Hitting the Sweet Spot: Third Coast Percussion at Grand Teton Music Festival

Published on July 30, 2021 by Thomas May       |      Share this post!

“Their style of music making overall synthesizes a kind of surgical precision with frenetic spontaneity”

Week 4 of the Grand Teton Music Festival continued with an enthusiastically received performance by Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion making their Festival debut. Presented without intermission, the concert unfolded with unflagging energy as each member of the quartet — David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors — took turns introducing the selections.

The entire program consisted of living composers — indeed, composers with whom Third Coast has collaborated. Their style of music making overall synthesizes a kind of surgical precision with frenetic spontaneity — and that intriguing blend is mirrored by their exciting visual performance, a virtuoso choreography that is functional and at the same time abstractly alluring.

These are artists who make music by hitting things, their bodies acting, reacting, incorporating the sounds they produce. At times the performance resembled a wild physics experiment trying to calibrate new sources of energy. Expressivity as energy, in different shapes and contours, certainly characterized their renditions of Clarice Assad’s The Hero, one of the 12 “archetypes” from their most recent album of the same name. Likewise for the extensive, four-movement Percussion Quartet by Danny Elfman, which contained some of the unexpected-but-just-right harmonic progressions familiar from his signature film scores.

Metamorphosis, the name of one of Third Coast’s ongoing projects, is also the title of some of Philip Glass’s best-known pieces (from his 1989 Solo Piano album). The ensemble’s arrangement of Metamorphosis 1 for percussion quartet, created in consultation with Glass, reminded me of the composer’s Baroque affinities with its chaconne-like eternal recurrence. Especially intriguing in this transcription — despite an obbligato solo for melodica that seemed to dissipate some of the piece’s haunting solemnity — were the carefully prepared shifts in dynamic shading.

A good part of the aesthetic interest in this concert involved connecting the vast armamentarium of instruments — tuned and untuned, made of metal or wood, acoustic or digitally manipulated — with the specific sounds produced. Devonté Hynes’s Fields, which originated as a commission from Hubbard Street Dance and choreographer Emma Portner, made a striking, joyful impression; the album garnered several nominations in the 2021 Grammy Awards. Also known as Blood Orange, Hynes (a British multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and record producer as well as composer) made his “classical” debut with this Third Coast Percussion collaboration.

The program ended with a long, suite-like offering of pieces by Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton), an electronic musician and producer from Gary, Indiana. These came from a seven-movement project titled Perspective — debuting here ahead of the postponed Carnegie Hall premiere — and showcased a feverishly inventive imagination. Jlin’s music juxtaposes a universe of samples and sound colors worthy of Stravinsky, exploding with complex rhythmic counterpoint and exuberant variety. In her own words, Jlin’s compositions are “clean, precise, and unpredictable.”

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