September 23, 2019
by Philip Clark
“lithe rhythmic precision”
“ear for dynamic variation and timbral detail”
“Glass’s Perpetulum was a standout”
Philip Glass, as unlikely as it may seem, had never composed a note for percussion ensemble before he received a commission from the Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion, tonight making their London debut. “Perpetulum”, premiered in 2018, serves up something unusual: a journey beyond the chord sequences and melodic loops that have become Glass’s calling card. Instead, the piece unfolds as an essay in absurdist disjoints, with jazzman block chords rampaging over marimbas smashing into dislocating march rhythms and trembling tam-tam swells. True enough, Glass reverts to type as these different strands are pulled together at the end, but this is easily his freshest, most imaginative score for years.
“Perpetulum” – and their own arrangement of music from Glass’s “Madeira River” which opened – showcased not only the group’s lithe rhythmic precision but also their ear for dynamic variation and timbral detail, which is more than can be said of Steve Reich’s tired, drab Mallet Quartet. A hint of Vermont Counterpoint knitted without purpose or reason into the rhythmic chug of Different Trains offered little for the musicians to chew on beyond neatly dispatching the notes. An extract from “Perfectly Voiceless”, which the ensemble has been working up in collaboration with the British singer/producer Devonté Hynes (AKA Blood Orange), wore the Reich influence too keenly – arpeggios, arpeggios, always the arpeggios, but without ever defining a convincing context.
“The Other Side of the River” by another British composer, Gavin Bryars, developed as a curious-getting-curiouser creeping ritual in which jagged, uneven layers circled each other with reshadings of colour and note contours on each repeat. The effect was mesmeric and engrossing – a necessary antidote to the routine of Reich.
As Third Coast signed off with a pair of generic minimalist bon-bons by their member David Skidmore, I worried that defaulting towards the cutesier end of minimalism might become their achilles heel. From Cage and Xenakis, to the rhythmic challenges meted out by the free jazz drumming of Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Milford Graves, a whole other world of percussion exists. Musicians as fine as these could afford to cast their net a little wider.