Third Coast Percussion Conversation
For nearly a decade, Third Coast Percussion has been committed to taking its repertoire—a body of work that spans the greats of the 20th century percussion canon as well as a growing array of new commissions and collaborative projects—to new audiences. Among the ensemble’s newest and most innovative projects is Resounding Earth: a 28-minute work composed by Augusta Read Thomas and funded through CMA’s Classical Commissioning program. The piece, which began with an immensely challenging, if seemingly-straightforward premise—that it be performed on bells and only bells—took shape via a close collaborative dialogue between composer and ensemble. The result—a work in four movements, performed alongside projections and later reimagined in a free iPhone app–embodies Third Coast’s dedication to audience engagement in its many forms.
CMA spoke with three of Third Coast’s four members—Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—about the unique process behind Resounding Earth, the visual and participatory immediacy of percussion, and the new worlds of musical experience opened up by interactive technologies.
CMA: Can you talk about the process surrounding Resounding Earth? How did it grow from the initial conception to the final work, and how did you collaborate with Augusta Read Thomas?
David Skidmore: It was intensely collaborative from the very beginning. Augusta was very interested in experimenting with the instruments—of figuring out which bells to use, where they’d come from, what the sonic palette would be like. She was aware from the very beginning—and I suppose we were as well—that it would be a very unorthodox piece, and that—as is the case with many works for percussion—the instrumentation would be completely unique to the piece. The process of searching for and choosing the bells was itself very involved. I’ll just give one example: there’s a bell that’s native to Burma—it’s almost triangular in shape and hangs on a string—that’s struck at the edge and spins. It’s a very, very beautiful instrument. In concert music you seem them very rarely, though occasionally—they’re used in a Gerard Grisey piece, and Gunther Schuller worked with them—but Augusta wanted to have a whole lot of them. We found a distributor, in Nebraska of all places, who would send us maybe ten bells at a time. Augusta would say “these are great, we’ll keep these five, we’ll send these five back, and ask them if they have these particular pitches,” and the distributor—who actually wasn’t a musician himself—used an iPhone app to try and match up the pitches.
Anyway, she would write sketches and we would read through them, and then she would decide which elements she liked. That way, she was able to take an idea and run with it until a whole movement emerged. Throughout the process, she was always asking us for feedback, which, I think, led the piece to be both uniquely customized for our ensemble and also uniquely successful.
Robert Dillon: The whole piece managed to develop on many fronts simultaneously—the instrumentation and the content, the types of instruments we used, the way it’d all be laid out. Often composers will write everything first and then the ensemble will be tasked with figuring out how to set things up and move forward. But because this piece was so interactive, all these elements developed in tandem. It was amazing to see the amount of content she’d generate, what she’d compose and then cut out; she was constantly going back and refining and throwing way ideas in the search for balance—a real challenge, in that each bell had its own unique color and articulation and resonance.
CMA: Did that reflect back on how you—as an ensemble—compose and collaborate?
DS: Very much so. We’ve come to consider this project a kind of model for us, and we hope to try and replicate the experience in any way we can when we work with composers in the future. Particularly in the context of percussion music, there are idiosyncrasies to virtually every instrument and an almost limitless number of instruments available. Any object that we can make a sound out of can potentially become one of our instruments. That’s an exciting thing, but also—from the perspective of writing composed music—a lot of variables to deal with. In future commissions, we’re inviting composers to come work with us—to, much in the way we did with Augusta—write sketches and have us play through them, with the hope that their vision can really solidify.
CMA: Are the roles in the ensemble—without being circumscribed by instruments, in the traditional sense—more fluid? How does the relationship to instrumentation affect your interpretation of a piece?
DS: Well, first we arm wrestle to decide who gets the first pick of parts. (Laughter)
RD: There really is a great deal of fluidity. It’s always the way we’ve worked as percussionists, and it’s come to feel completely natural. But that fluidity is actually very exciting and fun; it means not only that every piece that we perform can be its own very unique sonic world, with a different set of instrumentation, but also that, within the piece, our respective roles can change each time. Each of us then maybe has some room to say, ‘you know, I’d really like to play the marimba part in this piece, I think it really relates to me; or I haven’t really played a lot of marimba lately.’ Within a string quartet a cellist doesn’t get to say ‘I’d like to play the violin part this time—I’ve been playing a lot of low notes lately.’ (Laughter)
CMA: Is there a special relevance, today, to the idea that music written for percussion—by utilizing everyday objects and noise—can reframe an audience’s relationship to patterns appearing in the random sounds of daily life?
