Third Coast Percussion tackle a Philip Glass commission—and the ‘great composer’ problem

November 7, 2018
by Kerry O’Brien

Many, many thanks to Kerry O’Brien for this wonderful feature article about our newest commission: Perpetulum, Philip Glass’s first-ever work for percussion ensemble. We had a fantastic world premiere on November 9 at the Chicago Humanities Festival and can’t wait to take Perpetulum on the road. Read excerpts from Kerry’s insightful feature here, or read the whole article to learn more about Philip, the history of minimalist music, our own commissioning process, and how Perpetulum came to be. Thanks again to Kerry and the Chicago Reader!

Philip Glass arrives in town this Friday to appear as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, but he’s no stranger to the city. He first came here in 1952 to begin his undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago at the prodigious age of 15He remembers sitting outside jazz clubs like the Beehive in Hyde Park, too young to be admitted, listening to bebop waft out the door.

Almost seven decades later, Glass is arguably America’s most famous living composer and considered something of a national treasure—in 2015, Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts. He’s using his current visit to Chicago to correct an oversight of long standing. Though he’s well-known for composing, performing, and thereby defining “minimalist” music, Glass has somehow never before written for the minimalist ensemble par excellence: the percussion ensemble.

Prompted by a commission from Third Coast Percussion—the Chicago quartet of David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors—Glass will present the world premiere of his first-ever work for percussion ensemble during a CHF event at the Francis W. Parker School. The evening will begin with a solo piano performance by Glass, followed by a discussion between Glass and Skidmore and Third Coast’s debut of the three-part, 20-minute Perpetulum.

Glass’s style of minimalism, which he once called music of “repetitive structures,” is unmistakable once you’ve heard it. Typified early in its history by his group the Philip Glass Ensemble—which used mostly amplified winds, keyboards, and voices—it’s characterized by rising-and-falling pulsed patterns, steady rhythms, meditative passages of harmonic stasis, and nonstop melodic momentum.

Over the years Glass’s trademark arpeggios have permeated pop culture as well as the classical sphere. He’s written a long list of film scores—KoyaanisqatsiCandymanThe Truman ShowThe Hours—and made an infamous fictionalized cameo on South Park. “The thing about Philip Glass is that he’s been part of the fabric of music and culture for so long,” says Martin. “I knew who Philip Glass was from just watching movies—I remember seeing Candyman in the mid-1990s. He’s been part of everything, so in that sense, his aesthetic and musical voice probably has been a part of Third Coast Percussion for a much longer time.”

For Martin and the other members of Third Coast, their first deep dive into Glass came when they were students in the 1990s and encountered his landmark 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach. “I had a very hip high school music theory teacher who just kinda blew our minds one day,” says Skidmore. “She was like, ‘There’s this opera by this guy named Philip Glass,’ and she just hit play.” Connors admits that he downloaded this minimalist classic in the dial-up days of Napster—and given that it’s more than three hours long, even in its abbreviated recordings, that must have taken forever.

The 81-year-old Glass comes to Chicago in the midst of a busy performance schedule (which may help explain why he didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment). In late October, he and his ensemble played his three-and-a-half-hour mid-70s masterpiece Music in 12 Parts at New York’s Town Hall, followed last week by a sold-out run of his 1980 opera Satyagraha at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which he attended on opening night. Sometimes Glass seems to have done it all already—he’s written for myriad musical legends, among them the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will premiere his Symphony no. 12 in January 2019. But Third Coast Percussion found something he hadn’t done—and more important, they persuaded him to do it.

Commissioning Philip Glass is part of a larger initiative for Third Coast Percussion. As they look back at the history of Western classical music, it’s tempting to wonder, says Skidmore, what kind of percussion quartet the likes of Stravinsky or Bartók might have written. It’s a torturous counterfactual thought experiment, and everyone has their own dream list (just imagine if Julius Eastman or Maryanne Amacher had written one). Dillon adds: “We look at all the great composers who, if they had written a percussion ensemble piece—if someone had asked them or hounded them to write a percussion quartet—how much different would our whole genre be?”

The commission did require persistence—Third Coast reached out to Glass for “years and years and years.” A composer of Glass’s stature must be commissioned long in advance, so Perpetulum has been brewing for some time. Skidmore believes the key was being “patient and friendly but insistent,” and that patience was possible, he notes, because Third Coast are an established group with a functional development infrastructure—the processes to sustain the ensemble long-term are up and running, which means they can plan far into the future while projects seeded years ago come to fruition in the present.

Perpetulum (a hybrid word suggesting both “perpetual” and “pendulum”) wasn’t delivered already done but instead arose from collaboration between Glass and Third Coast. This began in April 2017, when the composer met with Skidmore while in town for a Chicago Opera Theater production of his The Perfect American. After that initial meeting, Glass and Third Coast maintained frequent dialogue. “He calls pretty regularly, actually, to talk through revisions,” says Skidmore. “We’ll go back and forth. He’ll send a new idea, his copyist will try it out, we’ll record it, he’ll call and ask what we think.”

Skidmore sees Perpetulum as an interesting way to graft keyboard percussion sounds (marimba, vibraphone) onto Glass’s approach to percussion in his symphonies. “His percussion writing up until recently has been very focused on traditional orchestral percussion instruments—snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine—and these kind of motor rhythms, in symphonies especially,” he says. Glass has long written for keyboards (piano, organ), but not for keyboard percussion. As Martin says, “This is not early Glass music at all,” but it’s continuous with that style in that “there’s a lot of energy throughout the piece.”

Friday’s concert has long been sold out, but Perpetulum will be released in March 2019 via Glass’s label, Orange Mountain Music, on an album that also includes Gavin Bryars’s The Other Side of the River and multiple new works by Third Coast. Dillon says these pieces “reflect the influence of Glass but also connect a bit to our roles as composer-performers.”

Third Coast see objections to working with Glass as representing a false choice—such a project doesn’t prevent them from also nurturing up-and-comers. The Emerging Composers Partnership, launched in 2013, uses an open call to solicit works by lesser-known composers—Third Coast’s website says its aim is to “provide the Chicago contemporary music scene with premieres of works from the brightest rising stars in the composing community” and to promote “inclusive commissioning of new music.”

The composers who apply for this program aren’t well-known today, but they might be the greats of tomorrow. “It’s a very intimate thing that we’re doing—it’s not a cattle call,” says Connors. “It’s two people per season, so it’s really building a relationship, and then we become partners with them forever. They’ll be in our network, we’ll be their big supporters, and hopefully we’ll work with them in the future.”

By commissioning Glass while piloting their Emerging Composers Partnership, Third Coast both participate in and help write the history of percussion music. “One of the big points of that partnership is to find new voices and to encourage them . . . to not only write music, but percussion music,” Skidmore says. “Some of the people who we are able to work with in the ECP will one day be the next Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Devonté Hynes, whoever. And how cool is it that at the onset of their career they’re asked for percussion, that that becomes a part of their voice early on? So there’s also an aspect of cultivating a future of composition in percussion.”

Third Coast’s Glass premiere is historic, and with any luck it will amplify their urgently needed efforts to encourage inclusivity. As with any such project, though, the important work is collaborative and ongoing.

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