Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process
David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors of Third Coast Percussion explain how they introduce audiences to percussion instruments, how they each came to devote their lives to making music, the dos and don’ts for writing and performing for percussion music, the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators as well as some of their own original compositions, and finally what they are all have been doing to cope during our present unprecedented and uncertain time.
In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).
I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.
Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.
We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.
[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]
Read the Full Transcript
Third Coast Percussion (David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors)
in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
April 17, 2020 at 2:30pm Central Time via ZOOM connecting Chicago (TCP) and New York City (FJO)
Audio and video presentations edited by Alexandra Gardner
Text transcribed by Julia Lu
Additional thanks to Amanda Sweet and Brigid Pierce as well as to David, Robert, Peter, and Sean who each also individually audio and video recorded their portions of the conversation.
Part 1. Percussion as a Gateway
Frank J. Oteri: Thank you all so much for being guinea pigs in the new way of doing NewMusicBox Covers, the COVID-19 2020 edition of them, how we all live our lives now. I think you guys are probably more prepared for doing this sort of thing than most folks because you’ve already established a whole new way of interacting with audiences and performing in this very strange world we’re currently living in. We’ll get there eventually, but I don’t want this conversation to only be about the current moment, because you guys have been around for 15 years and I think there are lots of reasons to be celebrating that, despite what’s going on in the world around us.
A place where I thought we could begin—in an obtuse way—is talking about music education. I know you guys are very deeply involved in music education activities. I see what you do as a kind of evangelism for music and, since you’re percussionists, it’s evangelism for new music. It’s not like you’re going to play a Haydn string quartet on your instruments. And because of the sheer nature of the instruments you play, there’s a real kind of wonderful open mindedness that you’re also able to instill. And I’m just wondering if you could talk about some of the things you’ve done to get people excited about this music and what you’re doing. Percussion’s sort of a gateway drug to contemporary music.
Robert Dillon: I think that’s really our attitude that percussion’s an incredible gateway for folks to discover new music, but also just to discover a lot of ideas and a lot of things about music and different ways of listening. A couple of things in particular that we’ve always thought of as part of our philosophy as musicians and why percussion is a great ambassador for music is first off, there are percussion instruments in basically every musical tradition that you would find anywhere in the world. So it can be a gateway to many things, but also people generally have some sort of access point or some sort of reference point with percussion going in.“It is pretty easy for anyone to make a sound on most of our percussion instruments.”
The other thing is that it is pretty easy for anyone to make a sound on most of our percussion instruments. You don’t have to be trained as a musician at all to be able to just make a sound on a snare drum or even on a vibraphone or marimba. There are things to know about, like ways to not hurt the instrument. But basically, compared to an oboe or a violin—where even to get a sound that anyone would want to listen to takes a long time. We can put an instrument in someone’s hands or give them access to one of our instruments and immediately they can make a sound. We’ve always thought those two aspects, in particular, make percussion a particularly great ambassador for music.
Peter Martin: I would add that one of the things I think is always to our advantage is the element of surprise with the music and the instruments that we play. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you know, as percussionists, we’re not defined by a single instrument. If you’re a cellist or in a string quartet, you kind of know what that is way in advance. You know what you’re getting into—you know what that sound world is. Whereas, with percussion, the sound world can change in every piece. And the look of the stage can change for every piece. There are so many variables, it really lends itself to this idea of surprise and wonder that we find a lot of audience members really latch onto.
FJO: Another thing I’m curious about in terms of just the presentation aspect that you’re talking about is the sheer physicality. Obviously playing any instrument is a physical act, but there’s something that’s particularly visceral and tactile about percussion. I’m wondering if that’s something that also makes it a gateway for people and also the fact that unlike a string quartet that’s pretty much sitting in place playing their unique one instrument each, in most of the pieces you guys play, by the piece’s very nature, you kind of have to move all around the place.
David Skidmore: The physicality of the instrument: I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s another thing that makes it feel—and actually be—more familiar to people I think. A great wind player on mute looks an awful lot like a mediocre wind player on mute; you can’t really tell what’s going on. With percussion, you can see every sound that’s being made. And also the way that we decide to move on stage very much affects the way that people hear the piece.
I don’t want to call it an element of choreography or theater, I don’t want to elevate it to that level, but there’s a little hint of that in what we do which I think makes every piece we play in some ways have an extra-musical element. Of course, some of the pieces we play have very deliberate, large, extra-musical elements as well. Like John Cage’s Living Room Music or Aphasia by Mark Applebaum or Table Music by Thierry de Mey, these are pieces that play with the very idea that you’re talking about and make their stuff out of that idea.
FJO: So I wonder if that’s what got each of you interested in making music this way. I know that all of you studied piano to some extent, some more deeply than others. But what got you all wanting to be percussionists and make a life out of making music this way?
