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An Interview with Third Coast Percussion by Megan Arns

Oct 1, 2014, 00:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Third Coast Percussion
Photo by Saverio Truglia

Third Coast Percussion includes percussionists Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. Hailed by The New Yorker as “vibrant” and “superb,” this quartet is quickly rising as a staple ensemble in our field of contemporary percussion performance. I sat down with all four members to talk about some of their current projects and upcoming PASIC appearance. 

Rhythm! Scene: How and when did Third Coast Percussion begin?

David: Before we were called Third Coast Percussion, Rob and I were in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. They provided opportunities to play chamber music concerts and outreach concerts, and a group of us, including Rob and I, wanted to put together a percussion group. So we formed a group and did several concerts that way, but shortly thereafter in 2005 the two other original members, Jacob Nissly and Anthony Calabrese, left and TCP really started when Clay Condon and Peter Martin joined the group. We gave our first concerts as TCP in the summer of 2005 and put together shows on our own for the first year. Then, we slowly started to get hired, first by schools where our friends were percussion teachers and the school had some money to hire groups. We have been building up ever since then.

Third Coast Percussion
L–R: David Skidmore, Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin | Photo by Saverio Truglia

R!S: As a group, what allowed you to pursue TCP as a full time endeavor?

Robert: For a lot of years we all had other sources of employment including freelancing, performing, orchestra jobs, teaching positions, etc., with some members scattered around the country a bit. During that time, we began picking up more and more performing gigs as a group, helping generate income for the organization. When we became a not-for-profit 501c3 organization, we started to get some foundation support from grants that we had applied for. But the biggest thing that really allowed us to actually do it full time was that we began a new position as ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. As plans for this began to take shape over the course of the 2012–2013 season, it started to look like the combination of this residency, our other concerts, and the level of contributed income from foundations and donors would put us in a position that we might be able to transition to doing this full time starting in the summer of 2013.

AUDIO: “Fractalia” by Owen Clayton Condon

R!S: What a milestone! What are some challenges you have faced along the way, and what challenges do you face daily as a professional chamber ensemble? 

David: Moving marimbas! [laughter] One of the things that’s challenging about our group is that, at the moment, the four of us are both the performers and the management. So in addition to performing, we split the responsibilities of the business side of running this group. We learned early on that we would have to do this from peer organizations that had been at it before we were, including eighth blackbird, So Percussion, and several others. So that’s fun in a way because it’s a nice challenge. We’re all doing things now that we weren’t formally trained to do in school. Peter is the finance director; he balances the budget and does filings with the IRS. I book the concerts. Sean does stage plots and tech writes for all our venues. Rob does grant writing and other fundraising. So balancing administrative responsibilities with performance responsibilities continues to be an exciting and necessary challenge. I would say the really big positive to the way we run the organization right now is that we have complete control over everything we do. The four of us make every single decision from both an artistic and an administrative side. So that is really liberating because we get to mold this into exactly what we want it to be. 

VIDEO: Excerpt from "Third Construction" by John Cage

R!S: What do you think sets TCP apart from other successful chamber music ensembles

Robert: I think there’s something very special in this time about being percussionists and being in a percussion group. Only in recent decades has percussion gotten to the point where it has started to receive the same respect as other instrument groups. That, combined with the really intense excitement from composers and advocates of contemporary music, makes it feel like this is a time when percussion can really come to the forefront and we can really be at the cutting edge of new musical ideas. Composers are excited to write for this kind of ensemble and understand that they have an infinite sound palette that they can draw on. There are no limitations, and every piece can have its own sonic world. I think that’s really exciting for us as performers, for the composers, and also for audiences. And I think we’re finally getting to the point where it’s becoming exciting for concert presenters, too, which is great for groups that are trying to put this music out there. 

David: Dozens of string quartets tour and make their living, or a large part of their living, as string quartets in this country and all over the world. From a musical perspective, there’s no reason why there can’t be as many percussion quartets. There are a lot of great percussion groups who came before us that we look up to such as Nexus, Amadinda Percussion, and Kroumata. We also have a lot of peer percussion groups that we really respect such as So Percussion, and then groups that are younger than us who are doing really great work. But the cool thing is that there is a shared repertoire of our classics that many of these percussion groups play, such as the music of Steve Reich, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. However, as Third Coast Percussion, we have our own take on them. We spend a lot of time and energy finding our own voice with the music, which leads us to interpretations that are unique to our group in the same way that other groups have their own unique interpretations. We also have this body of commissioned work that is special to our ensemble, as well as music we as an ensemble compose. Maybe 30 years ago people would have never imagined there could be so many professional percussion ensembles, each with its own voice, but that’s really the case right now. And it’s exciting because no one thinks twice about the fact that there are so many string quartets out there, and neither should they that there are so many great percussion ensembles out there. 

