Third Coast Percussion Headlines 2017 {Re}HAPPENING [Interview]


Third Coast Percussion Headlines 2017 {Re}HAPPENING [Interview]

  • Ali McGhee

    Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...

Third Coast Percussion

Just last month, the four members of Chicago's Third Coast Percussion—David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors—won the first Grammy ever awarded in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance to a percussion ensemble. Awarded for their album Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich (2016, Cedille Records), the Grammy is groundbreaking for the world of avant-garde music, but it's also just one among many accomplishments Third Coast can now list. This weekend, Third Coast will add another flower to their cap: they'll be playing at Saturday's {Re}HAPPENING, which takes places at Lake Eden in Black Mountain from 3-10 p.m.


The {Re}HAPPENING will be a kind of homecoming for the group, which continues to pull inspiration from people associated with the college, particularly John Cage and Lou Harrison. They trace this legacy of influence through Steve Reich and on to themselves. Their Grammy-winning album, released the year of Reich's eightieth birthday, is a celebration of a lineage they continue to propel forward.

The quartet is steeped in classical training and academic theory, which members unite with a unsurpassed passion for making and sharing music. The sharing, especially, has become increasingly important for the group, who engage in multiple education and social outreach projects in schools and communities. They have partnered with organizations like Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, Urban Gateways, University of Chicago Presents, and Rush Hour Concerts, creating community programs and exposing people, especially younger audiences, to classical and avant-garde music. Their collaboration with Rush Hour is part of a larger goal to provide music and education to disadvantaged communities in Chicago. Their work with Urban Gateways serves a similar purpose, introducing K-12 students to classical music through performance and discussion. 


The ensemble also collaborated with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and engineers at the University of Notre Dame to create ndWaves, a project that bridges the arts and STEM subjects. They also created an Emerging Composers Partnership in 2013, choosing one composer each year to collaborate on the creation of a piece. No matter what they are working on, it's clear that Third Coast is a quartet marked by curiosity, by a spirit of adventurous inquiry grounded in a rich history of creative community.


I spoke with ensemble member David Skidmore about their Grammy, the legacy of Black Mountain College, and what to expect from the {Re}HAPPENING.  


Q: What was the experience of winning a Grammy like? What was it like to be the first percussion group to win a Grammy?


It's been great. The group's been around about 12 years, and we've put out about six albums, so this is the culmination of a lot of really hard work. It was the first time a percussion group has won this category of Grammy, which feels really really special to us. We grew up idolizing our predecessors and forebears in this genre. There's actually a cool connection with composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison. In many ways they were the actual fathers of the type of music we play: classical music for percussion. We feel like this Grammy win is part of that genre's longer lineage, and that's really special to us. 


Q: What was it about this album in particular (Third Coast Percussion | Steve Reich) that you think resonated with people so much?


I think it was a combination of a lot of things. I feel like there's a certain amount of luck in it. And the album is all the music of American composer Steve Reich. He's a composer we've been playing since the group was founded and even before, as students, so we know it really well. We recorded the album in his eightieth birthday year. Specific attention was paid to Reich this year, and honestly we really did just put so much work into the album. We had a great team, a great producer and engineers working on it. I think it was a perfect storm. With the really great team and music that we know so so well, it all came together. 


Q: What do you think is the legacy of Black Mountain College?


First and foremost, I feel like it's the hub of the avant-garde in America. And I think that there's this amazing tradition with artists like Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and others. There were all of these creative people at that particular time, in the 1950s. And creative people like that need a place to work, a place that nurtures them. That's what Black Mountain College was. Part of what I think is amazing about it is that the avant-garde is so often associated with major urban centers. Places like NYC, Chicago, and L.A. have been where the avant-garde is nurtured, but I truly think the hub of this artistic movement at the time it was happening was Black Mountain College, in rural North Carolina. That to me is so cool, because it throws all kinds of misperceptions about art/new art, about the avant-garde, held on both sides, by both rural and urban dwellers, out the window.

Q: How is Third Coast continuing the legacy of Black Mountain College?


As an ensemble, we want to bring this music we love so much to as many people as possible, and to push the genre forward in terms of its reach, its prestige, and its acceptance as what we think it is, which is a really exciting, incredible genre of music.


So what's amazing for us in terms of our ties to Black Mountain College and to people like Cage and Harrison is that Cage in particular was about the same age as us—in his twenties or early thirties—when he decided he wanted to write a very specific kind of music: music for only percussion instruments. There was no type of ensemble or gathering of musicians that fit that bill, so he created his own ensemble and took on tour, and that's such a brave and insane thing to do if you're young and poor. He had nothing but inspiration and close friends.


It's a little like the story of Third Coast Percussion. We had the great advantage of standing on the shoulders of Cage and Reich, who loved and created percussion music and toured it. But in that lineage, there were no percussion ensemble jobs to audition for, so we created our own group and have tried to do as much as we can to take the music of those and other composers and elevate the art form.


Q: What are you most excited about re: participating in the {Re}HAPPENING? 