Peter: I would speak for myself just really quickly, but I think we all share certain elements of this. I did grow up playing piano from a really early age and grew up playing classical music. I think like a lot of other teenage kids, I hit my teenage rebellious years and wanted to play rock and roll, and that sort of led me to playing the drum set. But I think even beyond that and very soon after that, it went past the idea of wanting to play pop music or rock and roll.
It was more that through percussion and the instruments of percussion and the music of percussion I realized that there was so much more in the wild of music than what I had been exposed to, especially growing up learning classical piano and going through your typical curriculum or pedagogy of playing Chopin, Beethoven, and Liszt—which is all great, don’t get me wrong. But I was never exposed to Bartók as a pianist growing up. I was never exposed to a lot of 20th century music.
Through percussion, that’s all you do is play 20th and now 21st century music. So I think for me, that was just inspiring, knowing that the music I was playing and I was studying was more cutting edge, or something that was new and living and breathing and felt very, very fresh—that felt rebellious in a way that playing drum set in a rock and roll band also felt rebellious.
David: I’d add that, like the sort of gateway aspect you mentioned that percussion has for new music, I think it’s the same for the performers. I know that’s the case for me. Percussion also started for me as the drum set and the excitement of playing that and also marching percussion, which was big where I grew up in Texas. I had teachers who were excellent at those areas of percussion, but were also deeply passionate about contemporary music for percussion ensemble. So that led me to it. And then once I was into that side of things, and this carries through to today, I like the way that percussion can feel both heady and deeply thoughtful, but also ties to this sort of visceral kind of music-making that a 13-year-old David Skidmore could still connect with.
Rob: My first musical experience was playing in my elementary school band. I was nine years old and I think I just picked percussion because on some level I thought drums were cool. I was a very quiet and nerdy kid—which I’m sure is very shocking—but drums gave me an opportunity to be loud in a way that I felt comfortable with. I remember the first time playing; I got to play like an eight-measure drum solo in one of my elementary school band concerts and all of my teachers were completely shocked. That quiet little Robby Dillon.
Peter: Is this the type of thing your parents might have like documented Rob?
Rob: Ooo, I think if they had, I would have seen it.
Peter: Oh man, that would be gold now.
Rob: For our next fundraiser. Anyway, going through high school, when I started to actually think about this being a career, there was some element to it that still was a way that I could lead and be bold and outspoken.
With contemporary music, as I got into college, we all met, in large part because we all went to Northwestern University. It was an amazing percussion program and percussion ensemble music, chamber music especially, is a really important part of that. It scratched that sort of itch; it was still a bold presence and a lot of excitement, but it was also this very thoughtful and complex way of approaching music. And there’s something revolutionary about this kind of music, too, even the John Cage stuff that’s now 80-years-old is still very revolutionary in a lot of ways and there’s something I think that fed that for me personally in terms of why this felt like a purposeful pursuit.
Sean Connors: I think I’m nerdier than the other two guys. It wasn’t about being a rebel or doing anything like that at all for me. We say this now that all four of us are musical omnivores. For me, it was about being involved in as many different activities as I possibly could. And percussion kept popping up in everything: as a little kid, I remember seeing that there was a drummer in the jazz band, there was also a drummer in the symphony, and there was someone playing a tambourine with the choir. Then there was someone doing percussion this and doing that. In every single genre of music, which I was totally drawn to, there were always percussionists in it.“In every single genre of music, which I was totally drawn to, there were always percussionists in it.”
I remember that I took piano lessons and I was an okay singer for a little elementary school kid. My elementary school teacher wanted me to take bassoon or French horn because I could match pitch. I think it was the only time my mom went to the school and said, “No, he really wants to take percussion. Let him do that.” I got an apology years later from the music teacher. It was mainly for me just about trying to be like the older kids and to do as many things as I possibly could.
FJO: Talk about instruments that are hard to produce a sound out of when you’re trying to start playing them—bassoon and French horn are about as hard as you can get.
Sean: Much respect for them, but I’m glad I ended up doing what I did.
FJO: I want to riff off of this comment Peter made about playing standard repertoire stuff and never being exposed to Bartók. One of the advantages that you guys have over, say, a string quartet, is that their bread and butter is Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, maybe now Shostakovich, but your standard repertoire is John Cage.
FJO: That’s a whole other mindset. There’s all this other really exciting percussion music that’s contemporaneous with Cage and some that’s even a tiny bit earlier like the music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer or Amadeo Roldán, and that’s also extraordinarily progressive and really interesting music. There’s an 18th century timpani concerto and some other stuff from before the 20th century, but there isn’t a lot. So I wanted to talk a bit about repertoire and what it means to have a repertoire that begins in the lifetimes of some people who actually are still alive at this point, and really are still in the span of people we could know – and what that means about forging a standard repertoire.
