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“Virtuosity and deft, precisely timed wit”
-Washington Post

“Commandingly elegant”
-New York Times

-Alex Ross, The New Yorker

“An inspirational sense of fun and curiosity”
-Minnesota Star-Tribune

“The group performed with absolute aplomb”
-Boston Globe

-Chicago Tribune

“Mysterious, funny, endlessly inventive”
-Boston Classical Review

-Independent (UK)

“Technical precision, palpable groove and outstanding sound”
-Time Out New York 

-New York Times

“Savvy and hyper-talented young percussionists”
-Musical Toronto

“Fluency and zest”
-Andrew Clements, the Guardian (UK)

“Undeniably groovy…masterfully performed”
-Time Out Chicago

“One of the country’s finest new music ensembles”
-Chicago Reader

“The musicality and fierce focus of Third Coast Percussion electrified the room.”
-Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

Reviews and Features

Album Review: Paddle to the Sea

February 14, 2018
by Jarrett Hoffman

“…deep and wide-ranging, impressive and highly creative.”

Third Coast Percussion went bold with their latest project, a sprawling marine ecosystem of an album titled Paddle to the Sea. The name comes from a 1966 film about a wooden toy boat floating its way from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. After the half-hour film was brought to the group’s attention, they group-composed a new score to it, here receiving its world-premiere recording.

But an ecosystem takes more than just one beautiful story. Third Coast surrounds the title work with the vastly differing colors of three aquatic creatures — water-themed works that inspired the film score’s composition. As a whole, the result from this Grammy-winning quartet out of Chicago is deep and wide-ranging, impressive and highly creative.

The title work, spanning ten tracks, marks the little boat’s journey with a fascinating assortment of sounds and moods. “Open Water” grooves, evoking hip-hop in a dance between mallet and hand percussion. Earthly pressure builds from “The Stewards” into “Niagara,” sending you over the falls. And “Sanctuary” is just that — time stands still, enters into itself. Alongside those highlights are a few less evocative tracks and transitions, probably better-suited to live performance with the film than to CD.

Next up is the five-minute Chigwaya (“the bream fish”), a traditional song used to call water spirits in the Shona religion of Zimbabwe. Third Coast has studied Shona music with their mentor Musekiwa Chingodza — here the group performs their interpretation of his arrangement, which they’ve tailored around the mbira, a thumb piano important to Shona music.

The mbira has a beautiful sound, otherworldly like a celesta, but crisp. The melodic ostinato on those instruments, coupled with snare-like vibrations, sets a mesmerizing foundation. Soon the quartet layer their own voices smoothly on top.

Scattered movements from two other works surround Paddle to the Sea and Chigwaya. Jacob Druckman’s Reflections on the Nature of Water (1986) comes with the more straightforward story as an established part of the solo marimba repertoire. David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors rotate through the six movements, each meant to embody a different character of water: Crystalline, Fleet, Tranquil, Gently Swelling, Profound, and Relentless.

The group’s arrangement of four selections by Philip Glass arrives on a more complicated path. The pieces began their lives on the piano alongside dance in Glass’s 12 Pieces for Ballet. For their own version, Third Coast drew on both the original and on the Brazilian group Uakti’s arrangement, known as Aguas da Amazonia. The percussion quartet kept Uakti’s title and the inspiration of the Amazon River and its tributaries.

The performances are excellent. Skidmore, Dillon, Martin, and Connors capture Druckman’s six water characters and more, ably traversing the virtuosic writing. The group’s arrangements of Glass are entrancing, and along with the Druckman and Chigwaya, come through as subtle yet important connections to the film score.

The interweaving of Druckman and Glass doesn’t capture the same feeling, but framing the album with Glass was a special curatorial feat. Beginning and ending with the lulling Madeira and Amazon Rivers — in these sensitive hands and on this amazing array of instruments — feels truly sea-like, and spiritual.

