Third Coast Percussion is one of Chicago’s finest musical exports along with groups like Eighth Blackbird and doubtless others with whom I have less familiarity. Their deservedly Grammy winning album of music by Steve Reich was reviewed here. All percussion ensembles are somewhat the rage these days judging by the amount of such albums that come my way. Percussion instruments are common in eastern cultures but only really made its way into western ensembles in a big way in the last 100 years or so largely due to composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison studying music of other cultures and writing new music for both existing and newly invented percussion instruments.
Percussion is like the junk drawer of the orchestra in that any instrument which does not fit into the categories of strings, winds, or brass is handled by the percussionist. The taxi horns in Gershwin’s American in Paris are a good example. However what we have here is an ensemble entirely comprised of percussion instruments with some seriously virtuosic players here performing music written for them.
This two CD set from Orange Mountain Music contains five works by five composers. The first CD is dedicated to the largest work on this release, “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by ensemble member David Skidmore. It is, at about 35 minutes, the longest piece in this collection and is virtually a symphony for percussion and electronics. It is in seven movements, each with a cryptic title no doubt related to the musical content. It is an engaging work of some complexity with fascinating writing for percussion instruments. Multiple close listens will reward you with details not immediately apparent and reveal some of the structure of this large work.
The second CD begins with a shorter work by ensemble member Peter Martin called “Bend”. It has the characteristics of an orchestral work using largely pitched percussion. It presents themes, develops them, and has a detectable harmonic structure. It is a showpiece for the musicians but it does communicate with the listener.
Next up is Philip Glass in his first all percussion work, “Perpetulum” (2018) has four movements and clocks in at about 25 minutes. This is music by a seasoned composer, not the experimental music of his earlier years (which hooked this listener) but rather a recognizable and comfortably familiar style with some really nice writing for percussion. Glass has frequently used percussion of various sorts in his works but this is the first thing he has written entirely for percussion ensemble. It is an audience pleaser and a challenge to the musicians.
This is followed by a work by another member of the group Robert Dillon. “Ordering-Instincts” (2018) is cast in one movement it is a relatively brief (7min approx) piece which successfully challenges the players and entertains the audience. It also seems to provide a nice segue to the final cut.
The disc concludes with a major percussion work by British minimalist Gavin Bryars. “The Other Side of the River” (2018) is a commission by Third Coast Percussion and is a valuable addition to Bryars gentle, pensive oeuvre. For this listener this piece is the highlight of this collection. Bryars is at his best in his meditative mood. Sinking of the Titanic and Farewell to Philosophy come to mind as similarly relaxing and thoughtful. This is a big piece and well worth the journey of listening.
This CD set is a massive undertaking and a fine production illustrating the range of compositional interests of Third Coast Percussion as well as their own compositional chops. It is also a great sounding recording. Very well done.