You’ve commissioned a lot of composers, and have done many collaborations, and you’ve created your own music as well. You mostly don’t perform earlier repertoire, although you did that amazing recording of John Cage pieces for Mode, which I absolutely adore. But I know you started out playing percussion repertoire together and fell in love with that repertoire.
David: Early on, like our very first gigs before it was called Third Coast Percussion, were through the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. That’s a training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony, and there were chamber music opportunities through that organization. The piece we played a ton was the first part of Drumming by Steve Reich. It’s funny to think about it now, but a big reason that we did it is because it only called for four pairs of bongos. But it was also this piece that we knew that we loved. You talked about education at the very beginning of our conversation; those concerts were educational. We were going to the city colleges and in Chicago public schools talking about what we did as percussionists.
Steve Reich to this day is a great teaching tool that we use all the time—especially the early works, but even the later works. It’s wonderfully complex, but the ideas behind it you can explain to someone who has absolutely no musical experience. So Reich was early for us and then, I don’t think it was our very first concert, but one of our very early concerts as Third Coast Percussion, we played John Cage’s Third Construction for the first time. That’s a piece that we continue to play all the time. I think if you take Steve Reich and John Cage, that’s the music that almost every percussion ensemble has played and so that is the standard repertoire.“I don’t think I would respond to being a string player playing standard repertoire.”
I’ll add one more thing, which is that I feel fortunate. I don’t think I would respond to being a string player playing standard repertoire—personally, just the way that things excite me about music. From the outside, it feels like a portion of that is understanding and respecting the tradition and determining where you fit in that. And that’s not to say that we don’t do that with John Cage and Steve Reich, we very much do. But it’s not like every single person in the audience has heard this piece that you’re playing before and has opinions about it. There’s still a freshness to it, even though it’s the standard repertoire. So personally, that’s something I really respond to.
Peter: Yeah, it’s interesting, internally we often refer to Third Construction by John Cage as our Beethoven Nine in that it’s this standard piece of repertoire that all percussion ensembles, whether they’re student ensembles, semi-professional, or professional ensembles, everybody plays that piece. It’s probably like the most recorded percussion ensemble piece out there, too. And it’s sort of that one piece of repertoire where you can actually compare ensembles and compare interpretations.
But despite it being this early piece of repertoire and beside it having this historic value, like Dave was saying, it’s so fresh right now. To an audience member who’s hearing it for the first time, it sounds like it could have been written last week. I think that’s really important. There’s something about that piece and about a lot of that repertoire that was being written in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s on the West Coast, whether it was by John Cage or Lou Harrison or Henry Cowell. They were all working in this sort of genre and this aesthetic that I think even now really resonates as being modern.
You were talking about us growing up playing the repertoire together. I think a lot of our influences when we were all students together at Northwestern were that we had this really amazing mentor there; his name’s Michael Burritt. He’s not at Northwestern anymore; he teaches at Eastman School of Music. But playing standard repertoire for us was like John Cage’s Third Construction and the music of Lou Harrison and other early works, you mentioned Roldán, also Ionisation by Varèse. That was all really an important part of what we did, but he was also just as keen on doing repertoire that was written in the past ten years.“I remember being a student and actually playing a lot of music by David Skidmore!”
And then I think another thing that was really important to us that I think is something that defines us maybe a lot differently than other contemporary ensembles right now is that our mentor was also really keen on composition and writing for your instrument, and writing for your group, so all of us at that early stage were active in writing percussion repertoire. I remember being a student and actually playing a lot of music by David Skidmore! We were just students you know, but I was doing a ton of pieces that Dave was writing—and our teacher really pushed that. He’s a very well-known composer in the percussion world himself, and so when you look at the repertoire that we play right now: we do a lot of commissioning, we do a lot of historic repertoire, and then and now we also write a lot of music for ourselves to play, too. And that’s all I think a response of being a student at that time.
Sean: I’ll just add that’s kind of always been our tradition as percussionists, too. We’re mentioning John Cage, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison—they all had their own ensembles and they all performed. They were all composer-performers, so it feels like a natural extension of that tradition.
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Part 2. Performance Practicalities
FJO: There’s a very interesting dichotomy between composer who imagine other people realizing their music and performing musicians who compose with a deep knowledge of their specific instruments. The argument that’s always made is with the late Beethoven string quartets. He did things that those players were not able to play; the Grosse Fuge had to be made into a separate piece, and it was impossible for anyone to play at first. But now it’s become like Mt. Everest for string quartet players. Whereas you could look at virtuosity the other way from the perspective of someone like a Franz Liszt who was able to play anything on the piano. He wrote this music that looks insane on the page, but he was able to play it because it worked with his fingers.
I wonder how that plays out in terms of percussion. Could you mention aspects of pieces that choreographically didn’t work out versus others that you know are going to work as players? It would be great to hear some examples of things that don’t work and why.
