Third Coast Percussion’s virtual performance on Nov. 13 hosted by the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts left me with a smile on my face and my feet tapping.
As an art history major, it lifted my spirits to see Third Coast Percussion, a Chicago-based group of musicians, showcase their skills to global audiences and teach Emory students about their artistic entrepreneurship along the way.
Not only did Third Coast Percussion touch me as a lover of the arts, but they also brought me back to my hometown of Chicago and my family. David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors founded the quartet 15 years ago and have since performed all over the world. The four talented musicians are also established teachers of music and connect with their audience through the incorporation of Q&A sessions and mini-lessons into their concerts.
The concert consisted of three pieces by composer Philip Glass — one of my father’s favorite composers. While Glass’ music is quite nostalgic for me, his harmonious and inventive arrangements can reach even first-time listeners.
The concert began with “Metamorphosis,” a solo piano piece composed by Glass and arranged by Third Coast Percussion. The repetitive harmonies build slowly in layer and volume as they progress, making one feel as though they are walking down a tunnel, getting closer and closer to the climax of the song.
Soon after, Dillon welcomed the audience and outlined the COVID-19 safety measures they were following. The fact that the performers were wearing masks and the event was streamed from their own studio in Chicago revealed a certain humanity in their artwork — it was real and rough around the edges. The pomp of fancy performance halls, bright spotlights and nice suits had been stripped away. We were in a moment of pure art-making and mask-wearing, and this performance gracefully embraced that reality.
The intimate setting of the quartet’s studio made me, as a viewer, feel as though I was privileged enough to get a sneak peek behind the scenes of their skillful work. The camera angles switched throughout the performance, allowing viewers to get up close and personal with the marimbas and the musicians. The audience members were flies on the wall (or rather flies on the xylophone) witnessing music-making firsthand.
During the second part of the concert, Third Coast Percussion performed “Xingu River” and “Amazon River” from Glass’ “Águas da Amazônia.” The ensemble adapted the piece and arranged it for their skill sets, maintaining the traditional Glass characteristics of repetitive musical structure, fluctuating in intensity and volume.
The combination of unique marimba tones with multiple tambourines, some even played by the musicians’ feet, created an immersive soundscape. “Amazon River” began simply with a single percussionist, and after minutes of a single instrument, Glass began to layer the music, creating what felt like a magical landscape of light percussion taps and twinkling musical notes.
As long-time fans of Glass, Third Coast Percussion had actually commissioned him to compose his first percussion-only ensemble piece in 2018, “Perpetulum.” At 81 years old, Glass “harkened back to childhood memories of his first experience with percussion.”
As an uneducated viewer in the technique of percussion instruments, I still felt the certain child-like joy that imbued the artwork and was amazed by the breadth and depth of sound that could be created with percussion alone. This was, undoubtedly, a celebration of these instruments.
The use of a large variety of percussion instruments throughout the piece created a beautifully repetitive yet chaotic performance, enunciated by the crashing of cymbals, gongs and bells between the many trills of the marimbas. The beat became so intoxicating at one point that I could not resist tapping my foot and dancing around my room.
The performance concluded with Martin thanking the audience, answering questions submitted by viewers and encouraging the audience to purchase Third Coast Percussion’s album version of “Perpetulum,” which is the version that got them their Grammy nomination and helps support the group during the pandemic.
Third Coast Percussion concluded the performance with a surprise track called “Japurá River.” This arrangement was by far the most unusual, as the four musicians sat around a table of partially-filled glass bottles, tapping them to the beat and creating distinctive rhythms and noteworthy melodies.
Overall, the intimacy of the performance space and the musicians’ humble demeanor, paired with the immersive tones of the diverse percussive instruments and harmonies allowed the audience to sit comfortably, absorbing this unique music-making process with joy and curiosity.