Philip Glass and Third Coast Percussion launch a world premiere for Humanities Fest

November 6, 2018
by Howard Reich

Come Friday night, Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion will make a bit of music history.

For as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival,the unconventional quartet will play the world premiere of Philip Glass’ “Perpetulum,” which the ensemble commissioned.

Not that it’s easy to get a composer of Glass’ stature to write music for you.

“We kind of never dreamed he would actually say yes,” explains TCP ensemble member and executive director David Skidmore.

“We hoped he would, of course.”

Why Glass?

“One of the really important artistic missions for our organization is commissioning iconic composers – composers who are in the history books already and still writing music,” explains Skidmore.

“Because no one asked Bartok to write a percussion quartet, no one asked Stravinsky to write a percussion quartet, no one asked Shostakovich to write a percussion quartet.

If we don’t ask them,” adds Skidmore, referring to today’s giants, “maybe no one will ask them.”

“Asking Philip was crucial. It doesn’t even do justice to say we’ve been fans. He has been a part of the musical landscape, his influence in music of so many other composers we play and so many bands we listen to seemed like such a natural fit.”

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name many non-commercial composers who have reached a wider audience than Glass. But considering that, at 81, the man still tours the world constantly and cannot possibly fulfill more than a fraction of all the commissions he’s offered, one wonders why he agreed to write for a percussion quartet, of all things.

“It’s a high-end percussion outfit – they’re very good players,” says Glass, singing TCP’s praises.

“These are not people who get together on the weekend to play. These are people who are devoted.”

That they are, as evidenced by TCP’s brisk touring schedule and long list of commissions, including works by stylistically far-flung composers such as Augusta Read Thomas and Glenn Kotche.

In the case of “Perpetulum,” the musicians came up with an intriguing way of bringing the new work to life.

“I didn’t consult them on the music,” says Glass. “I simply wrote the piece. The way it worked was I would send the music, and they would record it and send it back to me. If they had ideas about some of the playing, they could show me what they wanted to do. That went on for maybe five or six weeks.”

Or, as Skidmore puts it, “He’s a consummate professional. As busy as he is, he turned in the score when he said he would, which is not something I would say for some of his peers. The score showed up, we read through it and recorded it and sent it to him.”

They repeated the process several times, as Glass refined the piece.

As for the structure of the work, “I went at it in a different way than most people might,” says Glass. “I assigned each of the players a certain number of instruments that they could play, so there shouldn’t be a lot of running around on the stage.

“The other thing I was interested in was approaching it as an orchestration issue as well as a compositional one. In other words, you have all these different instruments that are available to them, and, as with an orchestra, that doesn’t meant you’re using them all the time. … There are some that become more dominant.”

Glass adds that he left space for a TCP cadenza, “because I wanted them to have a crack at the music by themselves. I suggested they take some the thematic material and develop it themselves.”

Which is exactly what they’ve done, says Skidmore, who with his colleagues decided to write out the cadenza rather than improvise it.

Though Skidmore and friends were surprised that Glass took on the project, the composer says he was eager to do so.

“I had to wait a long time before anyone asked me to do this,” says Glass. “I would have done it any time.”

Friday’s program will begin with Glass playing solo piano, followed by an onstage interview with Skidmore and, finally, the “Perpetulum” world premiere, with Glass as listener, not performer.

Then the composer will be off to his next engagement, the musician still maintaining a remarkably busy itinerary.

“I’m slowing down – I’ve been on the road for 50 years – I’m going to spend more time writing,” promises Glass, whose nonmusical writing won him the Tribune Literary Award in 2016 for his engaging autobiography, Words Without Music: A Memoir.

“For me, airplane travel has become extremely difficult,” adds Glass. “It’s not comfortable, the whole security routine is annoying at the very least. … I’m tired of the onerous nature of the activity. So I’m going to cut it down somewhat. I’m still interested in playing; I’m just not going to do as much.”

Still, Glass has an especially important engagement coming up next month: He’ll receive a Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C.

“I was totally surprised, but I was very pleased,” says Glass.

“I figure it’s important for concert music to be represented in these big things where we’re usually not represented,” he says of a prize that this year also will go to pop stars Cher and Reba McEntire, among others.

“There I am with them.”

Philip Glass and Third Coast Percussion perform at 7 p.m. Friday at Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster Ave.; the event is sold-out, but callers can be added to a waiting list at 312-605-8444; www.chicagohumanities.org.


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