Rob: That model of writing things without attention to whether they’re actually physically possible, that’s the Xenakis model in our world. Xenakis is another one of those composers who wrote really revolutionary and significant percussion pieces and some of my formative experiences—I think probably formative experiences for all of us in our university days—were playing some Xenakis. But there’s definitely stuff in some of his pieces that’s impossible to do. Maybe eventually people will figure out how to make them possible, but in the meantime, it creates this opportunity for people to interpret it different ways and choose priorities, to figure out how to bring it to life in their own way.
On the side of a performer who knows the instrument and composes for it, I think there’s something really interesting there also. Talking about Steve Reich and John Cage in particular, as folks who performed in their own ensembles and were playing the music that they were writing, neither of those of guys were virtuosic, amazing percussionists. Cage was not really trained as a percussionist. Reich was trained as a percussionist, but it had been a very long time since that was his main thing.
So in their cases, I think there’s something about the fact that they reversed it because they were performing their own music, and not just once. They didn’t just write a piece knowing things about percussion and then put it out there; they were involved in playing this piece and then seeing what worked and what didn’t and playing it again. A lot of Reich’s pieces didn’t even get notated until much later when someone else transcribed it. So I think there’s something to it in that way that they were gaining an understanding because they were playing in the premieres and the [later] performances.
To your other point about things that didn’t work out, that people try to write something and it just wasn’t a possibility, I think probably each of us has done that at some point in a piece that we wrote for the group. But we workshop together and try things before it gets ingrained; it doesn’t exist in a permanent form until after we’ve actually tried it and figured out solutions. I think that has helped us. And we’ve tried that with other composers.“It doesn’t exist in a permanent form until after we’ve actually tried it and figured out solutions.”
But early on, we definitely had commissioned pieces where we learned the hard way. We really should have met with this person when they’d written four measures of this rather than writing an entire piece or entire movement based on this idea. Maybe there’s an idea in their head of the way that a certain instrument resonates, or an idea in their head of how clear it will be if you play notes at a certain on an instrument or whatever. But once the whole piece is written, it’s too late to go back and try to reimagine it with a more realistic expectation. If we had been able to play four measures for someone, they would have seen immediately that the marimba doesn’t ring that long, so it doesn’t sound like they thought it was going sound or whatever. A very subtle thing can make a big difference once it’s compounded over an entire composition.
Sean: I’ll just piggy back off of what Rob was talking about and give a diplomatic answer. Our mantra is to workshop with composers regardless of their experience level with percussion. And your question about the kind of opposites of a composer who conceptualizes something away from the instruments and then a performer who’s also composing for themselves—I think when you marry those two together there’s a synergistic effect and you reach an end goal that you wouldn’t have if you were divided.
So a good example in my mind at least is a piece that was written for us by a friend and just brilliant composer, Donnacha Dennehy. Donnacha’s one of those sorts of composers who does it every day and he’s a brilliant, trained composer. He’s a master of his craft. He understands the instruments. He had a very specific concept. He wanted to use instruments that are typically thought of as unpitched, so drums, and explore concepts of spectralism and overtones, so that you could feel like you were inside a drum and you could hear the harmonic series.
Through the course of workshops, we got to a place that neither Third Coast or Donnacha would have gotten to on our own. At first, Donnacha thought he needed to write for all timpani because according to orchestration books and that sort of thing, those are the pitched drums. And Third Coast being very pragmatic in logistics said, “Oh my gosh, please don’t write for 16 timpani. We can achieve the effect that you’re looking for through tom-toms.”“Please don’t write for 16 timpani.”
And so Donnacha came to our studio space in Chicago. We pulled out all the instruments. We recorded stuff together. We showed him different techniques for changing the pitch of drums. And the end result is this awesome piece called Surface Tension which really does achieve this kind of like sound cloud of drum sounds that over the course of the piece you realize is all pitch centric. Your ears don’t get there at first, but Donnacha achieved it in a really cool way.
And I’ve got to say, my part is still, for me, impossible to accurately perform. It’s this part where 14 bongos are all micro-tuned to different cents sharp or flat, and the physicality of it is incredibly virtuosic. The affect of what Donnacha wrote is similar to Xenakis. It’s just awesome. I wouldn’t change a note of it. And the effort of me trying to play this concept that Donnacha had isn’t something that I would have written myself. The result isn’t what Donnacha wrote, but it’s really visceral and it’s really fun to play. I don’t even think I played it accurately on the recording that we did of it. But I wouldn’t want Donnacha to change the part.
Peter: One of the more interesting things to me when I compare music that’s written by an instrumentalist for their instrument, let’s just say a percussionist-composer, so when you compare percussionist-composer to a composer who’s not trained in percussion, it’s how virtuosity plays into that. And even like the perception of virtuosity. A lot of it has to do with the understanding of the idiomatics of a marimba.
