It is my great pleasure to welcome Third Coast Percussion and to introduce these talented individuals to the Rush Hour family. Below is my Q&A with three members of Third Coast – Peter Martin, Robert Dillon and Owen Clayton Condon. Please don’t hesitate to write or call us if you have any additional inquiries – and please take a look at the Third Coast recent feature in Time Out Chicago and their website. I hope to see you all at Tuesday’s concert!
Third Coast is an exciting and fresh group that has quickly established a strong commitment to the highest performance standards for new music as well as bridging the gap between today’s culture and the world of classical music. In addition to championing works by John Cage and Steve Reich, Third Coast has commissioned and premiered pieces by many of today’s leading up-and-coming composers, all the while performing in diverse venues, from concert halls to theaters and clubs.
1. What motivated you to form this ensemble?
Peter Martin: We were all great friends and students at Northwestern University together. We had performed a lot of percussion ensemble repertoire at NU during our schooling and wanted to create a professional ensemble to bring the music to a wider audience. We basically just loved the repertoire, and wanted to play more of it and expose more people to it.
Robert Dillon: The group was also initially formed to do outreach and chamber music performances as part of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. I think our own positive experiences playing in percussion ensemble while students at Northwestern, plus the absence of a professional percussion group in Chicago, inspired us to form the group and then carry it beyond the Civic Orchestra.
2. Where did you get the name “Third Coast”?
PM: When you think of major cities and areas of the U.S., you think of the East Coast and New York, and the West Coast and Los Angeles. These places are also known as major artistic hubs of the U.S. The name “Third Coast” is really an homage to Chicago and its cultural and artistic diversity that rivals that of any other place in the country or the world.
RD: We’d heard the term ‘third coast’ in the names of other Chicago institutions, and we liked the way it represented the serious cultural center that Chicago is — in a league with the other 2 coasts, but with a personality of its own.
3. What are some unique challenges/benefits of a percussion quartet?
Owen Clayton Condon: Lack of vocals and foreign or exotic sound qualities can be challenging for inexperienced listeners. Benefits include a vast array of color variations, unique performance visuals, and everyone loves a drummer.
RD: Logistical challenges are the greatest – every performance and rehearsal requires significant amounts of extra time (and sometimes physical labor) to setup and tear down, and some spaces can’t accommodate our needs. The balancing benefits are the added visual element inherent in percussion performance, and the stylistic and timbral variety such an ensemble can create.
PM: The idiom of percussion is so vast. We have thousands upon thousands of instruments at our disposal as well as a huge amount of musical traditions to draw upon from. Percussion is found in every culture across the world. That gives our ensemble a huge amount of inspiration for our own unique repertoire and style.
The challenge of an ensemble like ours is that, in western classical music of the European tradition, our repertoire is quite limited in comparison to, say, a string quartet. The classical percussion quartet is a 20th century innovation. The earliest composed repertoire we have to draw from is from the 1930s. While this can be somewhat of a challenge, it’s also an incentive to work closely with living composers in the development of new repertoire. Also, without a large tradition to compare ourselves to, we have a lot more freedom in developing our own voice as an ensemble, and play a significant role in the development of the genre of the percussion ensemble in general.
4. Tell us a little bit about your audience base.
RD: We try to pull from the rockers who want to get a little intellectual and the intellectuals who want to rock.
PM: We’re all classically-trained musicians and that is what our music is generally billed as, so our audiences tend to be more of the contemporary classical music scene. However, the music we play is accessible and enjoyable to all audiences. We pride ourselves in being very diverse and eclectic as possible as an ensemble and make it a point to do concerts at a wide variety of venues – from the more traditional concert halls to art galleries and clubs. Anyone who sees a show of ours really enjoys it, no matter what musical preferences they come from. Our fan base seems to be widening all the time.
OCC: A crossbreed of new music concertites, indie experimental barflies, and pals…
5. Third Coast has commissioned many new works for percussion quartet. What is your philosophy behind this process? How does the process of commissioning pieces work?
PM: We try to seek out younger composers (around our age) that share similar musical interests as ourselves. Sometimes, we find these composers individually. For instance, we recently premiered a piece by the composer Derek Jacoby who Rob Dillon had worked with a few years back at the Tanglewood Music Festival. Other times, we send out a massive call to composers across the country and, as a group, sit down and listen to a lot of music by various composers and pick and choose who we think would best write us a really great piece for our ensemble.
In general, we’ve found young composers to be very eager to work with us; they’re just as excited about writing music for us as we are to receive it. For them, they get a great ensemble to play their music, and for us, we get a composer to write a great piece for our ensemble to play. It’s always a win-win situation for everyone involved and we’ve had nothing but great experiences in the past.
RD: We also try to find composers whose music we really enjoy and respect, and then ‘inspire’ them by asking them to write us a good piece that will still work with our logistical limitations (i.e., no 10 minute pieces that take an hour to set up). Part of bringing the percussion ensemble out from academia into the ‘real world’ is dealing with the logistical issues, so that it will be practical for a group to perform in a variety of venues, travel with the necessary instruments, etc.
7. Do you have any stories about performing in local clubs? What motivated you to start performing there?
OCC: Concert halls grow more stale with each 32nd note…
RD: In an effort to expand our audience base beyond the usual concert hall crowd, we wanted a different kind of venue. I think it’s nice when the audience feels like they can relax – they can listen carefully if they want or they can go stand in the back and have a beer and talk to their friends. As an added plus, we’ve found these sort of places are perfectly set up for the load-in and load-out that we have to do before and after each show.
PM: Showing up at a club for the first time before a gig is always interesting. We’ve also had times where, in the middle of pieces, some of us are jumping off stage, running to the other side, and jumping back on to get to another instrument all in the span of a few seconds. It keeps us on our toes.
Performing in different types of venues is always with the goal of bringing our music to new audiences, as well as putting our regular audiences in different atmospheres. It’s more than just the sound; it’s the general feeling and vibe of the venue. We pride ourselves in breaking down some of these barriers that are associated with classical music. We play great music really well, and we want to bring our music to as wide an audience as possible. I really think that the future of classical music rests in finding more alternative venues.
8. What do you envision for the future of Third Coast Percussion? What are your goals for it?
RD: The more this group can be our full-time ‘gig,’ the happier I think we’ll all be. I think there’s a fairly untrodden path here that we’re free to carve for ourselves, which is both exciting and terrifying. Experimenting with playing as a ‘percussion rock band’ is something we’re hoping to dig into more, as well as much more commissioning of today’s composers for the concert hall and education and outreach.
PM: World domination.
9. Can you recommend any percussion recordings or recordings of Reich, Cage, Broström, (or even Skidmore!), etc.?
OCC: I own the boldly appraised box set of Reich…. Yay – it was a gift.
RD: Cheap plug: Our CD ‘Ritual Music,’ is available at the concert as well as from our website. There are a few other great percussion ensembles out there today with recordings of their own, which you’d most likely find on the internet rather than in your local record store. Nexus, Amadinda, Kroumata and So Percussion are a few of the big ones.
PM: One of my “top ten, stuck on a deserted island” records would have to be the recording of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” on Nonesuch Records (1998). The Pat Metheny recording of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” is also something that is always on a playlist on my iPod. Cage’s “Third Construction” is one of the finest pieces for percussion ensemble out there. There are dozens of recordings of the piece, but some of the best are those by the Nexus Ensemble (Canada), the Amadinda Percussion Group (Hungary), and the Talujon Percussion Quartet (USA). You might not find these recordings in your local Borders, but check Amazon.com – they’ll be there.