Review: Third Coast Percussion Premiers Two New Works

Screen shot of Third Coast Percussion's Friday night performance. As part of Bowling Green State University’s 41st annual New Music Festival, Chicago’s Grammy-Award winning Third Coast Percussion quartet offered a performance of several works commissioned by or written for them. Friday night’s program, which TCP prerecorded in their studio near Ravenswood in September, included two world premieres. It was the latest in a long running effort by TCP to keep the public entertained during a pandemic that has turned the vibrant world of performing arts into a wasteland. Live music in an auditorium filled with people absorbing aural magic creates a vibe that cannot be fully replicated on a flat screen TV in the living room. However, TCP was one of the first to use virtual technology to infuse new and different performance concepts that live, in-person performances don’t allow. EDM artist JLin worked closely with TCP to compose Perspective. Photo by Ryan Lowry. While maximizing the distance between performers and the audience, a broadcast enables things that bridge that distance. This includes a running commentary in the chat by composers, audience members, and, when the performance has been prerecorded, the performers themselves. It also allows interspersing video clips of composers explaining their work and the collaborative, creative process TCP uses with composers. This can also happen in an in-person setting, but the broadcast allows more creativity and depth. Video editing enhances another feature that makes percussion concerts more interesting than most: choreography that arises when the players move from one group of instruments to another. Shifting camera angles adds to the performance’s visual interest. Friday night’s performance juxtaposed traditional, well known composers next to younger composers. TCP has encouraged new composers and students through the Emerging Composers Partnership, a program geared to young composers.  TCP member Sean Connors explained that this year's deadline for submissions is October 31. (The composers from Friday night did not got through that program.) The program started on the mainstream side of things with a work that Phillip Glass wrote for TCP. The third movement of Perptulum is a dance-like piece with the repetitive, melodic lines one typically finds in Glass, who relied mainly on marimbas, vibraphones, crotales, and drums. This displayed a more frolicking side of him. Tyondai Braxton's Sunny X received its world premiere on Friday night. Photo by Grace Villamil. The first world premiere was Sunny X for percussion quartet and electronica by Tyondai Braxton, who introduced the piece and explained the interactive, creative process TCP uses with all new works they commission. Sunny X is an interesting fusion between rapid beats on slabs of wood, metal, and pipes cut for specific tones. It also had Korean temple blocks, drums, and occasional marimba. Overlaying all of it are electronic sounds that start with the sound of crickets but later shift to long tones that acted as a mantra. It’s always astonishing to hear the precision TCP applies to every line of rhythm. Up next was the first of two works on the program by Augusta Read Thomas, who has written several pieces for TCP. The first piece she wrote for them was Resounding Earth, a 4-movement work from 2012 that features over 300 bells and pieces of metal assembled from around the world. TCP member Robert Dillon explained how creating the work with Thomas established their interactive, workshop process they use with composers, including Tyondai Braxton and JLin, whose work was performed later. Screen shot of the Rin bowls used in Augusta Read Thomas' Resounding Earth. On Friday TCP played the second movement of Resounding Earth, “Prayer,” a meditative work comprising 26 chromatically tuned prayer bowls, also known as rin, and 10 crotales. The slow paced procession of sounds generate fascinating harmonics. TCP’s precision came through Friday night as sounds emerged from mallets striking and swirling around the outside edge of the bowls. Up next were five movements from JLin’s Perspective, a lengthy work this young artist from Gary, Indiana, wrote in collaboration with TCP. In video clips, JLin explained how she got into composition via electronic dance music. Her story did not include an emergence from the traditional classical music milieu. She explained how she worked with TCP to create Perspective, and the five pieces from that work on Friday’s program illustrated the wide rhythmic variety in which this composer is adept. “Paradigm” has a moderate pace, as marimbas set the tone with percussion effects overlaid. “Obscure” is faster, with sounds from a bowed vibraphone. This piece and the next one “Derivative” show a more R&B approach with a traditional drum kit providing the underlying rhythms. A very different sound emerges from “Duality,” a meditative work that builds to several lovely cadences. Augusta Read Thomas helped organize, and now leads, the CCCC. Photo by Anthony Barlich. The concert ended with a second work by Augusta Read Thomas, the world premiere of Con Moto. This piece was commissioned as an 80th birthday present for Cindy Sargent, a long time patron of Chicago’s art music scene. Thomas offered an excellent explanation of the inner workings of this piece, which seamlessly flows between marimbas, vibraphones, glockenspiel, drums, triangles, cymbals, crotales, chimes, and other devices. Thomas has written several works for TCP, and the benefits of that long-term collaboration were on display Friday night. Third Coast Percussion’s next virtual concert will take place on November 7 at 9:00 pm CST (7:00 pm PST). It will be presented by by La Jolla Music Society in California. Click here for info and tickets.
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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. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.