Review: Third Coast Percussion Unveils Between Breaths in Music and Film

Third Coast Percussion opened their 2023-24 season Saturday night with a celebration and performance of Between Breaths, their new CD on Cedille Records that will be released later this week. Originally part of another festival that had been cancelled, Saturday’s performance ended up taking place at the Logan Center for Performing Arts in Hyde Park. As it turned out, there is no better venue for this percussion quartet to show off its immaculate playing and multi-media presentation.

Having been around for over 15 years and with a Grammy Award to their credit, Third Coast Percussion offers one of the most riveting performances of any classical ensemble in Chicago. The entire stage is cluttered with marimbas, drums, xylophones, bells, glockenspiels, cymbals, and an extraordinary number of noisemakers. Each piece requires movement, both in hitting the instruments and in switching among them during the performance. TCP combines perfect playing and magnetic stage presence to offer a riveting visual experience.

While performing everything on Between Breaths, Third Coast Percussion did not perform it in order on the disc. Instead, they made it a better program by increasing the musical intensity and duration of the pieces as the concert progressed. As the program notes and CD liner notes explained, these pieces capture “the daily rituals that ground us, and the moments of meditative pause that modern life rarely affords…”

Saturday’s concert opened with Triple Point by Chicago composer Ayanna Woods. Triple point refers to the temperature and pressure where a substance is solid, liquid, and gaseous at the same time. After passages of quick starts and stops, it breaks into a waltz rhythm with performers on marimbas, drum kit, lariats, and xylophone. The program notes refer to “the world being meditative and groovy at the same time.” To this end, a pulsating sound on two notes eventually underpins the aura. In the darkened stage, it came off well on Saturday, when the instruments were positioned on stage right.

The scene shifted to center stage for Sunny X by Tyondai Braxton, which started with a furious barrage on stacked wood blocks while electronic screeches, sounding almost like birds, were heard overhead. It then goes to metal slabs, steel pipes, crotales, and other objects. Woven over everything were electronic sounds that blended perfectly to create a spooky affect. Following rapid high-pitched sounds toward the middle, a single louder note sounded from the speakers. It felt like an interruption from the Emergency Broadcast System. A spacey musical fabric then took over.

The players moved back to the marimbas for Death Wish by Gemma Peacocke, a piece Third Coast Percussion performed during one of their COVID-19 virtual broadcasts. As was the case then, Peacocke, who is from Aotearoa New Zealand but lives in Princeton, New Jersey, introduced the piece via video. Death Wish was inspired by a film about survivors of sexual assaults. With a darkened staged illuminated only by soft, red light, Third Coast Percussion offered a wonderful circle of sounds formed by trills on the marimbas. A gloomy melody emerges on the bass notes. It ends with ever softening sounds that just fade away.

Missy Mazzoli’s Millenium Canticles was next. She also introduced her piece with a video, where she explained that it is a vision of hope in a post-apocalyptic world, where four people recreate human life. With the focus shifting to stage left, this five-movement work brought to the show the concept of Between Breaths by opening in a startling way with the players inhaling deeply and loudly. Such vocalizations color the work throughout, with chanted numbers and, toward the end, with whistles and screams. The instrumentation includes drums, wood blocks, and tone chimes. Most interesting was the lion’s roar created by wet cloths massaging a lengthy rope tied to the head of a bass drum. As the players walked around the stage, the roar would increase and decrease in intensity.

The concert ended with Third Coast Percussion’s own composition, In Practice, which was paired with the world premiere of a short film of the same name by dancer Quentin Robinson. He created a delightful visual montage of movement set to In Practice. Third Coast Percussion appeared at the end of the film. Starting with a river walk in the country, the film shifts to a day in the life of Robinson’s rituals and routines in his home of Missoula, Montana. It shows him bathing, brushing teeth, having coffee, and going to a café. It includes choreographed group interactions and a staged fight. It was an exhilarating way to end the program.

Third Coast Percussion’s Chicago concert season continues with a performance at Navy Pier’s Chicago Live! They will be on the Lake Stage, Saturday, September 23, at 4:30pm. This is followed by their annual TCP Fall Benefit, where composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery will perform. Floating World Gallery, 1925 N Halsted St, Thursday, October 5, pm. More information can be found here.

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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.