Eight hands make light work for Third Coast Percussion

May 9, 2018
by Peter Margasak

“[Third Coast Percussion’s] collaborative spirit has already made them one of the best percussion ensembles in the country—and their upcoming projects could make them the biggest.”

“Third Coast Percussion are outstanding players, and an incredibly tight unit.”

“…unendingly buoyant personality—rigorous but friendly, never dumbing anything down.”

Many thanks to Peter Margasak of the Chicago Reader for this wonderful artist profile, concert preview, and in-depth look at many years of Third Coast’s creative and collaborative works. Read an excerpt below, or click here to read the full feature.

Last year Chicago quartet Third Coast Percussion won their first Grammy: Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, for a 2016 album of music by minimalist icon Steve Reich. Reich’s distinctively pulsing music has been part of Third Coast’s repertoire since the ensemble’s founding in 2005, and recently they’ve been invited to perform his work by prestigious institutions such as Columbia University and the Cleveland Museum of Art. For their next season, beginning this fall, TCP will take several programs on the road, including a selection of music by another minimalist icon, Philip Glass – he’s even writing a piece for the group, his first ever for a percussion ensemble.

Third Coast Percussion are also thriving in territory less well traveled by new-music groups. In September 2018 at the Harris Theater, they’ll premiere a collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance that also involves Los Angeles-based choreographers and movement artists Emma Portner, Lil Buck, and Jon Boogz–TCP will perform commissioned music composed by pop polymath Devonté Hynes, aka Blood Orange.

Since 2013, when TCP landed a five-year appointment as an ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame, the four members—David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors—have been able to support themselves solely through the group. Collaborations with artists famous outside the world of classical music—the upcoming project with Hynes, for instance, or their 2015 partnership with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who composed the multimedia work Wild Sound for them—always have the potential to bring in new listeners in large numbers. It’s difficult to determine why one group succeeds and another fails, but TCP have gotten this far in large part due to their self-sufficient business model and cooperative creative process.

From a listener’s point of view, though, the important methodology is musical, not administrative. In 2013, when Third Coast launched their Emerging Composers Partnership to solicit new work from young talent, they stipulated that the process be rigorously interactive. Customarily a composer writes a commissioned piece, sends the group the score, and then gets together with the musicians for a few rehearsals before the premiere. By contrast, TCP ask each composer in this program to visit them at their Ravenswood studio (in a building they share with the likes of Eighth Blackbird and Ensemble dal Niente) at least three times during the writing process, so they can all workshop it together. Currently they’re partnering with composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Ayanna Woods (sister of rising soul star Jamila Woods). Even when Third Coast work with more established composers, they prefer to take a hands-on approach whenever possible.

Third Coast Percussion are outstanding players, and an incredibly tight unit,” says Tom Welsh, director of performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the co-commissioners of TCP’s latest work Paddle to the Sea. “They have that exceedingly rare talent to be able to make appealing even the most difficult or unusual musics. This must be due, in no small part, to their unendingly buoyant personality—rigorous but friendly, never dumbing anything down.”

This versatility and accessibility augur well for Third Coast’s latest project with Hubbard Street Dance. In 2014 the group played Reich’s Drumming to accompany the troupe’s performance of Jirí Kylián’s dance piece Falling Angels, but their upcoming collaborations will take TCP far from that familiar ground: working with Hynes and with Portner, who’s done videos and tour pieces for Justin Bieber, definitely widens the group’s range of artistic partners. “Third Coast are, collectively, an undeniably brilliant group of music artists who collaborate very often,” Portner says. “They are already so open to our ideas and really know what it takes to collaborate successfully. I know they will bring Dev’s ideas to life and beyond. I’m excited for all of these elements to come together.”

Third Coast will no doubt continue to find even bigger opportunities with an even wider range of presenters and collaborators, but their members maintain a level-headed attitude about the niche position of classical music in the larger world—they know that most of the people they reach as their audience grows will be newcomers to these sounds. Because they take pleasure in introducing listeners to what they love, rather than getting frustrated that they still have to do so, they’re in a great position to enjoy a long and healthy career.


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