Musical America: Third Coast Percussion’s Newest Is as Personal as It Is Powerful

Published on September 8, 2023 by Hannah Edgar       |      Share this post!

“…the group’s truest self-portrait to date…”

The intensity of the performance was nothing short of blood-chilling.”

CHICAGO — Classical music might be ever more undefinable, but one constant is usually assured: works are written by, and reverently credited to, a single composer. For Third Coast Percussion, all bets are off. For the better part of a decade, the Chicago-based quartet has centered collectively written works in its repertoire, a creative outgrowth captured on recent albums: Paddle to the Sea (2018), Archetypes (2021) and Perspectives (2022).

On September 2nd, the group previewed its newest album, Between Breaths, at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. The particular selection of works felt like the group’s truest self-portrait to date. “In Practice,” for one, is a nearly 20-minute rumination on the daily rituals of each member, including morning cereal, pre-performance warmups, a cup of tea, and even teeth brushing. Bowls and mugs got rapped like crotales, and an electric toothbrush buzzed between vibraphone keys. The collectively written piece is personal—and it felt ever more intimate, since David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors have built a career from disappearing inside other living composers’ music.

Also programmed was Gemma Peacocke’s mallet showcase “Death Wish,” which Skidmore called one of his “favorite pieces ever written for the marimba.” The work for four players sharing two marimbas plumbs aching emotional depths from an unchanging eighth-note pulse, its wispy opening tremolos thickening into desolate four-mallet chords. There was also a nod to Third Coast’s Currents Creative Partnership, a booster for early-career composers, in Ayanna Woods’s “Triple Point” (2018). Enlisting wind wands and güiros, Woods’s petting zoo of instruments begins enigmatically before coalescing into a fun, sauntering groove. A fast-ascending composer, Woods has since written for eminences like The Crossing and Chanticleer, currently acting as composer-in-residence for the latter; even in this earlier work, she stands out as an authoritative and intuitive orchestrator.

For this occasion, the group commissioned movement artist Quentin Robinson, a frequent collaborator, to devise choreography to “In Practice.” Robinson responded by not just dancing in, but directing, producing, and starring in an accompanying short film, mostly filmed in Bozeman, MT. Where the score was meditative, Robinson’s film was busy-going-on-busier. He ushered viewers through a series of vignettes from the protagonist’s life, supported by a reassuring—and, we later learn, ghostly—friend. Some of these glimpses were beautiful, others vexing, and still others humorous. (Robinson slotted in a kung-fu movie sendup at one point.) Around the three-quarters mark, it still wasn’t clear he how planned to tie his many narrative strands together. But at the very last minute, he succeeded.

Similar themes of loss and ritual animate Missy Mazzoli’s “Millennium Canticles” (2022). Since the pandemic, the composer has increasingly composed with a theatrical flair—a byproduct of her ever-in-demand work as an operatist. Her five “Canticles,” which flow into one another without interruption, imagine the Third Coasters as the survivors of an unnamed disaster. Most of the percussion is Mazzoli’s imagined wreckage: junk metal, tin cans, wood planks, and pitched metal pipes. It is one of her most staggering instrumental works yet, precisely because of that onstage pageantry. At one point in “Bloodied Bells,” the middle movement, the Third Coast percussionists solemnly cycle through tugs on a huge lion’s roar—here a bass drum with a string passing through it. The drum’s sternum-shaking rumbles grow ever more cacophonous as the strange rite goes on, like an insatiable cry from the beyond. No slight to Third Coast’s excellent studio recording, but this moment, among others, begs to be experienced live.

Skidmore, Dillon, Martin and Connors never declaim any kind of dialogue or programmatic text in the “Canticles,” but they gasp, count, and vocalize. In the final movement (“Survival Psalm”), these boil over into anguished, feral screams, the quartet slamming triple-forte hits on their instruments. The intensity of the performance was nothing short of blood-chilling.

The concert marked the quartet’s first complete performance of Tyondai Braxton’s electronics-spiked “Sunny X” (2019), its captivating collaboration last year with street-dance collective Movement Art Is. It proved no less exhilarating a listen on its own, its whirring, propulsive electronic soundscape mapping nicely with the Logan Center’s sound system for a psychedelic spatial experience.