100 metronomes can’t be wrong, but Cerrone premiere impresses most in Ligeti program

February 17, 2018
by Lawrence A. Johnson

The penultimate program of the György Ligeti festival in this season’s University of Chicago Presents series took place Friday night at the Logan Center. Yet the most substantive music of the evening, curated by Third Coast Percussion, was a work by a young American composer.

One of Ligeti’s most endearing qualities is his antic sense of humor. The three Ligeti works featured on the first half richly represented the satirical, anti-establishment side of the Hungarian composer, even if none of the music showed Ligeti at his most essential.

The evening began with a rare performance of a work more talked about than presented, Ligeti’s infamous Poème symphonique (1962). Neither symphonic nor poetic, this bit of theater art for 100 metronomes shows Ligeti at his most Cageian.

Sixteen UC students walked out single file–in keeping with the mock-serious ceremony of the work–and seated themselves at the foot of the stage behind the 100 wind-up metronomes. At a lighting cue, all the students quickly–and very deftly–set off their assigned metronomes in something like simultaneity.

One will search for greater musical or historical meaning in vain. The principal conceit is to listen to the undifferentiated din of clackety-clack as it gradually slows down and thins out to nothing. As the sound decelerated over five minutes, the timbres slenderized until there were just a pair of metronomes on either side of the stage slowing down in a contrapuntal pas de deux, then silence.

The even more concise Continuum (1968) followed. Ligeti conceived this miniature for two-manual harpsichord as a four-minute exercise in speed and frantic, ten-fingered virtuosity.

Continuum was presented in an arrangement for two-man marimba. Sean Connors and Peter Martin displayed staggering bravura at an swiftly accelerating tempo while maintaining complete rhythmic clarity. Still, few composers were as precise about specific instrumentation and sonic effects as Ligeti. Exciting as the marimba duo was, the recasting missed the feeling of a solo keyboardist pushed to the breaking point.

Ligeti never composed a percussion quartet, but came closest in Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles). Scored for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists, the song cycle was one of Ligeti’s final works, completed in 2000.

Here too, there was an equal sense of Dadaist absurdity–not only in the largely nonsense poetry by Ligeti’s compatriot Sándor Weöres, but also the profligate scoring for a bestiary of percussion instruments used sparingly. In his introduction, Skidmore seemed to admit as much, noting good-naturedly that the piece often seems to be “making fun of our profession.”

The seven-song, 14-minute cycle may not be a timeless masterwork but one is unlikely to hear it performed with greater commitment or more fiery advocacy than that delivered by soloist Rachel Calloway and Third Coast Friday night.

The mezzo-soprano’s scary intensity and crystal-clear enunciation were impressive throughout these mostly absurdist settings. Calloway made the most of the scant expressive opportunities as with the folk-like “Alma, Alma” and the ensuing “Keseredes,” sung by Calloway with lovely tone and sensitivity, and backed by vibraphone and a quartet of ocarinas.

Ligeti may have been the marquee name Friday but the most musical substance came after intermission with Goldbeater’s Skin by Christopher Cerrone.

The work was commissioned by Third Coast as a companion piece for Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel, and premiered by them a year ago at Notre Dame. As with Ligeti’s cycle, Cerrone’s work is also cast in seven songs for mezzo and percussion quartet. Here the solo voice alternates with percussion movements, the singer and instrumentalists joining forces in the final two sections.

Cerrone is clearly a gifted composer with an impressive individual voice as was made manifest in this Chicago premiere. One can immediately understand why Third Coast commissioned him.

Read the full review here.

Third Coast Percussion at Cleveland Museum of Art

February 14, 2018
by Nicholas Stevens

Few composers in the classical tradition have successfully transformed stories for children into engrossing all-ages artworks. In a concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art last week, Third Coast Percussion — the Chicago-based quartet of Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore — made a strong case for their new work, Paddle to the Sea.