I find that a lot of percussionist-composer repertoire that’s out there has the perception of being very virtuosic, just because it has a lot of notes and it looks flashy. But the reality is that it just lays really well on in the keyboard. So you can go up and down on the drums or whatever instrument you’re doing. It just lays really well because the person who’s writing it knows that instrument very intimately.
So even though there is the perception of it being very virtuosic, it’s actually not too demanding for the performer. Versus there’s so much repertoire out there that was not written by percussionists that is insanely difficult. I mean you can spend months on this music, but then the perception is that it’s not virtuosic at all. That’s not to say that it’s not worth performing that repertoire, but it’s amazing how much time I’ve spent learning music that is very difficult, but the overall affect to a listener or audience member is it’s not difficult at all. I always find that to be a really funny way of looking at repertoire and who’s composing it.
FJO: I suddenly was thinking about how when you do parts for an orchestra, the percussion section doesn’t want things divided into parts. They just want a percussion score and then they work it out. So it’s already sort of a realization that unless you’ve got a hands-on approach to this as a composer, you’re not necessarily going to be getting what you think you want in terms of what different people are doing. And the other thing I was thinking about in terms of the Xenakis is it’s interesting that you guys came together as a quartet.
In Europe, those Xenakis pieces are for sextet because they were written for Les Percussions de Strasbourg which is a sextet and now there are other really important percussion sextets in Europe like Kroumata which play this repertoire. So what made you decide to be a quartet as opposed to lassoing in a fifth or sixth person? Or to just be a trio? There’s some terrific percussion trio repertoire, too. And how do you navigate each other’s parts in terms of that dialectic of what we were saying about who gets to play what?
David: I don’t remember a decision about the group becoming a quartet, which is kind of a weird thing to say. I think it just felt like if you’re going to start a percussion ensemble when we were starting it, it just had to be a quartet. There were these like key pieces. You mentioned the first part of Drumming by Steve Reich as well as Mallet Quartet and Third Construction by John Cage. I think maybe that kept us going on that path. There are great percussion trios out there and great percussion sextets obviously. But I certainly don’t recall us ever having a conversation about whether we should add a couple more people.
Peter: Although do you remember we did have a conversation very early on about the name and specifically not having quartet in our name? So instead of being called Third Coast Percussion Quartet, it was just Third Coast Percussion. I don’t remember if that had to do with the fact that we might fire somebody or may bring somebody in.
Rob: There was a level of flexibility. In the first concerts, we did program like some trios and duos, like Nagoya Marimbas by Steve Reich. We played Rain Tree by Toru Takemitsu from the very beginning, which was also a completely different vocabulary, but I think a very influential and beautiful piece. We have done concerts where we are a sextet and we ask a couple more people to come play with us.
I think we’ve settled more and more into being a quartet for reasons that I think are complicated in terms of group dynamic and the way we work together and also just ease of touring. Even though we still do a lot of collaborative projects. It feels like we always have some sort of collaborative project going. But the core of our touring really is just the four of us. I think at the beginning we didn’t necessarily have a vision of what that would look like, but now we realize that any time we add more musicians beyond the four of us, it makes it exponentially more difficult to tour and to schedule especially.
David: I would add something in terms of dividing up parts. That’s just another aspect of the workshopping process that Rob was speaking about earlier that makes it so crucial for us. It’s actually really interesting for me to hear the perspective of writing for an orchestra and having the request be to not split the parts up. I think an orchestra is uniquely suited for that model because a principal percussionist will just figure out how many percussionists they need. I’m sure there are requests with a commission not to exceed a certain number of players. But there is this idea that you can call in a sub.“When we’re asking a composer to be collaborative with us, we’re never asking to have creative input so much as practical input.”
But we’re asking for someone to write a percussion quartet for us. It’s just another way that the importance of that collaborative process can’t be overstated, because when we’re asking a composer to be collaborative with us, we’re never asking to have creative input so much as practical input. The two lines get a little blurred sometimes I suppose. But if for instance Donnacha had written this piece for 16 timpani, we told him, “You can write that piece and we will play it, but we will play it once, and it will be unlikely that we’ll play it again.” That’s not because we don’t want to, but because we know what’s possible or reasonable to request when we’re on tour. Even though 14 bongos is crazy, 16 timpani is an order of magnitude more difficult.
And that same thought goes to dividing up parts. So when we’re working with a composer, it’s easy for us to say, “Oh, you want this, and you put this in a person’s part. But actually this person should do it.” That’s not an interesting or creative thing that a composer really should, in our view, waste too much time thinking about, because we can figure that stuff out. But if we’re working with them in real time, then we avoid the pitfall Rob mentioned of someone going down an entire creative path and getting to the very end and us realizing that they baked a problem into their piece that cannot be removed.
