Eight Hands Make Light Work for Third Coast Percussion

Compared to, say, string quartets, percussion ensembles are a relatively young phenomenon—they became established in the mid-20th century through works by the likes of John Cage and Iannis Xenakis, and Reich’s output in the 1970s helped cement their place. As a result, the repertoire for such groups is relatively paltry, and Third Coast [Percussion] have always actively sought out new work. They’re all Northwestern grads (including cofounder Owen Clayton Condon, replaced by [Sean] Connors in 2013), and at the suggestion of acclaimed composer Augusta Read Thomas, whom they’d met as students when she still taught there, they began approaching some of their favorite composers in late 2005, not long after forming TCP. They chose composers who were also teachers and asked them to recommend students who could write something for Third Coast—the fledgling quartet couldn’t pay, but they promised to record each work and perform it several times.

“We learned a lot,” says [David] Skidmore. “We came up with a set instrumentation and asked all of the composers to write for that. We told them what the possible instruments were—so each player had a keyboard instrument, some drums, and some other sounds, basically—and what we found was that every single composer wrote for every single instrument, and they all added three or four extra instruments, so by the time we did a concert of three of the pieces it was a ridiculous setup.” [Peter] Martin explains that Third Coast also gave all the student composers the same parameters for the duration of their pieces—in combination with the more or less fixed instrumentation, this produced a frustratingly monochromatic body of work. Within a year TCP backed away from those preconditions.

“We gave them lots of instructions up front,” says [Robert] Dillon, “but we didn’t have a lot of conversations with them as they were writing the pieces, and that was a big takeaway—to have an ongoing discussion as the piece was being written.”

The creative possibilities opened up by such a discussion became beautifully clear to Third Coast in 2011, when they commissioned Thomas to compose what would become Resounding Earth, a concert-length work employing more than 300 bells and other resonant metal objects. “Augusta came up with the idea of the bells, since she loves that sound world, and she recognized early on that she would need it to be very collaborative, and she asked us if we were OK with that,” says Skidmore.

“In the end she must’ve visited the studio at least a dozen times, first to hear all of the instruments we had and decide which ones we should order. We would order a bunch, and she would try them out and send back half of them. Then she would write 15 minutes of music, we’d sight-read through it, and she’d cut ten minutes of that and then go and write 20 minutes more, the whole time asking us what parts we liked and what parts felt right, how to notate it. It was an incredibly collaborative process, and the result was one of the favorite pieces we’ve commissioned. And it’s a piece that would’ve never happened without a really close collaboration between a renowned composer and performers. That experience made us take a step back and realize that we should do it with every composer.”

Thomas sees the process in the same light. “I like it when I get the chance to really work with people and get to know them and talk through and try things differently,” she says. “I always come super prepared, with, you know, 50 pages of totally notated music, but I’m always willing to say let’s try it slow, let’s try it with different mallets or different bowing—so I’m interested in that kind of spirit and setting up an environment as a composer where it’s positive and it’s fun. It’s about really honoring the artists you’re working with—what can they do, what do they want to do, and how do they do it.”

Excerpted from the article, “Eight hands make light work for Third Coast Percussion” published by Peter Margasak in Chicago Reader May 2018. Click here for the full article. (Emphasis added)

Looking forward to Third Coast Percussion’s performance at Purdue this Spring? Grab tickets to see them in Loeb Playhouse on Friday, March 6th at Loeb Playhouse at 8pm!