October 21, 2017
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
The Nasher Sculpture Center’s Soundings season opens with Third Coast Percussion and an original score for the film Paddle to the Sea.
Soundings: New Music at the Nasher is an always-intriguing series at the Nasher Sculpture Center that features the music of our time. On Wednesday, the curators outdid themselves by presenting an ensemble called Third Coast Percussion that performed a live soundtrack to a 1966 Oscar-nominated movie, Paddle to the Sea. It is based on a well-known Canadian children’s book (1941) with the same title by Holling Clancy Holling. The book is in short chapters, designed to be a series of bedtime stories. The film adds an environmental message.
The 28-minute movie is available on YouTube here. It was heavily edited and expanded for the performance, extending to 65 minutes.
The story concerns a Native Canadian boy who carves a miniature canoe with a seated Native Canadian figure and writes “Paddle to the Sea, please put me back in the water” on it. The little figurine has many adventures as it makes it way through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River to finally arrive on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Many individuals find the canoe, some made minor repairs, but all followed the instructions and put it back in the water.
The music comes from many sources, but is mostly from the minimalist school as epitomized by Phillip Glass and Jacob Druckerman. It also incorporates folk music gleaned from the Shona people of Zimbabwe. All of it was evocative of water.
There was an immense array of percussion instruments from the ordinary, such as a pedal bass drum, to the unidentifiable. It was heavy on pitched percussion, such as (some of these are a guess): marimba, vibraphone, orchestral bells, temple bells, Dobachi (Chinese temple bell), glass harmonica (wine glasses filled with different levels of water), Alpine Cowbells, Melodica, and many more. Most selections used most of the players but there were a couple of virtuoso marimba solos of modernist instruments.
There was something magical about the performance, but it is almost impossible to describe the experience in mere words—this is one of those you-have-to-see-it experiences.
The repetitive nature of the minimalist music served to make a Zen-like trance. While the audience members were cheering for the little canoe on its journey, we also had an overall peaceful impression that it would certainly make it to the ocean.
The last scene shows the now-grown carver of the figurine finding the little treasure he launched so many years ago. It was accompanied by all four percussionists, joining each other one by one, playing on Thumb Drums and joining in with phrases of what was presumably a Shona chant.