Third Coast’s concert on Sunday afternoon, February 11 represented a sort of homecoming for the piece, which the Museum helped commission. It was Thomas Welsh, CMA’s Director of Performing Arts, who first suggested that the quartet look at the 1941 children’s book Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling and Bill Mason’s 1966 short film based on the book. For their multimedia event, Third Coast alternates performances of pieces by Philip Glass, Jacob Druckman, and the mbira masters of the Shona people with portions of the film, screened along with the quartet’s original music.

The presentation opens with renditions of Glass’s “Madeira,” a movement from the suite Águas da Amazônia (1993-99), and Druckman’s “Crystalline,” from Reflections on the Nature of Water (1986). Glass’s music emerges transfigured from an overhaul by the Brazilian ensemble Uakti in the late 1990s, and Third Coast’s re-scored version sets a tone of warmth and gentle power. Druckman’s marimba solo offers a contrast, and Skidmore thundered away at the instrument’s low end.

Act 1 of Paddle to the Sea follows a carving of a man in a canoe as it begins its journey downriver toward the Great Lakes, when its maker — a First Nations boy in rural Canada — sets it afloat with a message on the bottom: “Please put me back in the water. I am Paddle-to-the-Sea.” The percussionists mostly avoid mimicry of the events in the silenced image track, though their propulsive thwacking adds a note of humor to the scene in which the boy carves the canoe. Making full use of contemporary percussion technique, they pull off such tricky maneuvers as bending the pitch of a vibraphone’s bars while bowing, and coaxing a continuous roar from a bass drum with a rubber ball.

After Glass’s “Amazon” and Druckman’s “Relentless,” the latter of which Connors tackled ably, the group reached the heart of the film. Act 2 is a nonstop succession of high points. Third Coast’s score illuminates this turbulent middle portion, which finds the toy barely missing a ship’s propellers, becoming stuck in ice, being snatched by a desirous child, encountering polluted water, and going over Niagara Falls. Rather than bang out some triumphal theme when Paddle-to-the-Sea passes a city during a fireworks display, Third Coast instead paints the shimmer of the explosions on water in spectral, ringing sounds.

Dillon lent extraordinary narrative shape to Druckman’s “Profound,” and the group allowed Glass’s “Xingu” to groove as a prelude to Act 3. As Paddle-to-the-Sea passes into the ocean, the percussionists revisit a thrumming theme for open water, defined by the hiss of a sizzle cymbal.

Martin navigated eddies of notes in Druckman’s “Fleet” to connect Act 3 with the film’s Coda, which brings renewal to both the carving and its journey. The show ended with a moving group performance of Chigwaya, a traditional Zimbabwean song that was taught to the group by their Shona mbira mentor Musekiwa Chingodza. Singing unamplified over the sparkle and buzz of their thumb pianos, Third Coast reminded listeners that the common humanity and concern for nature embedded in Holling’s story and Mason’s film transcends North American cultures, extending to artists and storytellers across all seas.


Classical New Release: Paddle to the Sea

February 6, 2018
by Amanda Sewell

Grammy-winning ensemble Third Coast Percussion has a new album of water-inspired music called Paddle to the Sea.The centerpiece of the album is the world premiere of “Paddle to the Sea,” an original Third Coast Percussion ensemble composition. The group created the music as a live soundtrack to accompany the 1966 short film that was adapted from a children’s book.

The album also includes water-inspired music by Philip Glass, Jacob Druckman and Musekiwa Chingodza. Click here to view the trailer for this new album.

Album Review: Paddle to the Sea

February 18, 2018
by Lisa Flynn

Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea transports listeners into a realm of imaginative sounds and world-premiere recordings evoking the aquatic world. Anchoring the album is the ensemble’s original collaborative composition Paddle to the Sea. The talented foursome conceived it as a live soundtrack to the 1966 film of the same name, based on a classic children’s story. Third Coast found a wellspring of ideas in the other works they’ve included on the album. Jacob Druckman’s Reflections on the Nature of Water revels in textures and timbres unique to the marimba. The ensemble plays its own arrangement of selections from Philip Glass’s 12 Pieces for Ballet — also drawing inspiration from Brazilian group Uakti’s multi-instrumental version, titled Aguas da Amazonia.

