Unknown Symmetry: A Biography of Our Band

Published July 18, 2013 by Third Coast Percussion      |      Share this post!

Our newest CD, Unknown Symmetry, is days away from being released!   Our sophomore album has been about 4 years in the making, and in many ways it is a history of our group from the beginning to the present.  Fans of TCP might be scratching their heads now – Didn’t we release our sophomore album last season(The Percussion Music of John Cage, 2012)?

…It’s complicated.

Our first EP, Ritual Music, was tracked in a large rehearsal room off-hours – it was all very DIY.   In 2009 we were looking around for more swanky places to record and spent time tracking in some local Chicago studios.   At that point we weren’t even sure what was actually going to be on the next album.   We had a bunch of rep that we had been touring that season and were asking ourselves the same question we always seem to end up at: “how can we make a thematic album with a bunch of non-related repertoire?”  Perhaps more importantly in the 21st century, “Does an album release even NEED to be thematic?”

The first 2 works we recorded for our new disc aren’t even on the album.   We showed up at a small studio on Chicago’s north side with our cars full of gear to track Cage’s Third Construction and Manoury’s marimba duo from Le Livre des Claviers.   Third Construction ended up being re-recorded for our latest MODE records release, and the Manoury was re-recorded in its entirety in 2010.  That recording, with all of its crazy sixxen, is in the can and coming out next year…… I told you this was complicated.

While the audio of that early session has never seen the light of day, it led us to some of our closest colleagues and collaborators.    We knew Greg Beyer wasn’t too far away from Chicago and, needing a session producer for the tracking, we called him up.  We had never worked with him before, but it was an amazing experience that has turned into many years of creative activity together.  Since then, Greg has gone on to produce many of our recordings and has also been part of all our sextet repertoire (Grisey, Rihm, Manoury, etc.).    Greg also introduced us to the greatest engineer in the world who has been part of every recording project since.

With the music we play, finding a great engineer is tricky.   Things weren’t working out in 2009 and, after spending a day in the studio with us, Greg mentioned his colleague Dan Nichols at Northern Illinois University.  We went out there that next summer to spend a few days with him and ended up tracking Christopher Deane’s Vespertine Formations which you’ll get to hear on the album.   What makes a great engineer great?   All I can say is that, beyond having amazing ears, Dan understands the sound of percussion instruments more than most professional percussionists.  He has the ears, the technique, the gear, and is always excited for the most off-the-wall projects we bring to him.  We have many fond memories of him: stringing up U-channeling with us, building individual foam houses for us and our wind chimes 😯 , crashing next to his chinchillas…..  One of his hand-built microphones, the “binaural sphere”, has routinely been considered for new album titles.  But I digress…

As soon as we found our engineer, we got set up to record an entire album of John Cage’s music for MODE records, and our original “sophomore album” got pushed back on the timeline.  Soon after that we were recording an entire album of Philippe Manoury’s percussion music and after that we recorded Augusta Read Thomas’ Resounding Earth for a release on the New Focus label this next fall.   Since the beginning of our work on Unknown Symmetry, TCP has managed to record 3 other full-length albums (4 if you included the soon to be released “Music for 18 Musicians” with Ensemble Signal).

Unknown Symmetry is an album that was recorded in pieces, in-between other projects.  If we had a few days off, we’d run up to DeKalb and record with Dan.    We never really thought of how one work fit with the next.   We felt compelled to record these works because we loved them, yet we really had no idea when or  where they’d show up as a final product.    Many of these pieces are familiar to anyone who’s seen a TCP show over the past few years.  Peter Garland’s Apple Blossom was part of our early touring repertoire and on almost every show we did during our first substantial touring in the Spring of 2009.  Clay Condon’s piece Fractalia has been on 90% of the shows I’ve played with TCP over the past season.  We played David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time on a large  tour through in 2012-13, at Millennium Park last summer, and are about to tour it again in VA next month.   Christopher Deane’s Vespertine Formations is unique amongst all of the repertoire on this new disc in that it was one of the works on TCP’s very first show (aawwwhh…).  Fratres is also a bit different – if you weren’t  at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago on December 15th, 2009 at 7:30pm, this album will be the first for you.

I forgot to mention the DVD in all of this.   Unknown Symmetry is a double discrelease – 1 has the audio, the other is a video of the live performance of the premiere of David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.  I could write an entire blog on just this piece, but when I think of this album and the narrative of our group it provides, what resonates the most for me is the relationship with our close friend and supporter Sidney K. Robinson.   We met Sid at Taliesin in Wisconsin many years ago.   He’s been a key figure in many of our artistic pursuits in the past 3 years including the commissioning of this work.

The album doesn’t fit the “classical record” stereotype – it’s not a composer portrait, the pieces don’t all fall under the same aesthetics, etc.   Rather, listening through Unknown Symmetry is learning how we have grown as an ensemble – from the repertoire we have played to the colleagues and relationships we have developed over the years, to the recording process itself (some works were done with just a couple well placed microphones in a room, others were a bit more advanced).  We love this album.  Yes, it’s taken a while to finish, but if we had released our “sophomore album” way back in 2009 or 2010, we wouldn’t have wound up with disc that was so meaningful to us.