by Liquid Music blog contributor Charlie Mogen
Third Coast Percussion returns to the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series December 9 with new work for the ensemble by musical icons Philip Glass and Devonté Hynes. After a career spanning almost five decades, Glass, a lifelong pianist, makes the move from ten fingers to four mallets with the composition of his first piece for percussion ensemble. Hynes, better known by his pop alias “Blood Orange,” is a Glass disciple and collaborator; and unsurprisingly makes an impressive classical debut.
Since Third Coast Percussion’s first Liquid Music engagement (with Glenn Kotche in 2014), the group has recorded and toured a bundle of collaborative and original works (highlights include Skidmore’s 2016 feat Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities and the group’s 2017 album Paddle to the Sea) and commissioned ten composers through their Emerging Composers Partnership. Simply put, the group has a strong draw towards group creation. Last week I was able to chat with the quartet about composition, growth, and the magnetism of collaboration.
CM: Do you feel that working with visionaries from multiple generations of music-making has opened TCP’s ability to adapt / learn new music differently?
TCP: Any time we collaborate with anyone, we learn a new way of thinking about music and problem solving. It seems to us that it has less to do with the generation of a composer as much as the individual. Each new project comes with its particular challenges and opportunities, and its own mode of collaboration between the performers and composer. Philip Glass has a whole team of people who help run his empire, and we’ve never worked with an artist who has that large of a machine operating around them. They were all great to work with, but there are a variety of communications that have to all go through different people to coordinate all the elements. Glass also put a moment in his piece for a cadenza that the performers create themselves, which is also a first for us. In the case of Devonté Hynes’ piece, we’ve never commissioned a work where we had such a large role in orchestrating a new piece being written by someone else. Dev gave us the opportunity to take the musical content that he created and decide for ourselves what instruments to put them on. It was a very collaborative process, and one which was informed not just by our previous commissions but also by our work as composers of our own works.
Anyone who has listened to their music knows that each composer has a very recognizable style; Glass has his slow-moving, minimalist pondering, Hynes his drum and bass-driven, Prince-like, Steely Dan-orchestrated pop works. How do these pieces fall into or divert from the expected compositional tropes?
Dev’s piece has that recognizable Blood Orange atmosphere, with synthesizer sounds and harmonies that put a warm velvety glow on everything. However, it’s also recognizably Third Coast Percussion because we were so involved in orchestration. Perhaps it’s a surprise, though, that there are almost no drums in any of the music Dev wrote for us! It’s primarily pitch-, texture-, and harmony-driven music which doesn’t have the same dance style as his work as Blood Orange. The Glass is perhaps the opposite. One might expect a very keyboard driven piece, but there is a lot of non-pitched percussion in this Perpetulum, especially more traditional orchestral instruments like wood blocks, tambourines, snare drum and bass drum. This percussion writing is similar to some of the way percussion is employed in his symphonies and operas, but doesn’t necessarily resemble the stereotypical Philip Glass sound from many of his earlier works.
TCP has dabbled in minimalist work in the past, winning a Grammy for your Reich album and performing sections from Glass’ “Águas da Amazônia” on your most recent album Paddle to the Sea. How do you feel this past experience in the genre has shaped your preparation of Perpetulum?
I’d say it’s more than dabbling. Minimalist works have always been a big part of TCP’s repertoire, and this music was a substantial part of our music education. We all played music by Steve Reich, John Adams, Terry Riley, and others throughout college and since TCP was founded. We developed specific musical skills from this repertoire, and have been deeply influenced in our own compositions by this style of music. In the case of Perpetulum, our long history with minimalism helped us know how to first approach the piece and discover the challenges and opportunities inherent in the repetitive structures of the music. It was particularly helpful in the cadenza which Glass allows the performers to create for themselves. I think our version really synthesizes Glass’s music with our own Glass-inspired musical aesthetics.
This is your second time performing on a Liquid Music Series concert (TCP with Glenn Kotche, Wild Sound, October 2014). How do you feel the group has grown/changed in the four years since?