Christopher Cerrone presents World Premiere with Third Coast Percussion at Miller Theatre, 3/29

Third Coast Percussion is thrilled to work once again with Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Cerrone. We look forward to presenting his Portrait Concert in March at the Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

February 1, 2018
Broadway World Music

Brooklyn-based composer Christopher Cerrone – winner of a 2015 Rome Prize and a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his opera Invisible Cities – greets 2018 with a pair of important premieres.

A Natural History of Vacant Lots, written for Grammy-winning ensemble Third Coast Percussion, receives its world premiere on Thursday, March 29 (8 pm) in a Cerrone Portrait Concert played by Third Coast at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Taking its title from a book on urban ecology, A Natural History of Vacant Lots incorporates electronic sound and spatial/environmental elements: the four players are situated widely throughout the hall, and perform in near-darkness.

Rounding out the Portrait program are Goldbeater’s Skin with mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway, setting texts by poet G. C. Waldrep, and the evocative suite Memory Palace, recently recorded by the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet on Sono Luminus. Third Coast and Calloway will also perform Goldbeater’s Skin at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center on February 16 at 7:30 pm.

Click here to read more about Cerrone, his inspirations for A Natural History of Vacant Lots, and his other forthcoming premieres.

TCP to visit Cleveland Museum of Art with original score to Paddle to the Sea

February 6, 2018
by Jarrett Hoffman

Ensemble member Rob Dillon was recently interviewed by Cleveland Classical leading up to Third Coast’s performance on February 11 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the co-commissioners of our latest collaborative work, Paddle to the Sea. Read the interview below to learn more about TCP’s collaborative composition process, how that manifested in Paddle to the Sea, and the personal and artistic significance this project holds for TCP.

A Native Canadian boy in the Nipigon country of Ontario dreams of a journey he knows he can’t make. But a figure carved out of cedar, with a strip of lead to keep it upright in the water, and a message inscribed on the bottom to please return it to the water? That might just make it all the way through the Great Lakes, down Niagara Falls, past Quebec City, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and beyond — despite encounters with a snake, a forest fire, passing ships, pollution, and people along the way.

That’s the tale of Bill Mason’s beautiful film Paddle to the Sea (1966), based on an award-winning children’s book and nominated for an Oscar. You can watch the 28-minute movie here, via the National Film Board of Canada. But you’ll want to take it in again this weekend, when a Chicago-based, Grammy-winning percussion quartet visits the Cleveland Museum of Art.

On Sunday, February 11 at 2:00 pm at Gartner Auditorium, Third Coast Percussion (David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors) will give a live performance of their new, original score alongside a screening of Paddle to the Sea. The work is a co-commission of CMA. Part of the Museum’s Performing Arts Series, the concert will also include water-related works that influenced the score: pieces by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, as well as traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. You can reserve tickets here.

In a recent conversation, Robert Dillon said the group’s collaborative approach to composing the score was inspired in part by synthetic chemists, who experiment with combinations of materials to invent new ones. “We each came up with different snippets and ideas, sometimes just abstract concepts of sound,” Dillon said. “That became a sort of musical catalog that all four of us referred to for ideas when we were composing different sections of the piece.”

From there, a draft of a section would be passed on whenever someone felt stuck, or when somebody had an idea. “Then they would work on it for a while and come back with a different version of it.”

This was Third Coast’s second collaborative composition, following up on their 2016 piece Reaction YieldDillon noted that the process had evolved from that project to this one. “For Paddle to the Sea, there was more revising of sections that other people had worked on. Each of us had responsibility for certain segments of the film, but at the end of the day it’s hard to say, ‘This section was Rob’s,’ or ‘This was Peter’s.’ Things got marbled through more and more.”

