Mallets and sticks: Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion

September 27, 2019
by Mark Tiarks

When The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling anointed Chicago and its environs “The Second City” in 1952, he meant no compliment, downplaying it as “merely a large place” rather than a big city. The region has since restyled itself “The Third Coast,” with Chicago as its hub, powered by higher education, creativity, and the arts, instead of steel mills and slaughterhouses.

Out of this environment came Third Coast Percussion, four young players who were all students at Northwestern University in 2005. Their first gigs had been educational concerts in Chicago’s public schools and city colleges, but they soon branched out with public performances on their own, many in small neighborhood bars and nightclubs.

Now Third Coast is one of the hottest classical music groups in the world, hailed as “commandingly elegant” by The New York Times and “absolute masters of the art,” by BBC Music Magazine.

The quartet of Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore makes its Santa Fe debut on Tuesday, Oct. 1, under the auspices of Performance Santa Fe. Their program includes music by Philip Glass (Perpetulum, a co-commission by PSF and Third Coast), Augusta Read Thomas, Mark Applebaum, and Devonté Hynes (better known to you contemporary R&B fans as Blood Orange), along with four of their own compositions.

Third Coast doesn’t travel light when they’re on tour. The instruments they’re bringing to Santa Fe from performances in Italy and England include marimbas, Thai gongs, tuned cowbells, metal pipes, wood slats (all cut from highly sustainable red oak), drums of various shapes and sizes, crotales (small cymbals tuned to specific pitches), vibraphones, Chinese cymbals, and 26 prayer bowls. Plus mallets and sticks. Lots and lots of mallets and sticks.

Collaboration in many different guises is a hallmark of almost every Third Coast project…

Of profound impact is a 2011 commission to Chicago-based composer Augusta Read Thomas for Resounding Earth, one movement of which is planned for the Third Coast performance here. “She was a mentor to us when we were at Northwestern,” recalls Dillon, “and her career has shot ahead so fast. This was her first work for us, and she wanted something that would really be a stretch, so we decided on a big piece just for bells. We spent hours and hours together over the course of a year trying out different kinds of bells and beaters and mallets, then workshopping different sections of music before it was finalized.

“The whole piece requires more than 300 bells and bell-like instruments; in Santa Fe, we’re performing the second movement, which is called ‘Prayer – Star Dust Orbits’ and makes use of 26 chromatically tuned prayer bowls. They can be struck or stirred, and a hummed pitch emerges. It’s very meditative and ethereal and fills the room with this magical sound. It’s not at all what people think a percussion concert will be like.”

“The whole process with Augusta was so transformative that we now insist on a collaborative process with a workshopping experience with all our commissions.” Even with Philip Glass, one of the deans of American music, for Perpetulum? “Yes,” Dillon says, laughing. “We had lots of Skype time with Philip and sent audio files back and forth all the time as we were trying things out.”

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