Third Coast Percussion, from left: David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors Credit: Saverio Truglia

Last year Chicago quartet Third Coast Percussion won their first Grammy: Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, for a 2016 album of music by minimalist icon Steve Reich. Reich’s distinctively pulsing music has been part of Third Coast’s repertoire since the ensemble’s founding in 2005, and recently they’ve been invited to perform his work by prestigious institutions such as Columbia University and the Cleveland Museum of Art. For their next season, beginning this fall, TCP will take several programs on the road, including a selection of music by another minimalist icon, Philip Glass—he’s even writing a piece for the group, his first ever for a percussion ensemble.

Third Coast Percussion are also thriving in territory less well traveled by new-music groups. In September 2018 at the Harris Theater, they’ll premiere a collaboration with Hubbard Street Dance that also involves Los Angeles-based choreographers and movement artists Emma Portner, Lil Buck, and Jon Boogz—TCP will perform commissioned music composed by pop polymath Devonté Hynes, aka Blood Orange. And this weekend Third Coast play music from their latest album, Paddle to the Sea (Cedille), at Thalia Hall—they appear on the venue’s schedule between Andrew Bird and indie-rock band Wye Oak.

Third Coast Percussion presents Paddle to the Sea

Sun 5/13, 7:30 PM, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $23-$40, all-ages

Spektral Quartet were also nominated for the same Grammy that Third Coast won, but in the past two decades the only other Chicago group to claim such an honor has been Eighth Blackbird. Between that award, their current flurry of high-profile projects, and the vitality of their performances, TCP seem to be on the cusp of breaking out—perhaps to an international audience (they’re already well-known in the stateside new-music community), perhaps to a crossover crowd outside traditional classical circles.

Since 2013, when TCP landed a five-year appointment as an ensemble in residence at the University of Notre Dame, the four members—David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors—have been able to support themselves solely through the group (their residence was recently extended through 2019). Collaborations with artists famous outside the world of classical music—the upcoming project with Hynes, for instance, or their 2015 partnership with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who composed the multimedia work Wild Sound for them—always have the potential to bring in new listeners in large numbers. It’s difficult to determine why one group succeeds and another fails, but TCP have gotten this far in large part due to their self-sufficient business model and cooperative creative process. Before hiring Liz Pesnel, formerly of Windish Agency, to be their managing director in 2015, Third Coast had no outside help running the group, and each musician continues to play a nonmusical role today: Skidmore is executive director, Dillon is development director, Martin is finance director, and Connors is technical director.

Third Coast Percussion perform Paddle to the Sea at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall on January 25, 2018.Credit: Philip D. Lanum

From a listener’s point of view, though, the important methodology is musical, not administrative. In 2013, when Third Coast launched their Emerging Composers Partnership to solicit new work from young talent, they stipulated that the process be rigorously interactive. Customarily a composer writes a commissioned piece, sends the group the score, and then gets together with the musicians for a few rehearsals before the premiere. By contrast, TCP ask each composer in this program to visit them at their Ravenswood studio (in a building they share with the likes of Eighth Blackbird and Ensemble dal Niente) at least three times during the writing process, so they can all workshop it together. Currently they’re partnering with composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Ayanna Woods (sister of rising soul star Jamila Woods) for a June 17 concert at Constellation. (Disclaimer: It’s part of the Frequency Series that I program.) Even when Third Coast work with more established composers, they prefer to take a hands-on approach whenever possible.

TCP also distinguish themselves by writing music collectively—though composer-performers are common in the new-music world, it’s unusual for the composer to be an entire group. Their second collective work, Paddle to the Sea, is intended as a live score for the 1966 Canadian short film of the same name by Bill Mason (itself based on a 1941 children’s book by Holling C. Holling called Paddle-to-the-Sea). The 28-minute composition is the centerpiece of their recent album, as well as of the evening-length program they perform on Sunday.

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 have always actively sought out new work. They’re all Northwestern grads (including cofounder Owen Clayton Condon, replaced by 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 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.” 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 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.”

The experience with Thomas led TCP to require workshopping as part of their Emerging Composers Partnership and motivated them to push for more interaction in their commissions from relatively established composers. “Because we’ve been insistent upon that, we’ve gotten pieces like Donnacha Dennehy’s Surface Tension,” says Skidmore, “which is for specifically tuned tom-toms that you change the tuning of by blowing into them with surgical tubing—not an idea a composer would come up with on their own if they weren’t a percussionist.”