DS: I certainly think so, yes. Speaking for this ensemble, there’s no limit to what we’ll try. We don’t have the benefit of hundreds of years of repertoire, but we don’t have the burden of hundreds of years of tradition, and I think that’s actually a very powerful thing. Whatever is happening in music right now, percussion participates, and in many cases it’s at the forefront. Anything from unique collaborative projects with artists of a variety of different genres to the most wild, avant-garde, experimental work that stretches the notion of what music-making is—we get to participate, and that’s something our ensemble really celebrates.
RD: I think that there’s something special to percussion because it’s so broadly-defined—it opens up all these worlds and really anything, almost any sound you make, can be percussion. Over the last century, percussion has grown to include almost anything that falls outside the narrowly prescribed roles of the other instruments. That includes things are not technically modes of making sounds by striking things together—the technical definition of percussion. I think it’s at least as common that a percussionist will play a slide-whistle over, say, a clarinetist, even though that instrument seemingly has more to do with a clarinetist’s normal skill-set. As composers and musicians of all kinds look for ways to stretch into something new and build pieces around new concepts, it often falls to us help realize those new ideas.
CMA: The ensemble is known for making challenging music accessible to relatively uninitiated audiences—is that something that’s been an explicit goal, or do you see it simply as a natural extension of the work?
PM: We only do repertoire and projects that we feel really passionate about. There’s a variety of aesthetics that go into the music that we make, and if we love it then we’re confident that everyone else will love it. This idea of accessibility is, I think, just a natural extension of our own passion for the repertoire.
RD: I think there’s also something about what we do as percussionists that opens up a unique window for audiences; every sound we make tends to come with a very visual cue. The visual element to the performance experience—I think even more so than other instruments or kinds of ensembles—gives people one more gateway into music they wouldn’t otherwise explore. We also make a very deliberate effort to balance out programs and think—what is the specific audience? What is the specific environment in which we’re preforming? And how do we present a variety of aesthetics? Because there’s a great variety of aesthetics that interest us—not only very complex or dense music, but also music that’s very simple and grounded in very straightforward ideas.
DS: We’re lucky to have different lenses through which we can view or organize the range of repertoire we work with. Depending on the context in which we’re playing—a new music festival, a community workshop, a concert at a university—we can delve into a particular passion or explore new connections between work.
What advantages does percussion have in an educational setting?
PM: The most easily identifiable advantage is the ability to have whoever you’re working with—more or less regardless of the community setting—actively participate in the music-making process. You don’t need years and years of experience working on your embouchure or your bow technique to produce a satisfying sound from many percussion instruments. As an educator, when you’re trying to engage people and get them excited about the music, participation is extremely helpful. Much of the community work that we do in Chicago has always been about us playing with—rather than simply performing for—the participants. Again, it’s largely a function of the instruments we work with; if I were a violinist, I wouldn’t feel great about handing off my many-thousand dollar instrument for someone to hack away at.
Third Coast has embraced mobile application technology—do you have plans for new projects? What is the goal or potential for this technology in this context?
RD: We have two apps now, actually—the John Cage app, created around the centennial, as well as the app we developed for Resounding Earth, which allows users to explore many of the bells used in the piece. It’s one more way to engage audiences of all types all around the world. We have people downloading the apps in Europe, in Australia, in Asia—in places we haven’t yet performed as an ensemble. People there are getting a hands-on experience of the music. And for those who’ve seen the piece, it’s a way to continue the experience.
PM: Again, it all comes back to the idea of participation. The form of media we’d always dealt with in the past decade was—unsurprisingly—audio, but as video became more prominent online we made a point of embracing it as well. The advent of this kind of application technology opens up yet another world of experience within music—and we’ve got a number of other ideas for apps on the horizon