Review: Third Coast Percussion plays inventive, multi-layered 10th anniversary show at KSU

Third Coast Percussion performing "Fractalia" by Own Clayton Condon. (Photos by Mark Gresham)
Third Coast Percussion performing "Fractalia" by Own Clayton Condon. (Photos by Mark Gresham)
Third Coast Percussion performing "Fractalia" by Own Clayton Condon. (Photos by Mark Gresham)
Third Coast Percussion performing “Fractalia” by Owen Clayton Condon. (Photos by Mark Gresham)

On Tuesday evening, Chicago-based percussion quartet Third Coast Percussion performed their touring show “Points of Contact” — featuring music by Condon, De Mey, Thomas, Skidmore, Reich, Broström, Lunsqui and Cage — at the Bailey Performing Arts Center’s Morgan Hall on the campus of Kennesaw State University. The concert was also streamed live on the Internet.

This season marks Third Coast Percussion’s 10th anniversary. Its members are percussionists Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore.

The concert opened with “Fractalia” by Owen Clayton Condon, a former member of the group. As the title implies, the work is “a sonic celebration of fractals.” A recursive geometric algorithm makes the smaller parts of a structure replicates of the larger parts. Describing it in words is, frankly, more difficult than a purely mathematical one. But suffice it to say that under it all in this composition, a single motivic pattern, passed from player to player in different octaves, is what unifies the work for the listener, heady math aside.

Three of the players followed that with “Table Music” (“Musique de Tables”) by Belgian composer and filmmaker Thierry De Mey. The piece is composed for three amplified table surfaces to be played with bare hands. De Mey’s interest in both audio and visual aspects is obvious, as the gestures go beyond simply making sounds, both forthright and subtle, in this 8-minute work. 

The group "Table Music" by Thierry De Mey on amplified table tops.
The group playing “Table Music” by Thierry De Mey on amplified table tops.

Although the program notes do not specifically say so, this is micro-choreography: essentially a dance for six hands as much as a musical performance. It is a work which is gaining popularity among both percussionists and new music ensembles. Even if it is not the observer’s first time encounter with “Table Music,” it remains engaging, especially when this well-performed.

University of Chicago-based American composer Augusta Read Thomas composed “Resounding Earth” (2012) for Third Coast Percussion on a commission from the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The description on Thomas’ website describes it as “for percussion quartet and bells from around the world.” 

Third Coast Percussion chose to include its second movement, “Prayer,” on this program, which makes use of an array of Japanese prayer bells: finely tuned metal bowls which ding charmingly, but also produce a long tone with substantial sustaining power. The overall effect of the piece is both ethereal and meditative.

The first half of the concert concluded with “Trying” by Skidmore. The composer describes the style of “Trying” as being inspired by a cross of Swedish metal band Meshuggah and the complex rhythmic ideas of Argentinian composer Alejandro Viñao, but inhabiting “a more transparent sound world.” 

That description probably leaves most listeners unfamiliar with either Meshuggah or Viñao in a deer-in-headlights state, but if one ignores that and just listens, there is much to enjoy in this 14-minute, 3-movement work, without the musicological stress.

First up after intermission came a minimalist classic, “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich. The work is exemplary of economy of means, performed upon four pieces of wood, one per player, which are each tuned to an exact pitch. The three sections are each founded upon a single rhythm, each player building upon his own version, contributing to the texture of the whole.

Swedish composer and percussionist Tobias Broström originally wrote “Twilight” (2001) for marimba duet, but later scored it for four players. In contrast to the preceding Reich piece, the work’s blending of chords evokes an impression of the hazy ambiguity of that period of time between daylight and darkness. 

“Shi” by Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui, is a gem of a work which utilizes a collection of small objects that might be found in an Asian kitchen. It is a delightfully fun piece, which came through well in the performance.

John Cage’s “Third Construction” (1941) was the finale, as well as oldest work on the program. 

Scored for a body of what was at the time “unorthodox” percussion instruments, each percussionist has their own set of five graduated tin cans, three graduated drums and claves. Also distributed among the four players are other instruments, including maracas and other rattles, a wooden ratchet, a large Chinese cymbal, a conch shell and a “lion’s roar” drum among them. 

The performance by Third Coast Percussion was energized, disciplined and assured, yet left the listener with a feeling of freshness and spontaneity. Cage would have been pleased.

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