October 20, 2017
by Scott Cantrell
The Nasher Sculpture Center‘s “Soundings” would be hard to dethrone as the area’s most inventive, even provocative, classical concert series. Curated by pianist Seth Knopp, it mainly focuses on new music, but often with illuminating associations with older fare.
The 1966 Bill Mason film Paddle to the Sea, itself based on the eponymous 1941 children’s book by Holling C. Holling, was the engine of Wednesday’s performance by Third Coast Percussion, a Grammy Award-winning ensemble in residence at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The program drew a literally SRO audience to the Nasher’s basement auditorium; even after additional chairs were brought in, some people were left standing.
Facing a side wall, the audience was arranged in semicircles around an array of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. Episodes from the film, about the waterborne adventures of a child’s small, hand-carved American Indian in a canoe, were projected on a large screen over the musicians. Undulating abstract patterns by video artist Joseph Burke sometimes alternated with and sometimes overlaid images from the film.
The printed program listed musical titles by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, plus original creations by Third Coast Percussion. Although musical connections to water were mentioned in program notes, the selections weren’t obviously illustrative. With one’s attention so much fixed on the video, one piece tended to elide into another.
There were hypnotic burblings of marimba, occasional punctuations and assaults of drums, tinkles of tiny bells, clops of wood blocks and bongs of cowbells, sometimes undergirded by synthesizer bass patterns. At the end, a Zimbabwean song calling forth water spirits was performed with four tinkling mbiras, small hand pianos played with thumbs, and with vocalizations for the four players.
All told, it was an arresting and enjoyable way to spend an intermission-less 65 minutes. Music from this program will be featured on a compact disc to be released by the Cedille label in February.