We're so excited just to be a part of such a cool event in a historic place. We'll be performing music by a couple of these large looming figures of the American avant-garde, like Cage and Harrison, whose music we've played for years and years. It's like going to Mecca [laughs].



It's going to be a really special experience to play that music at the College. The other music we're playing is all part of that lineage. What we wanted to do was to say, "Of course let's play some music that has deep roots here, but let's also play music building on that legacy."


We'll play one piece by Reich from our recent album, which has obvious ties to Cage in this sense I was mentioning, about percussion composer-entrepreneurs. Then we're playing a couple of pieces we've commissioned. You were asking about how we're furthering the legacy of the College, and one way is that we commission a ton of music from composers working today. So we'll be playing a couple of different pieces One is from Glenn Kotche, the drummer for the rock band Wilco. He's a fascinating dude who is best known for drumming with Wilco, but he studied classical composition and was hugely inspired by Cage and Reich. It's fun to play his music.


The other piece we're really excited about is a piece, playbook, by a young composer, Danny Clay. It's really fresh out of the oven. It was just written less than a year ago. Danny is a young Bay Area composer in his twenties. He's absolutely in this lineage of Harrison and Cage, and he wrote this piece, which is conceptual but, like Cage's work, creates an amazing sonic result. He's an elementary school educator in addition to being a composer, and the piece is inspired by children's games. He plays games in class to get kids to listen, and to get them to respond in a musical way. And he took those games and modified them for our ensemble.

The last piece we're playing is by Third Coast member Peter Martin. Cage and Reich were both performers and composers and we're in that tradition too. We compose individually and recently we've also started to work together.


Q: The first time I heard a Cage piece, I was in high school at a summer program called Governor's School. And though I love Cage now, at the time it made me really uncomfortable. And for me that seems to be very important, that this music can be unsettling or uncomfortable for people. 


That's so important, We talk about it all the time, about making people uncomfortable. There's value in introducing someone to something unfamiliar to them. If they like it that's great, but not everyone is going to like everything. We celebrate that diversity, knowing that not everything will connect, and that's totally fine. But it's important that people are exposed to something unfamiliar to them. Either they like it or they don't like it, but hopefully they see that someone else is passionate about it, and that means something.


Q: Education and outreach is such a big part of what you do. Why is that so important to Third Coast? What are you currently planning or doing in that arena?


On a personal level, all of us have a background in teaching everything from kindergarten through graduate level performance. And it's something we just love to do. So we like doing it and it is a lot of what we do, but education also goes hand in hand with bringing music we're passionate about to as many people as possible. One of main ways we do this is through concerts and making recordings, but it's just as important to bring this music to young people, because they're so receptive. When you're a student, it's such an important time to be introduced to something new. There are only so many percussion groups in the world, and if we don't bring new percussion music to young people it might be that no one else is going to do it. If people want to hear classical orchestral music it's easy to get your hands on, but what about these people we believe in so passionately? It's up to us to bring those artists to young people.


One of our ongoing projects, ndWaves, is entering a new phase. We've become inspired by connections between the STEM fields and the arts, so through the University of Notre Dame, where we are ensemble residents, we've made close friends and valued colleagues in Engineering. We've connected with people who are passionate about music and education and who are working with us to find connections between art forms and other disciplines. We're looking at scientific and musical concepts behind sound waves. We've been touring it for three or four years, and now we're expanding and hoping to create an afterschool curriculum, which we'll disseminate all over the country to teachers. More students will then have an opportunity to learn about those topics.

Q: What's next for Third Coast?


We'll be on tour playing the music we're playing at the {Re}HAPPENING, plus a couple of other works we're excited about.


Our next album is coming out in about 10 months. We just started composing music together, and the next album is music that all four of us composed for the first time. We're hard at work on that right now. We're always doing a million things [laughs]. We have a dozen or more projects in the works. 


Q: I really want to know: What's the weirdest instrument you've ever played?


With some of the John Cage music we play, he asks you to play on organic materials. So eating an apple into the mic, breaking celery, rustling leaves. At the {Re}HAPPENING performance we'll be playing one of Cage's most well known works, "Third Construction for Percussion Quartet." In that we play tin cans and a lion's roar, which is a drum with a string attached to the drum head. It makes a sound like a lion roaring. It's actually an old radio play foley sound.


This is what's so cool about Cage. In the late 1930s and early 40s, his obsession was the sound. So writing percussion music was about any sound he found interesting. He drew largely on other cultures, especially Native American and East Asian, but also African and Caribbean, bongos and Congas, plus Chinese tom-toms, Polynesian instruments. Peter plays a conch shell he blows into like a trumpet.


I like that in every single concert, there are almost never two pieces where we play the same instruments. It's always new sound. I think that's something Cage would have liked.


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See Third Coast Percussion at the {Re}HAPPENING. Third Coast performs twice, at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., in the Dining Hall. The {Re}HAPPENING is this Saturday at Lake Eden from 3-10 p.m. Tickets are on sale now