Third Coast Percussion wields mountains of metal for Vancouver New Music

April 18, 2018
by Alexander Varty

Alexander Varty of Vancouver’s The Georgia Straight interviewed our own Sean Connors before TCP’s Vancouver debut earlier this month. Read the interview below to learn about our friendship and work with Augusta Read Thomas, where Resounding Earth got its start, and more!

Press material for Third Coast Percussion’s Vancouver debut indicates that its performance of Augusta Read Thomas’s Resounding Earth will involve the use of 125 bells from around the globe, but that’s old news. According to band member and technical director Sean Connors, the Chicago-based quartet’s musical arsenal has grown since the work premiered in 2012, and it might yet grow some more.

“There’s actually over 300 pieces of resonant metal on-stage,” Connors says in a telephone interview from Third Coast’s Windy City studio. “There’s gongs and cymbals and things that people would identify as instruments right away, but then there are also found objects—things that people might not necessarily think of as a bell or as a musical instrument, like tuned metal pipes or resonant metal fixtures that are used for electrical conduits. It’s kind of like a mélange of instruments on-stage, a collection that’s really just unique to Resounding Earth.”

Also unique is the rapport between the composer and the ensemble. While Third Coast Percussion will also perform music by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and its hometown friend Glenn Kotche, who’s better known as the drummer with the rock band Wilco, the group would hardly exist without Thomas’s hands-on input.

“We have a very deep professional and personal connection with Augusta, who we fondly refer to as Gusty,” Connors confides. “She has been important to us since the founding of our ensemble. We approached her when we were first figuring out what it meant to be a professional chamber group, and she asked questions like ‘Are you a not-for-profit? Have you written grants? Do you have 501(c)(3) tax-code status?’ And we just looked at her wide-eyed and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t know what any of this means!’ So she has been a mentor and a guiding force for us for a long time.”

Connors laughs, and adds that this close relationship made him especially happy when Thomas first proposed Resounding Earth to the band, especially as the piece goes beyond—way beyond—the marimbas, xylophones, and vibraphones that are its concert mainstays.

“Augusta has always been attracted to the characteristic sound of a bell: a sharp attack, and then a long, long ring,” he explains. “She incorporates that into her orchestral music, her chamber music.…She has been thinking of a significant work that was written for bells, just resonant pieces of metal from all over the world, for a long time—and she actually approached us with this idea. We, of course, jumped at the opportunity, and it resulted in Resounding Earth, which is roughly half an hour long, in four movements. The unique instruments it features include Japanese temple bowls—sometimes they’re called singing bowls, or rin. You can strike them and they’ll sound like a beautiful bell, but you can also rub along the outside of the bowl and it can create a humming, singing sustain. That’s incredible for us, as percussionists, because so much of your life is you hit something, and there’s an immediate attack, and then the sound is pretty much gone. This allows us to sustain notes in the same way that a human voice or a violin would do.”

At times cacophonous, at times meditative, Resounding Earth is a thorough test of Third Coast’s creative powers—and percussion music like you’ve never heard before.

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