Sean: One aspect of all this that I’m really excited that we’ve doing more and more often is working with composers who are up for telling us the effect or giving us the ideal end result in some form and giving us freedom to choose the instruments perhaps or to organize the parts in a certain way.
Two collaborations that I think all four of us have gotten a lot out of have been working with Devonté Hines and Jlin. Both of them gave us their compositions more or less as sound files, with varying degrees of guidance about what instruments they should go on and form, etc. So they were highly collaborative projects in that manner. Devonté’s piece and Jlin’s piece were already compositions, but they were compositions essentially for electronic music. And then we worked together with them to translate them onto our instruments. And in some cases, because both of them are so open-minded, it actually affected some of the creative stuff, like it changed form slightly or they let us stretch out and hang in an area that works really well for percussion a little longer and, because they were so open and adventurous to work in that manner, we got to work with music makers in a whole new way, which I’m excited to keep doing, to keep collaborating with people outside of the traditional “I’m a composer and write something down and give it to you and it’s done.”
FJO: I’m struck by this idea of this music conceptually existing in their minds and being initially realized as electronic pieces even though they weren’t necessarily locked into specific timbres and then working with you all to figure out or maybe have timbres that match the timbres on their sound files as closely as possible. That immediately made me think of the amazing transcription you’ve performed of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. There are like a million versions of Fratres and they’re all slightly different, but they also all kind of have some common ground and this does, too. But I heard things in that piece I never heard before, because of its realization on percussion instruments. And I thought it was really fascinating.
You did transcriptions of a few Philip Glass pieces before he actually wrote you this masterpiece specifically scored for percussion quartet. So I’m just curious about the process of what makes you decide to do transcriptions. You also did this incredible Shona mbira piece. So what makes you find a piece and say, “Oh, this can work as a percussion quartet”? Maybe there are pieces that don’t work. You’re probably not going to play a Haydn quartet anytime soon. But maybe I’m wrong.
Peter: Certain repertoire just lends itself to the quality of what a percussion instrument does. In general, this is really broad and not all percussion instruments operate this way, but most of them have a very immediate articulation or a really strong articulation and then a pretty immediate decay afterwards. So one of the reasons why we stay away from doing an arrangement of a very lyrical string quartet piece is that idea of sustain. And a sustain that can crescendo through it just does not exist in most every percussion instrument. We can try to emulate it by doing certain rolls or tremolos, but those sound like tremolos. They don’t sound like a beautiful violin sustain.“Certain repertoire just lends itself to the quality of what a percussion instrument does.”
So we shy away from doing transcriptions or arrangements of repertoire like that, regardless of when it was written. We generally try to shy away from doing transcriptions of older repertoire for the lack of a better term. We don’t do arrangements of the Brahms string quartets or anything like that. That’s not something we’re going to do. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not our aesthetic. I think a lot of the transcriptions and arrangements we have done start off just by: one, we like the music; but then two: we know that it’ll work well on the instruments of percussion. Just by how it operates. So a lot of minimalist repertoire works really well. Anything that’s grid based; repetitive structures, those all just work really well.
FJO: Fratres is technically a minimalist piece, but there’s actually a lot of sustain in it and yet it works!
Peter: True. Yeah.
FJO: So how did doing that come about?
Rob: For each of the different projects you mentioned, each of the different pieces of repertoire came through a different path. There’s not one sort of guide or one overarching philosophy for us that says here is a situation in which we would do a piece that was written originally not for percussion. Each piece has its own path, and we’re open to it. We have to understand how it would work.
Actually the Arvo Pärt arrangement was not our arrangement. We made choices within it, but that was something we were able to buy from the publisher. The arranger’s name [Vambola Krigul] escapes me right this second, but we thought this is beautiful and let’s just try it and I think inevitably had to make some of the same kind of choices that we make any time we perform a piece with specific orchestration, like what does woodblock mean really? Or different mallet choices. Different timbre things might be subtle choices.
In contrast, with Philip Glass’s music we just knew it was going to work really beautifully and we also were like, “You know, he hasn’t written a percussion quartet. We’re hoping we get him to write one, but in the meantime, here’s some music that we would love to play.” Glass’s music has something to it, not that it can work on any instrument, but there’s something about it that is transferable to many different instruments.
Then the Shona mbira music was part of this big project called Paddle to the Sea that also involved some of those Glass arrangements, and also involved some music we wrote ourselves. We specifically wanted to include some Shona music in that project.
We had been studying with a really amazing teacher, Musekiwa Chingodza, who comes to the states every couple of years to tour and teach and perform. We’d been working with him a couple of times and learning from him. Then we thought we would love to actually now create something we can perform in a concert and in a project. We talked to him about specifically a piece with thematic connections to that project—a water theme runs through that project. And he taught us his version of that piece. Each of those pieces is part of an oral tradition and—especially with the things that are not part of the spiritual practice, but are more like sung songs—people really create their own versions and then maybe they teach that to someone else who then creates their own version.
