new art form. If we spent our lives playing concerts for people who have never heard of percussion concerts, that would be enough, that would be a fantastic idea to me.”

As Third Coast Percussion gears up for the 2017-18 season, they have several Chicago performances on the horizon. Most anticipated is the world premiere of a new concerto by Augusta Read Thomas:  Sonorous Earth. TCP will be performing this with the Chicago Philharmonic, Scott Speck conductor, at the Harris Theater at 3pm on November 12. (Composer Thomas has said that Sonorous Earth was originally inspired by Resounding Earth, but the addition of a full orchestra allowed her to go in new and different directions. It should be excellent either way.)

Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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