The college music school environment is one that, when done right, provides a context ripe for creative collaboration. Countless significant contemporary music ensembles have been established from within the halls and practice rooms of a university music building, and you can count Square Peg Round Hole as one of those notable ensembles.
Formed in 2011, when the members met while studying at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Philadelphia-based Square Peg Round Hole is a percussion-based trio featuring Evan Chapman, Sean M. Gill, and Carlos Pacheco-Perez. These three individuals utilize drum set, vibraphone, samples, found objects, synths, and vintage analog keyboards to create music with elements of post-rock, electronic, ambient, and contemporary classical genres. The band has performed at venues and festivals across the U.S. and collaborated with such artists as Sō Percussion, Gracie & Rachel, and Variant Six. In November, they will be presenting a PASIC Showcase Concert.
The album Juniper
, released in 2016 on Spartan Records, first garnered the band national attention. The introspective album was composed rural Maryland and remote Wisconsin, and it was recorded almost entirely live in full takes. Square Peg’s latest recording, Branches
, stands as a more collaborative and outward-looking artistic endeavor. It was recorded in Nashville with producer and drumming legend Darren King (MuteMath, Kanye West, Sucré). Living in King’s attic and immersing themselves in his studio opened the group up to new techniques and pushed them into unexpected sonic terrain. The performances are also more collaborative featuring Variant Six (members of Grammy-award winning vocal ensemble The Crossing) and Brooklyn-based powerhouse pop-duo Gracie & Rachel (fresh off of tours with Ani DiFranco and San Fermin).
What should percussionists know about Square Peg Round Hole, and what might the PASIC audience expect for their showcase concert? I had the opportunity to ask the band these questions as they prepared for this exciting performance.
: First of all, please introduce yourselves and explain briefly about your background pre-SPRH.
: I was raised in garage rock bands playing drum set almost exclusively. Throughout grade school outside of Baltimore, Maryland, I was a member of several punk and metal bands that played lots of local gigs and learned DIY methods of recording. I didn’t know it at the time, but having the experience of that DIY punk attitude has stuck with me all these years later, and I believe that it gives me a resourceful, go-getter approach to music making. I quickly played catch-up on other orchestral percussion instruments during my later years of high school, once I decided it would be smart to get a well-rounded classical percussion degree, and I ended up at Indiana University.
Sean M. Gill
: Music was a big part of my family, but I wasn’t that interested in playing anything myself until a childhood friend got a drum set. Though I was pretty daunted, and started with just a set of bongos, I was pretty much indoctrinated in the world of percussion from then on. The natural progression from there was to join the school band and play drums in a few local groups wherever I could. I wrote some music here and there on whatever I could, usually guitar and piano, and eventually came to the conclusion that music would be my focus, whether writing or performing. Through the rest of school, I dove into contemporary classical and its intersection with bands and electronic music that I also love.
: I first started with piano lessons at the age of seven and did that through the end of high school as well as starting percussion in the sixth grade. Throughout my entire childhood, I would compose little dramatic—overly dramatic—songs, and I was always drawn to the process of creation. I went to college thinking I wanted to be an orchestral percussionist, but as I went through the program, I really started understanding that my love of music wasn’t necessarily geared just to performance, but rather to the process of creating new music from scratch and exploring that generally creative mindset.
: Other than that all of you were at IU together at the same time, what inspired you to create an ensemble?
: Either serendipitously or purposefully by our professors, the three of us ended up getting placed together on many different percussion ensemble pieces during our time at IU. We found that not only did we have a performing chemistry, but also a shared hunger to learn certain pieces of percussion repertoire outside of the existing curriculum. Once we started to realize how specific the type of music was that we wanted to perform as a percussion ensemble, we began commissioning works by our composer peers, and then subsequently embarked on writing our own original compositions born of our specific musical backgrounds and aesthetics.
: Is the vision for SPRH that each of you has a unique role within the ensemble, and if so, what are those roles? If not, how do you decide who does what on any given track or project?
: The acoustic instrumentation of the group began much more flexibly than it has ended up. When we formed, we didn’t have a set stage plot or arsenal of instruments, but rather assessed our setup on a piece-by-piece basis, with each member floating from instrument family to instrument family. We quickly realized that this model, while appropriate in concert and recital halls, is not well-suited for smaller rock clubs/bars in which we also wanted to be playing. In order to be able to book shows alongside rock/pop bands, we decided it would be best to consolidate and codify our setup to make it as streamlined as possible. The eventual instrumentation we settled into consists of Carlos on Rhodes keyboard, Sean on vibraphone, and Evan on drum set, with each of us supplementing those primary instruments with various electronics. Beyond the instrumentation, the other roles and contributions to the band are very democratic, with each of us sharing creative and compositional duties evenly and collaboratively.
: How do you balance analog percussion sounds with electronic contributions?
: The sound worlds that we develop for each track don’t necessarily come from conscious approaches to balance, but rather simple trial and error for what seems to fit and what doesn’t. That being said, we have found that there tends to be two different categories of electro/acoustic interplay: 1. where the electronics and acoustic instruments blend seamlessly into one another so the listener can’t necessarily tell where one ends and the other begins, and 2. when the two worlds are purposefully juxtaposed to create some kind of heightened impact. An example of the former could be additional layers of processed (e.g., reversed or delayed) vibraphone tracks underneath the actual live vibraphone, and an example of the latter could be an extremely distorted low bass synthesizer underneath twinkling children’s desk bells. Each are effective in their own ways, and it usually comes down to us deciding what feels right for the given moment.
: Is everything you record envisioned with the mindset of also performing that work live, or is part of your expectation for the ensemble that some projects may be completely studio creations?
: This has been a steady shift for us since the formation of the ensemble. Because we began as a more repertoire-driven chamber group, the emphasis was on fully-notated scores and virtuosic live performances without much attention given to how the repertoire would translate in the studio. Over the years, we have gradually adopted an approach to our compositional process that is more similar to pop production, meaning that we are more often writing in the studio or on our computers and then subsequently figuring out how to play our studio parts live. This is a challenge we have grown to enjoy, as it forces us to come up with creative ways of covering various parts at once, usually involving extensive multitasking with several limbs!
: What will you be performing at PASIC?
: The main focus of our PASIC showcase will be presenting music from our upcoming third LP, Branches
, which will be released on National Sawdust Tracks on November 8 [the Friday before PASIC]. We will toss an older track or two into our set, but we are extremely excited to share this brand-new material that we have been working on for a very long time.
: What are you most excited about for this showcase concert?
: This will be our first PASIC showcase, and it is an opportunity we have all been striving for since the inception of the band. The percussion community at PASIC is like family to us, and Indiana still feels like our home away from home, so the most exciting part is to finally get to share our music with so many friends, teachers, and colleagues from over the years all in one place. Also, we’re excited to devour some Steak & Shake afterwards!
: What advice would you give to younger percussionists walking out of your concert looking to form a chamber ensemble of their own?
: It sounds cliché, but pursue what you
want to do and what suits the specific skill set of your particular combination of bandmates. If you believe in it and give it all of your effort, everything else will fall into place. We had no real, practical goals when starting the group other than to make and play music that we enjoyed. I think that mindset allowed us to find an outlet that we’ve genuinely enjoyed and cherished for years. The music of Square Peg Round Hole is very much a product of all of our personal influences and backgrounds, which has in turn given the compositions a unique voice that is specifically ours. Find your unique voice, and don’t get self-conscious when no one else sounds like you; in the end, that will be a good thing!
Josh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer who has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over twenty years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theater, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene.