October 10, 2019
by Jesse Herwitz
These days, stage fright is not a problem for Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion.
With a busy touring schedule and rapid album releases – four in the last two years – one might wonder how the quartet keeps their nerves calm. They premiered Philip Glass’ “Perpetulum” in front of Philip Glass at 2018’s Chicago Humanities Festival. Now they are performing the world premiere of Danny Elfman’s “Percussion Quartet” in front of Danny Elfman at this year’s Days and Nights Festival.
That could wear on anyone.
“We perform a lot,” says ensemble member Robert Dillon. “Concert nerves translate themselves primarily as a level of excitement and energy on stage.”
That stage comfort might also have something to do with winning a Grammy Award – the first ever given to a percussion ensemble – for their 2016 album featuring music written by pioneering minimalist composer Steve Reich.
“Winning that award felt like a big step for us, and also for the idea of a percussion ensemble in the classic music tradition,” Dillon says.
It also could be the praise bestowed on them by Glass – the creative engine behind the Days and Nights Festival – and who Dillon says has been a huge influence on the ensemble. In fact, it was Glass who suggested Elfman compose a percussion piece – his first – for TCP at this year’s festival.
“We were ecstatic. Danny has found incredible combinations of instrumental colors that give his quartet a distinctive sound,” Dillon says.
And while continuing to work with iconic musicians – TCP’s newest album, Fields, is with singer-songwriter and producer Devonté Hynes – perhaps some of the most generous work the ensemble does is for the youngest generations.
For more than a decade, the quartet has pioneered an array of educational performances for students at Chicago’s The People’s Music School and a six-year residency at the University of Notre Dame. “We had an amazing teacher, Michael Burritt, who implanted a love of this type of music,” Dillon says.
And like that teacher who found a way to connect with them, TCP has found their way to connect with audiences through percussion, raising and lowering their arms over an array of metal pipes and wooden slats.