R!S: I couldn’t agree more. I recently watched your season-preview video, which shows a collaborative project with Glenn Kotche. How did this come about?

Robert: Glenn is also a Chicago-based musician, and we’ve all been fans of his work for a long time. We’re really excited about the things he does in the contemporary classical context, as well as his work as the drummer in Wilco and some of his other projects. We first approached Glenn six years ago to let him know about our group and asked if he’d be interested in working together on something at some point. We were really excited that he was already aware of us, was into what we were doing, and was open to a collaboration. It took a long time for all the pieces to fall into place, but we are excited about the project that we have in the works with Glenn right now. 

R!S: Can you share some details about the project? 

Robert: The piece is called “Wild Sound,” and we will premiere it October 3 at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. We also have performances lined up later in the season in St. Paul, Chicago, and New York, with a lot of other really exciting leads nationally and internationally for future seasons. It’s a unique project, unlike anything else that we’ve ever done. The concept of the piece now has evolved to the point where it involves video art, live video that gives the audience a really close-up look at what we’re doing on stage, and a prerecorded audio track that Glenn put together out of field recordings he’s made while traveling around the world and this really extensive sound library that he has. But the thing that is most unique about this piece is that it involves only instruments that are built by us during the performance. The piece involves absolutely zero standard percussion instruments; there are no marimbas, there are no drums in this piece. Everything is either just an everyday object that makes interesting sounds or it is an instrument that we construct ourselves during the course of the performance. 

Third Coast Percussion
Photo by Barbara Johnson, University of Notre Dame 

R!S: Now I’m really curious. Can you share some examples of these instruments?

Robert: Some simple things we construct include making sistrums out of pieces of wood with bottlecaps and nails, or making bird callers out of plastic bottles. Glenn has this incredible arsenal in his head of all the different ways you can get sounds out of normal everyday things by taping things together, cutting things apart, making holes in things, or building things out of other things. We were also able to incorporate some more advanced technology into the project by teaming up with the engineering college at the University of Notre Dame as part of our residency. This summer, we had a whole team of student interns at UND who were designing custom electronic instruments that will be used in this piece also. So it’s very multifaceted, super interesting project. It’s a whole set of new challenges for us, but also kind of a bigger and more elaborate performance experience than anything we’ve dealt with before. 

R!S: Have you collaborated with a lot of other composers in the past? 

Sean: Yes, many. Anytime we collaborate with a composer it’s extremely rewarding. We’ve already mentioned working with Glenn Kotche and Augusta Read Thomas. This past season we also collaborated with Timo Andres on a new piece that we premiered and played in a couple of places across the country. I’m particularly excited about a program that we started last season—the Emerging Composers Partnership—in which we look for self-identified emerging composers of any age, really. I think we offer a pretty unique experience. We don’t just request a piece and then play that piece. Instead we kind of dream up the piece in a very collaborative fashion during three work shopping sessions, culminating in a premiere performance on our Chicago season. This is a new program of ours, but it has quickly gained support both from our organization and outside sources. We’re currently accepting applications for next season until November 1.

R!S: Do you have any time for community outreach in Chicago among these big projects? 

Sean: Yes. We have a partnership with a very talented group of high school students who play in a marimba ensemble in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. In this incredible program, based out of Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, students not only learn music on the marimba, but are also given marimbas to take home to practice on. The group then plays professional gigs that fund the ensemble. Additionally, when the students graduate from the ensemble, they are welcomed back to teach and instruct the ensemble, helping them develop skill sets as leaders and educators as well as providing them with funds to help pay for college. We played a joint concert with them on Make Music Chicago this past June, and we are going to be continuing the partnership this year through Rush Hour concerts in Chicago, which is very exciting.

R!S: I know you are on the road a lot, but what are some other collaborative projects you have been a part of in Chicago? 

David: Collaboration is a big part of what we do. We’ve been fortunate to work with some Chicago organizations that are doing really incredible work that’s happening locally, but are really on the national and international stage. Recently, we had the opportunity to collaborate with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. There’s an amazing work by a choreographer named Jiří Kylián called “Falling Angels,” which is set to the first part of Steve Reich’s “Drumming.” We’ve performed that with Hubbard Street a number of times. We also had a daylong residency with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where we performed for the current members and worked with their new fellowship program. We are looking forward to an expanded residency with them this season. We’ve played concerts with other Chicago-based ensembles such as eighth blackbird, who have joined us as soloists in the past, as well as full ensemble collaborations. So a lot of what we do is Chicago-centric, and I think that that’s really exciting for us because there’s so much amazing art happening in Chicago right now. 

