February 21, 2016
by Stephen Smoliar
Third Coast Percussion is a Chicago-based quartet of percussionists that was formed in 2004 by Anthony Calabrese, Robert Dillon, Jacob Nissly, and David Skidmore. At the time they were both percussionists with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and students at Northwestern University. (The “third coast,” presumably, is that of Lake Michigan.) In the current group Sean Connors and Peter Martin have replaced Calabrese and Nissly. While Chicago is “home,” the group is currently ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame.
Last month Third Coast Percussion released its debut album with Cedille Records. The album offers four of Steve Reich’s most notable percussion works and was produced as their way of acknowledging that composer’s 80th birthday, which will take place later this year on October 3. In chronological order the works on the new album are “Music for Pieces of Wood” (1973), “Sextet” (1984), “Nagoya Marimbas” (1994), and “Mallet Quartet” (2009).
Most important is that this recording presents robust accounts of all four of these compositions. The capture technology is of a quality by means of which the attentive listener will appreciate both the intricacies of Reich’s approaches to detail and the extent to which each composition has its own characteristically unique overall architecture. The best way to affirm this point is through personal experience.
When CD technology first emerged, there was great interest in releasing recordings of music that had previously required changing records (or flipping one) when listening to long pieces of music. One such composition was Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” which he completed in 1976 and was about one hour in duration. As a result one of my first CD purchases was the ECM recording of this piece played by Reich and his colleagues. This came at a time when I was changing jobs and would have to drive from Stamford in Connecticut to Los Angeles. I thus set myself up with a portable player, allowing me to use my modest collection of CDs as an alternative for searching for good music on the radio.
It happened that I chose to play “Music for 18 Musicians” while I was crossing the state of New Mexico. Several of my friends later questioned the sanity of my decision. Would not the monotony of the music combine with the monotony of the scenery to induce sleep? I argued that quite the opposite took place. In that particular setting, mind quickly took to perceiving the flow of subtle changes taking place at the level of fine detail; and changes at that detailed auditory level turned out to mesh nicely with similarly subtle visual changes. While crossing New Mexico, my mind was as sharp as ever; and I never felt my attention was drifting.
Reich does not seem to have objected to the label “minimalism” the way that Philip Glass has. One reason may be that he has no trouble with the term applying to how he chooses or uses his resources. Why should he? Even his most “automated” compositions based on phase shifting are a rich resource for a wide variety of sonorities. One only needs a mind-ear connection capable of detecting them and an emotional disposition capable of savoring them. The four pieces represented on this album are far less “minimal” in how they were designed and implemented; and, as has consistently been the case in Reich’s work, there is more than enough to engage the ear of the attentive listener.
If I have any misgiving, it is one based on personal experience. Simply put, watching Reich’s music being performed is always far more fun than listening to it come out of a system of loudspeakers. I feel very fortunate to have had many opportunities to listen to Reich in a performance setting, and those experiences live on as very rich memories. Memories of listening to recordings are rarely so salient. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that recordings can be useful for establishing acquaintance with music before listening to it in concert; and this new recording will definitely serve very well in that regard.