We really tried to stay pretty closely to what Musekiwa was teaching us and create that version. So within that project, the part of it that really is the Shona piece is just us playing mbiras and singing. Some of the thematic material worked its way as an influence, as the source material for the larger piece we composed, but in mostly pretty subtle ways. But for the part of the project where we were playing Shona music, we really wanted to play it on mbira and we wanted to sing it and present it within our own understanding of our own personality and our own limited experience with the tradition, but as loyal to the tradition as made sense within our voice.
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Part 3. Musical Omnivorism (TCP’s Repertoire)
FJO: This is a good place to transition our talk to pieces that have been created expressly for you that you have to be loyal to, in terms of playing precisely what the composers intended. I want to talk about that amazing piece Philip Glass composed for you some more, but before that, a piece that really blows my mind probably more than any of the things you’ve done is Resounding Earth by Augusta Read Thomas. That is just such a magical, transformative sound world. I know you’ve had a long relationship with her and she’s written a lot of great pieces for you and for many other ensembles, but in some ways, this is my favorite piece of hers. I’d love to hear how it evolved—how you collected the bells, how she got to work with them, and how this piece became the magical thing that it is.
David: That piece was actually the first time we worked with Gusty, but we met Augusta originally when we were students at Northwestern because at the time she was a professor. Then, when we were starting Third Coast, one of the very first things that we did as a quartet is we sat down with Augusta and got advice from her about how to start a chamber music group. So she’s really, truly been a part of our extended musical family since the very, very beginning. After a few years had gone by, we played more concerts, she would show up at our concerts and we were always very humbled to see her in the audience.
I think her name came up because she had done some transcriptions of a guitar piece she had written for solo marimba, and she had written a piece for three percussionists and voice. I remember asking her about those pieces after a concert we played that she had been at, and she said that she was proud of those pieces, but that if we wanted a piece she should write something new for us.
Shortly thereafter, she called and had this very specific idea. So much of her music is influenced by bells; just the sound of bells for her is an inspiration and a through-line through most of her work. So the idea of writing a piece entirely for bells was a natural extension of her creative practice. And an idea that necessarily requires a percussion quartet—which, by the way, is an amazing scenario to find yourself in as a composer, when you have an idea that is for the ensemble you’re writing for. It really wouldn’t work on anything else. Great percussion pieces really come out like that.
But she had this idea, and she said I don’t how to do it. She had some bells that she had just collected, because she loves the objects, but she said, “I want to do research; I want to find bells from all over the world.” So we found an importer who has bells from all over the world, but particularly from East and Southeast Asia, a large collection of different types of bells. And we already owned a bunch of bells. [Augusta] came to our studio and played through everything that we owned. And then had ideas for sounds that we didn’t have yet that she was interested in.
That piece, necessarily because of what it was, became the benchmark for us of how every collaborative process with a composer should work. Sean mentioned Donnacha’s piece. The same thing that is true of Donnacha’s piece is true of Resounding Earth. There’s no way that piece could have been written without Augusta and without the four of us. She is a very collaborative composer anyway, but this was a very intensely collaborative process.
She visited our studio at least a dozen times over the course of a year. First trying bells, then coming in with improvisational ideas and having us improvise with the bells so she could hear them in real time. She sampled every single bell in our collection once we gathered them all. Then she would come into our studio with ten pages of music. We’d read through it, and she’d throw out nine pages of it and say, “This works and none of the rest of this does.”“To see a composer as incredibly skilled and experienced as Gusty write so much music and then throw so much of it away in this revision process was actually really inspirational.”
I’ll also say that that piece was formative for us in terms of how we work with composers, and I think it was also formative for us as composers. To see a composer as incredibly skilled and experienced as Gusty write so much music and then throw so much of it away in this revision process was actually really inspirational. I know that for myself, up until that point, I had always assumed that writing music was you start here and you end here and you hope it all is good, when in fact being self-critical is so important. The piece exists now in this amazing form and we have a chance to play all four movements usually once or twice a season, but the second movement which is for these prayer bowls we play dozens of times every year.
Rob: I’ll just add maybe two thoughts to that. One is that obviously Augusta, before she wrote this piece for us, was already a masterful orchestrator and understood how typical instruments worked. But she wanted to do this collaborative process so that she could stretch herself to try something completely different and new. It wasn’t a case of necessarily needing our help to write, it was just an opportunity for her to push herself beyond. The thing that I find really fascinating about this piece is that it was written for a specific collection of instruments. We were building the collection as she was writing it, but it’s orchestrated pretty specifically. She really writes out “B-flat Noah bell,” all this very specific stuff.