Kotche credits the members of Third Coast with making his 2015 commission possible. “After they approached me, I came to them with the concept and eventually all of the music and the structure of Wild Sound,” he says. “But that still left plenty of room for collaboration in respect to the multitude of unspecified details concerning setup, transitions both physically and musically, how some of the sounds and instruments would be designed and assembled, as well as many other aspects. Also, they chose the creative and technical team for the actual shows, and all of those individuals had a great impact on the staging and final production. The piece would still exist on paper, but if it hadn’t been done with TCP, I doubt it ever would have actually been performed. The strengths, decisions, and personalities of those four—they poured themselves into the piece and ultimately made it what is was.”

When that sort of intimate interaction hasn’t been possible for TCP’s commissions, it’s often been because they’re working with veteran composers who can’t be so available—Glass is 81 and lives in New York, for instance, and Gavin Bryars is 75 and lives in the UK. Glass plans to finish his piece for Third Coast by this summer, and they’ll visit him to read through it before it’s done. The ensemble skyped with Bryars for The Other Side of the River in 2016.

Intensive collaboration on commissions is the norm for TCP, though, and it allows everyone involved—the composers included—to learn from one another. Though the members of Third Coast rehearse together constantly, there’s still room for them to strengthen their rapport, and this open, exploratory process accomplishes that—it’s a rarity among classical ensembles, which tend to largely or exclusively play music by outside composers.

Of course, Third Coast also play their own work, most of it written by one member or another—the earliest such piece in their repertoire is Skidmore’s “Echoes” from 2003. Their first collective composition, Reaction Yield, premiered at Thomas’s Ear Taxi Festival in 2016. It was commissioned by the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club, a Utah-based organization that describes itself as “dedicated to the expression of science through music.” According to a blog post by the SoSCC’s president, Glenn Prestwich, “Reaction Yield draws the analogy between the creation of a new composition of music from motif building blocks of tones, aural colors, rhythms, dynamics, and tempi with the process of creating a new composition of matter using a chemical catalog of molecules and a synthetic strategy.”

Paddle to the Sea is a more impressive accomplishment for Third Coast in several ways. It’s the centerpiece of a thematically linked multimedia program, not a stand-alone composition. It arose from a more rigorous process, and it’s a more complex and interesting piece of music. The 65-minute live program (a bit shorter than the CD version) includes film and video projections and three works by outside composers: Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia (in a percussion arrangement by TCP), Jacob Druckman’s Reflections on the Nature of Water (a suite of solo pieces), and an adaptation of a traditional Shona song called Chigwaya (arranged by Musekiwa Chingodza).

“Madeira River” is part of Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia, included in Third Coast Percussion’s Paddle to the Sea program.

Paddle to the Sea was commissioned by several presenting partners: the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Meany Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Washington, ArtsLive at the University of Dayton, and the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame. They provided financial support, both in up-front grants and in the form of promised paid gigs at each institution (all of which happened earlier this year). Tom Welsh, director of performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art, came to Third Coast with what turned out to be the seed for the project. He remembers loving the film of Paddle to the Sea as a child. “Somehow I was sure it’s a film that could have real impact on audiences of all ages,” says Welsh. “So I called the National Film Board of Canada to ask them whether I could commission a new score for the film, and they were agreeable. I immediately thought of Third Coast Percussion, because I know how superb and inventive they are. Plus they’re also composers themselves, meaning for a project like this, the sky’s the limit.”

Connors describes the way the program took shape: “We knew that we wanted to use previously composed music as part of an evening-length performance, so not just the original score but other music as well,” he says. “We wanted the music involved to be connected to the new piece—so we brainstormed and listened to a lot of music and ended up picking what our influences for the composition would be—specifically music that dealt with water, since it’s such a central theme of Paddle to the Sea. We made some arrangements of Philip Glass’s music that became part of the program; we studied music by the master Shona musician Musekiwa Chingodza, who taught us a Shona song about water spirits. Then we brought to the table lots of ideas that were connected—like musically inspired—and we started testing some out in a laboratory setting. We spent a full year before a concert could even have been performed developing the ideas.”

