April 12, 2017
Interview by Jeffrey Young
Third Coast Percussion is a percussion quartet based in Chicago that tours nationally and internationally, commissions new works, and just won a GRAMMY for their album Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich. Third Coast members David Skidmore (participant in the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY in 2005-08) and Robert Dillon (2003-05, 2007-08) spoke to Jeffrey Young about winning a GRAMMY, their time in Lucerne, and more.
Jeffrey Young: How did your time in Lucerne impact you and your young ensemble?
David Skidmore: The experiences I had at Lucerne were hugely important to my own musicianship and my love of new music, enabling me to work with world class composers and perform new music at a really high level. I went to Lucerne for the first time in 2005 and that was exactly the year Third Coast started. I think the overlap was important and fortuitous because of how much I learned about new music at Lucerne.
Robert Dillon: It introduced us to some great friends who are still important collaborators for Third Coast. In a couple of months we’re going to have two fellow alumni who live in Europe performing with us in Chicago, Johannes Fischer and Domenico Melchiorre. Then there are great musicians in America we met at Lucerne who have been collaborators over the years like Ross Karre and Nick Terry. You can see the influence of Lucerne on Third Coast’s programming as well. We have a very strong rooting in American composers like Steve Reich, John Cage, and many others, but we also got very excited about some of the great European modernist composers we discovered or performed in Lucerne like Gérard Grisey and György Ligeti. In a very real sense, I think our experiences in Lucerne helped to broaden our aesthetic interests.
JY: The four of you not only play but each have an administrative role in your ensemble. How did you choose those roles and how do you find a balance between being musicians and administrators?
RD: The balance is an ongoing struggle. In the past two years we’ve added a full-time managing director and part-time studio manager, but the four of us still do a lot. Frankly it’s a test of self-discipline to make sure we’re addressing both the administrative and artistic tasks that need to be dealt with. Those roles evolved pretty organically over time, with a bit of trial and error. Our colleague Peter Martin likes to say he became our Finance Director because he was the one who opened our first bank account. That’s kind of true, but the reason he’s still in that position is because he proved himself capable to do it. So it’s been a mix of each of us taking on things that had to be done, figuring out what we each feel comfortable doing, and trying to divide the labor as evenly as we can.
DS: There are a lot of challenges of doing both artistic and administrative work, but the advantage is that we could then do artistically exactly what we wanted to do. It’s as much our ability to learn the necessary administrative tasks as it is our artistry and dedication that have enabled us to make this a full-time job and pursue this passion of ours.
JY: What’s it like being based in Chicago?
RD: There’s a real sense of enthusiasm here. It was very exciting this year to see both Spektral Quartet and Lincoln Trio also nominated in our category at the GRAMMYS, meaning three of the five nominees were based in Chicago. I think Chicago is in a special place where there’s a critical mass of talented and ambitious musicians who want to carve out their own path, as well as receptive audiences and some support from individuals and foundations, and frankly the cost of living is a bit better than New York. It’s a very supportive environment and it’s been awesome over the twelve years that Third Coast Percussion has been around to develop a network with other great Chicago ensembles. Eighth Blackbird and Ensemble Dal Niente are even in the same building as us now, an old factory building on the north side of Chicago, so we all are very close and everyone is there to support each other.
JY: What was it like finding out you’d been nominated for a GRAMMY and being invited to perform?
RD: On a certain morning in December when they release the nominations, we all got a text message from our managing director with a screenshot of the nominees for our category. It was in the midst of a very busy couple of weeks, so I think we were all struggling to find time to process and celebrate the news, but it certainly elevated our energy and excitement level.
DS: A while later, I got a call from one of the team of people who put on the GRAMMYS who had this crazy idea of us performing Steve Reich’s music with the nominee for best improvised solo, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, improvising over us. In our quartet we’ve always been finding ways to step outside preconceived notions of what it means to be a classical musician, but my first thought was: “What?! That’s not what we do!” But then we thought, Steve Reich lists so many influences on his music, from the time he spent in Ghana studying Ewe drumming to early music to John Coltrane specifically. Steve talks about modal jazz harmony in his works and these amazing moments where you stay in a harmony for a while and let it very gradually develop. Of course with John Coltrane that meant improvising over the harmony and for Steve that means other things, but it got us excited about the idea. Ravi of course is a different person from his father, but there’s undoubtedly a tie there, so we thought OK, let’s ask Steve. He was thrilled about the idea, which got us even more excited. It also became clear early on that it wasn’t a gimmick the GRAMMY team was interested in, but rather the idea that, at an awards show where you have a room full of highly accomplished musicians, why not have some of them collaborate? In the evening telecast where the ten or twelve higher profile awards are given to pop stars, they’ve been doing this for years, so why not do this during the premiere ceremony, where they give away more like seventy awards! You’ve got Americana, folk, classical, jazz and other improvised musics, gospel, heavy metal, hip-hop. Ours was the collaboration that came through this year, but I know it’s something they’re interested in doing more. It ended up being a total blast.
JY: Did the experience make you want to approach classical and contemporary classical music in a different way?
DS: We still do what we do, and we’ve always had an interest in collaborating with unexpected people, but it was cool to see what we do through a broader lens. I thought there was a lot of respect for what we were doing.
RD: More than anything else I think the GRAMMY represents a challenge to keep thinking ambitiously, and we’re really excited about how this award will open up more opportunities for us to do all the things we want to do, whether it’s playing European modernist music, collaborating with a musician outside our genre, developing new educational programs, or getting our next recording out to as broad an audience as we can.
JY: Do you want to say more about what you’re working on?
DS: We’re on tour right now in Fayetteville, Arkansas and have shows coming up in Colorado, Texas, Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina, so in the immediate future it’s us doing more of what we’re dedicated to: performing a lot of concerts featuring works we’ve commissioned. We’ve got more really exciting commissions coming up, but the four of us have also recently started composing music together. We’ve all individually worked as composers for our group and other groups, but for the first time we composed a piece together that we’ll premiere in the fall, and another larger piece called Paddle to the Sea, which will be on our next album alongside music in our repertoire that we really love. The other project we’re passionate about is our Emerging Composers Partnership, where we ask anyone who self-identifies as “emerging” and creates music in any way to send us a free application. We listen to their music, read a little about what they propose for a new percussion piece, then work with them throughout a whole year. We have three visits with them and as they’re writing the piece we give them feedback, and then we premiere the piece in Chicago. We’ve just announced two new winners, and our next application deadline is November 1st, so if anyone out there is a composer − from anywhere in the world as long as you can get to Chicago three times in a year − we hope you’ll apply. The three composers who are now finishing their projects and will have the works premiered in Chicago soon are José Martínez, Katie Young, and Annika Socolofsky.
JY: Any suggestions for people just starting their careers?
RD: One piece of advice we try to give as much as possible is if you have a sense of what you want to do as an artist, start doing it right away to whatever extent you’re able to. It’s going to take a while to build it to the point where you both know what you’re doing and can make any money at it, so building it into your lifestyle and routine as soon as you can will increase the chances that someday it will be the career you want to have.