March 28, 2019
by Jack Walton
Until now, the prolific Philip Glass has never composed a work scored strictly for percussion. It’s probably good that he waited.
His immediate predecessors did not have anything like the resources that exist today from a performance standpoint. When John Cage introduced his pioneering works for percussion ensemble in the 1930s, there were no expert musicians available to play the pieces. Cage had to settle for an ensemble of “percussionists” who were actually just kindly helpers from his circle of friends. In some cases, the performers were not even musicians. The works had to be primitively simple or there was no way for them to be played at all.
Fortunately, groups of the high caliber of Third Coast Percussion exist today. On Saturday at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Third Coast Percussion performs “Perpetulum,” a commissioned piece that Glass wrote with Third Coast specifically in mind. The concert is the culmination of a three-day Glass celebration at DeBartolo, and “Perpetulum” is only half the concert program. In a rare onstage appearance, Glass, 82, will actually perform as pianist in a series of solos and duets with violinist Tim Fain.
The Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion has been a Notre Dame ensemble-in-residence since 2012, and this marks the end of the tenure with a bang.
“From our perspective, it felt like a pie-in-the-sky thing,” percussionist David Skidmore says of the commission. “Maybe we can get him to know who we are and maybe we could get him interested in writing for us.”
Skidmore and his colleagues — Sean Connors, Peter Martin and Robert Dillon — were sufficiently impressive to the composer that Glass agreed to generate something for them. Skidmore says that the result is hardly the gloomy, valedictory ruminations of an aging composer in his grumpy late period.
“What you can hear clearly in the piece — and this is what struck us when we first read through it — is that it’s so full of joy. He’s trying new things, taking risks,” Skidmore says. “If I’m fortunate to reach the place where he is in life, I hope I can still be so curious.”
The opening movement of “Perpetulum” unleashes the work’s main themes.
“It starts with no pitched instruments. It’s woodblocks, snare drum, bass drum, cymbal. It’s a cool way to subvert expectations,” Skidmore says. “It’s not until a good minute or two before you start to hear harmonies and tropes that I more typically associate with Philip’s music.”
A slower, darker second movement follows, eventually giving way to a cadenza. The aforementioned joy explodes in an exuberant finale.
The percussionists are free to do whatever they want in the cadenza.
“He told us we could use themes from the piece or we could improvise it or through-compose it,” Skidmore says. “He knew that we could all compose and that we all have our own creative interests. He wanted our voices to be part of the piece as well.”
Glass, perhaps the name most synonymous with “minimalism” in classical music, has worked in almost every format, from chamber music to massive orchestral settings. His widest broader cultural ripples came in 1976, with his controversial opera “Einstein on the Beach,” and in 1982, with the mesmerizing score to the film “Koyaanisqatsi.” Glass will be present for a discussion of that soundtrack in part of today’s event: a screening of “Koyaanisqatsi” at the DeBartolo. Friday’s event is a salute to Glass from Notre Dame’s music department.
His output is vast and his influence is as great as any contemporary composer in the field. Skidmore says that it’s profound to think that decades from now, a percussion ensemble might be playing Third Coast Percussion’s own cadenza in a Glass composition.
“I’m so excited for the life of this piece beyond us,” he says. “I want to find out what other people do with it.”