In spring 2016, Third Coast began plotting out sections of the score for Paddle to the Sea by developing themes that corresponded to visual elements in the film, such as rushing water or calm water—they created storyboards that specified what each second of footage required before writing any longer pieces of music. They did the bulk of the actual composing that fall, during an intensive two-week residency at the Yellow Barn chamber music center in Putney, Vermont.

“The benefit of cocomposing a long-form work like this is that you have four people, and so you have a never-ending well of ideas,” says Martin. “There is so much content that can be created as a result of working with four people. The difficulty comes with funneling it into a cohesive piece and making sure it sounds like a single voice.”

Early in 2017, Third Coast began collaborating with theater producer and U. of C. assistant professor Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, with whom they’d first worked on the Kotche piece. They also enlisted video artist Joseph Burke, whose abstract imagery uses the film as source material—a kind of analogue to the way TCP drew ideas from Glass, Druckmann, and Shona traditional music, as Connors notes. The Paddle to the Sea program premiered in October 2017 at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and Sunday’s concert at Thalia Hall will be its Chicago debut.

Third Coast Percussion perform Paddle to the Sea at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on February 2, 2018.Credit: Kirk Richard Smith

“We’ve already recorded our next album, which will come out in February or March of 2019. And we’ve got time set aside in our calendar to record the album after that, and we don’t even know what’s going to be on it yet,” Skidmore says. “This speaks to the organization that was required to create Paddle to the Sea. When we’re at our best creatively, it’s when we aren’t focused on logistics and shit—but that only happens when we focus on logistics and shit, so that when we get to Vermont where we have nothing to do but be creative for two weeks, we can crank out a whole 30-minute film score no problem. But keeping these different areas of our headspaces pretty siloed —it’s a challenge.”

Martin sees Third Coast’s ability to meet that challenge as crucial to their success. “It’s a strength of this ensemble that we’re all willing to do all of this other administrative stuff,” he says. “But our willingness to do it allows us to create exactly the art that we want to create, and we are the people that make those artistic decisions together. I think Paddle to the Sea is the most direct statement of who we are as artists, individually and as an ensemble.” He explains how the elements of the program express different facets of Third Coast’s identity: the Druckman pieces are key building blocks of the percussion repertoire, Glass is one of the group’s favorite composers, and the Shona song represents their interest in non-Western music. The film score they wrote themselves, of course, captures their identity even more directly.

“Third Coast Percussion are outstanding players, and an incredibly tight unit,” Welsh says. “They have that exceedingly rare talent to be able to make appealing even the most difficult or unusual musics. This must be due, in no small part, to their unendingly buoyant personality—rigorous but friendly, never dumbing anything down.”

This versatility and accessibility augur well for TCP’s latest project with Hubbard Street Dance. In 2014 the group played Reich’s Drumming to accompany the troupe’s performance of Jiří Kylián’s dance piece Falling Angels, but their upcoming collaboration will take Third Coast far from that familiar ground: working with Hynes and with Portner, who’s done videos and tour pieces for Justin Bieber, definitely widens the group’s range of artistic partners. “Third Coast are, collectively, an undeniably brilliant group of music artists who collaborate very often,” Portner says. “They are already so open to our ideas and really know what it takes to collaborate successfully. I know they will bring Dev’s ideas to life and beyond. I’m excited for all of these elements to come together.”

Third Coast Percussion perform the third movement of Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet at the 2017 Grammys with guest saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.Credit: Rich Polk

Third Coast will no doubt continue to find even bigger opportunities with an even wider range of presenters and collaborators, but their members maintain a level-headed attitude about the niche position of classical music in the larger world—they know that most of the people they reach as their audience grows will be newcomers to these sounds. Because they take pleasure in introducing listeners to what they love, rather than getting frustrated that they still have to do so, they’re in a great position to enjoy a long and healthy career.

“When you’re well versed in contemporary classical music, it’s easy to see Steve Reich or Philip Glass as having some kind of a hegemony on the repertoire,” says Skidmore. “But that’s such an incredibly tiny portion of the world’s population. Almost every time we play Steve Reich, I think at least 75 percent of the audience have never heard his music before. I mean, when we left school we assumed everyone in the world had heard of Jacob Druckman, and then all of a sudden no one knows who he is or what a marimba is. It doesn’t lead us to dumb things down, but it does provide a good perspective that when we go onstage and play Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet, even though we’ve played it hundreds of times, it’s almost certainly the first time everyone in the audience has heard it. So that keeps it fresh in my mind.”  v