Busy with their self-run ensemble, Third Coast’s members don’t often have time to write music, which is one reason they enjoyed this project. “It was guaranteed there would be time for composing, because we had to.” Dillon added that the joint process also made composing feel less daunting. “You knew you weren’t trying to figure it all out yourself. If you had a good idea you could bring it to the table, and even if you didn’t know where to go with it next, maybe it would inspire someone else to take it and run with it.”

Has the collaborative approach impacted the group in any way? “This was one more thing that’s gotten us excited about the work we do together as an ensemble. It’s made us feel, even more than before, that we’re all creative stewards of this organization.

Read the rest of the article here.


Album Review: Paddle to the Sea

February 6, 2018
by Richard Allen

First came Holling C. Holling’s beloved 1941 children’s book, in which a young boy carved a Native American figure and set him on a journey to the sea, from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.  25 years later, a half-hour film was released; and now, 42 years after that, Third Coast Percussion reimagines the score.

This is one of the highest-profile releases we’ve ever reviewed, as Third Coast Percussion has been positively reviewed by The New York Times and won a Grammy Award a year ago with a recording of music by Steve Reich.  But make no mistake: this music may be accessible, but it’s far from the mainstream (pun intended).  It’s as playful as a children’s book, but as mature as a mallet orchestra can be.  If one appreciates instruments such as desk bells, wood blocks, marimba and mbira, then one will love this album, regardless of its backstory.  If not, one may be overwhelmed, as the CD nearly reaches its 80-minute limit.  We should mention that ceramic floor tiles are also used ~ yes, you may be able to try this at home ~ and Walken fans will rejoice, because there’s cowbell!

But wait, there’s more!  If you order now, you’ll also get compositions by Philip Glass and Jacob Druckman, along with a traditional Shona piece, all based on water themes and all for the same amazing low price!  One of the Glass pieces, “Madera River”, even serves as the ebullient overture.  But there’s not as much cowbell in that piece ~ you’ll have to wait for “The Lighthouse and the Cabin”.  Third Coast Percussion is having an awful lot of fun here, so we’re following their lead.  There’s something oxymoronic about taking playful music seriously, but modern composition is in dire need of the levity which these lads provide.  In their press photo, their colorful mallet sticks look like a pile of discarded Tinkertoys.  And they are definitely enjoying themselves in the video below.

The occasional water sounds (first apparent in “The Lighthouse and the Cabin”, resurfacing in “The Stewards”) help to ground the music in geography.  One can’t help but think of the wooden carving making his way to the sea.  But one also imagines Native American tribes along the journey, playing their own instruments (for example, the pounding drums of “Niagra” and rollicking bongos of “The Locks”) and cheering the little guy on.  In sparse moments (“Sanctuary”), individual instruments are highlighted, but when all four let loose at once, their glee is contagious.  And when the waves launch the opening minute of “The Lighthouse”, there is great rejoicing ~ the figure has found the sea.

From this point, there’s still half an album to go, but as good as the rest may be, it seems like bonus material.  The dividing line is the Shona song, which would work well as closing credits, despite its difference from the rest of the album.  After that, the energy level dissipates somewhat.  It’s hard to sustain the high water mark of the story-based material, but it’s also hard to criticize the generosity of so much music.  Glass and Druckman pieces alternate, the former lush and upbeat, the latter spare and downbeat.  The sequencing highlights their tonal difference, but our preference would have been to group them together, especially as each composer’s tracks are part of the same composition, not originally intended to be presented in pieces.  But this is a minor quibble, and the home listener can correct it with a few buttons or keys.  The lead story is that Third Coast Percussion should be up for another Grammy with this set, and that “Paddle to the Sea” (the composition) is a fine elaboration on an already well-loved story: one that should please its many generations of fans.

Click here to purchase Paddle to the Sea.