Peter: Right around the time Third Coast Percussion was starting, a variety of younger musicians and performers were very interested in contemporary music as a new voice and a new model for what a professional performing musician could be. Many of these musicians were all studying together at Chicago-area conservatories and universities like Northwestern University, which is where we’re all from. Given that there aren’t a lot of ensembles in existence or presenters just banging on your door to hear some of this repertoire that’s not always played, there are not a lot of models out there. There are some exceptions, like eighth blackbird, of course, who have been a Chicago-based ensemble for a long time, so they certainly serve as a model. But it’s a very exciting time in Chicago right now because around the same time that our ensemble was birthed, so were some other groups such as Dal Niente, a fantastic contemporary music ensemble a lot of us have played with in the past. It’s a great culture that’s happening right now, where young musicians realize that as a classical musician you can basically do whatever you want as long as you have the drive and the motivation to kind of put it together yourself. 

Third Coast Percussion
Photo by Saverio Truglia

R!S: And now there are some models to work from. It must feel really exciting to be a part of this movement and in turn to be a model for younger musicians who have aspirations to start their own chamber ensembles. 

Peter: It’s a really healthy and exciting time to be around Chicago and the music scene. I’ve heard some older generation people talk about parallels between theater in the 1970s and ’80s and what’s happening with the new music revolution in Chicago right now. It will be exciting to see where we’re at a decade from now and what it looks like. But to be a part of that culture is really cool. In the studio where we rehearse, Dal Niente moved in a couple of years ago and eighth blackbird just moved in. So even where we rehearse has become sort of a cultural hub in Chicago. 

R!S: Your PASIC performance this year is on Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Sagamore Ballroom. Can you tell us a little about your program?

Sean: The title of our concert is “Music from the Third Coast.” We wanted to play a combination of music that is either unique to our ensemble or indicative of the projects that we’ve been passionate about over the past couple of years. It features commissions, works that we’ve recorded, and things unique to our ensemble. Pieces include a movement of our commission of Augusta Read Thomas’s “Resounding Earth,” which she composed entirely for pieces of ringing metal, a new work by David Skidmore inspired by the Swedish heavy metal band Meshuggah, “Fractalia” by former member Clay Condon, which we’ve recorded and is on our album Unknown Symmetry, “Shi” by Alexandre Lunsqui, and John Cage’s classic “Third Construction,” which we’ve recorded and played around 400 times. 

Third Coast. Percussion
Photo by Saverio Truglia

R!S: Do you have any advice for percussionists who are trying to start their own chamber percussion ensembles?

Robert: Every part of it is a learning experience. I think a lot of the things we found in the first few years revolved around the realization that we had been really well trained to play music while we were in college, but that there were a lot of other things that had to happen in order to actually operate a group, and even more things that had to happen beyond that if you wanted to make any money playing in that group. Everything we did was a learning experience. Every mistake we made was a learning experience. But also we sought out mentors and continue to seek out mentors who can give us guidance on everything we do, especially on all of the non-musical aspects. We are definitely getting better at these things the longer we do it, but we may never be experts in those things in the same way that we are experts as performers. So, find people who are, in one way or another, doing something that looks like what you want to do and try to spend time with them. Buy them a coffee, buy them lunch, and talk to them about what it is that they do and always be seeking to learn more about how to do it. 

Sean: Maybe this is general life advice, but prepare as much as you can and then be flexible. Maybe it’s a little cliché, but I think in any situation if you do your research and you plan and you put a lot of effort into making it the best product that you can, then when it’s time to present it and interact with things that are outside your control, you’ll be quickly identified as someone who is organized and easy to work with, which is pretty important for musicians because there’re a slew of talented, awesome players. Also, be true to what you’re interested in and pursue it. The work you spend on doing something that you love to do will never be wasted.

Peter: Always remember, too, especially as a younger musician and a student, that your main priority is to excel in your craft. When we think of the future of percussion ensemble, or the future of classical music and percussion’s role in it, the success and/or failure of that will have a large part to do with the capabilities and the craft of the percussionists themselves. So be really thoughtful of that and work as hard as you can to constantly improve the status of percussion performance right now. This is a big thing we always need to consider. 

Robert: My last advice is to start doing it as soon as you can and start pursuing it with all your energy as soon as possible. It takes a long time for all the effort to pay off. The sooner that you start really doing the things you hope to eventually do, the sooner you might actually get to where you want to be.

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