How much time do you have? First, it’s worth noting that Wild Sound was the largest project that TCP had built up to that point, in terms of the number of moving parts and the level of production involved. That experience helped us learn how to take on other multi-media projects like our recent Paddle to the Sea project, or approach the presentation of our existing repertoire in different ways, integrating more amplification, electronic playback or processing, and cameras that give the audience a close look at what we’re doing. Wild Sound has also lived on since then; we’ve done at least a dozen more performances of the full piece since we played in Saint Paul (which was right after the premiere), and we arranged an excerpt of the piece for more standard percussion instruments, which we have played dozens of times, and which is now starting to be performed by collegiate percussion ensembles.
Third Coast Percussion is also a different organization since our last time here. It was just the four performing members of the ensemble running the whole organization back then. Now we have three amazing additional staff members who have greatly improved our ability to carry out the work we do, and have made our operation much more sustainable for the long-term. We’ve also crossed some items off our bucket list since then, including our first GRAMMY award in 2017 and our NPR Tiny Desk Concert earlier this year.
You have all composed works for the group in the past but in the last few years have explored the process of group-composition, most recently for your album Paddle to the Sea. What challenges/advantages did you face with this style of creating a new work? Do you think this experience changes anything fundamental about how you will commission or compose future pieces?
Having input from multiple voices, working together to create something, while not necessarily efficient, will almost always create a better result than any one of those folks working alone. It takes time, and it takes trust; everyone has to be ready to work hard on something and then let it go, and everyone has to be able to work out disagreements. In many ways, it’s an extension of the way we work together as an organization on non-artistic challenges, and it has without a doubt influenced the way we collaborate with other composers. The process of creating Paddle to the Sea helped to prepare us for our collaboration with Dev Hynes, for instance. It was a very similar process of creating outlines, experimenting with sound options, dividing tasks, and revising each other’s drafts. Of course, in the case of Dev’s music, he had already created the raw musical content and overall structure of the pieces, so we already had the central core of the music to build on and remain true to.
The quartet places an emphasis on in-person collaborative efforts, first with Augusta Read Thomas for Resounding Earth and more recently for your Emerging Composers Program. However, this marks one of the fun, rare times someone from “outside” the new music realm gets a glimpse into your world. What was your experience like working with Dev and his time at your studio?
We’ve definitely learned that direct collaboration is vital to the creation of new works, especially for percussion, and now we push every composer we commission to spend time with us in person while they’re writing a piece for us. In the case of our project with Dev Hynes, before he began writing the piece, he came to our studio in Chicago, where he heard us play a little bit, explored our vast array of instruments (some of which he was hearing for the first time), and saw us demonstrate some extended techniques or atypical sound that can be made on certain instruments. Aside from the information and experience shared in this session, we also built a personal relationship and trust that allowed continued back-and-forth with musical ideas and sounds over the coming months.
Most people know @devhynes for his brilliant work as #BloodOrange. But Dev has a whole other side to his creative life. He’s written music for artists ranging from @solangeknowles___ to @skyferreira to @carlyraejepsen. He composed the soundtrack for #paloaltomovie. He has performed alongside the legendary @philip.glass. We’re beyond excited to be premiering a big new piece by Dev this weekend for our project with @hubbardstreet. Sept 27, 29, 30 at @harristheaterchicago. Roll up and check out this great new music. 🙌🏼🔥🥁 . . . #thirdcoastpercussion #hubbardstreetdance #tcpcommissions #tcpcollaborations . . . @emmaportner @movementartis @jonboogz @lilbuckdalegend ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
TCP has joined the pantheon of DIY percussionists with instrument building, modding, and the like. What’s your favorite sound/instrument the group has implemented recently? What’s the strangest or least likely modification that has produced interesting results (good or bad!)?
There’s always something new! One recent highlight: we took a trick from Glenn Kotche—blowing into a piece of surgical tubing stuck in the side of a drum to bend the pitch—and showed it to composer Donnacha Dennehy who was writing a piece for us. Donnacha ended up asking us to outfit over a dozen specifically tuned tom-toms with these tubes so that we could create chords on drums, and glissando in and out of the chords while we’re playing. A few other cool ones: a squeaky toy run through electronic delay, electric toothbrushes vibrating against all sort of different instruments, and a hydrophone (underwater microphone) which allows us to capture all sorts of interesting sounds created by or modified by water.