It’s more specific, but in some ways similar to what Cage was doing 80 years ago, which was writing for what he had. So he wrote these pieces and it was like: here’s the percussion instruments that I have. Inevitably Cage actually is kind of vague in a lot of ways. He leaves it to people to figure out maybe what he meant. But I’m very curious to see a few decades from now I think people will be playing Resounding Earth, even if it’s beyond the point where we can still play the piece.
I’m curious to see how people will adapt to the fact that they won’t have the exact same collection of instruments; and I think there’s something to that that’s built into what we do that’s really fascinating. You just have to make choices and you have to find ways to make it work. Something is written for a specific collection of instruments, but other than the premiere, maybe that particular collection of instruments may never exist again.
Peter: A little bit earlier in the conversation you mentioned Kroumata and the Strasbourg percussion group in Europe. They both have done these amazing commissioning projects with some of the greatest Western composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. A lot of those pieces end up becoming these really sort of epic, evening-length or concert-length works that are specifically written for their unique instrumentation and it’s just very grand. We’re not a sextet like Kroumata or like Strasbourg, but I feel like Resounding Earth is our version of that type of repertoire—that idea of this grand statement by an amazing voice in 20th and 21st century Western composition written for a very specific instrumentation and for a very specific ensemble. Like Rob, I’m really anxious to see a point when other ensembles are going to have the ability to program something like that. It may take a couple decades you know, but it is a really wonderful piece.
Rob: That’s something that’s starting to happen—other groups are programming some of the music that we’ve written, but also music we’ve commissioned. And it’s funny—Donnacha’s piece, someone came to Sean to talk to him about his impossible bongo part. It makes me think if people are looking back at something that was impossible that Beethoven wrote, they feel like their job has to be: “I have to figure out how to play it. It must be possible. I have to be able to play it.” And we don’t.
When someone writes a piece for us, we don’t think, “Well, we have to be able.” I mean we work really hard to try to realize what they’ve written, but more importantly we’re trying to understand the intent of the musical affect and figure out how to achieve that. People come to us freaked out: “How did you even do this? I can’t.” And Sean’s like, “I just left out this line for those four bars or whatever.”
It’s just a different mindset that goes with contemporary music or just working with a living composer. And I hope that long term people aren’t getting caught up on that thing of trying to play the impossible thing and ignoring the intent. There’s obviously a balance.
FJO: Another one of these grand statement pieces that you’ve done is that amazing piece by David T. Little, Haunt of Last Nightfall. His music is often really apocalyptic; it’s actually very appropriate for the present moment in some ways. But I’m wondering—he’s a drummer. It’s a whole other deal collaborating with him than collaborating with somebody like August Read Thomas. So I’m wondering how some of the things played out in that piece with you guys.
David: It’s interesting, because David is a drummer, but he doesn’t consider himself a percussionist. I’ve actually heard him make that distinction. He did study percussion in school, but he very much thinks of himself as a drum set player. What was interesting about that specific piece is that David just absolutely hated some really seminal percussion writing by Hovhaness. I remember him getting called out specifically. But he was at this point in his compositional career where he had not written a lot of marimba, vibraphone, especially xylophone music, like tuned percussion music. So he went back to that music and fell in love with it in a way that he had never done so in the past. He even specifically wrote for the xylophone, because it was this instrument that he had been so averse to before. I always think that’s the funniest thing because the last thing that I think of when I hear that piece or play it is Hovhaness.
That piece was an early example; I think Resounding Earth is another one, although that was written after Haunt of Last Nightfall. Haunt of Last Nightfall was the first large-scale piece that we commissioned or premiered, and you guys can stop me if I’m wrong about that, but it was a 30-minute piece. That was the longest piece we had premiered at that point. We specifically asked David for a substantial work. We didn’t have any money behind it. I think we paid out of our pockets for it. So it was just another kind of formative work for us at an early point in our career. And he delivered. The thing that I think is so cool about that piece is that it is a deeply disturbing, emotionally fraught artistic statement. And it’s for percussion quartet. It shows the incredible expressive capability of our type of an ensemble. And for that I’m just very thankful. It’s a piece we keep going back to. It finds new iterations. It’s a really special piece both for us personally and I think just as a piece.
Peter: It’s funny that we’re talking about these back to back, Frank, because this kind of gets back to an earlier part of our discussion about what is exciting about percussion ensemble. We’ve been saying how surprising it is and the difference of the sound worlds. You think of Resounding Earth as this big, epic, half-hour long piece, but then you have Haunt of Last Nightfall, which is another big, epic, half-hour long piece, and they’re so different from each other. Such a different sound world. Such a different aesthetic.
We did two-shows back to back in New York. One was a show as part of the CMA conference, where we did Resounding Earth, and then I think it was literally the next day or the next week, it was very soon after, at Le Poisson Rouge, where we did Haunt of Last Nightfall. And it was funny. I won’t mention who it was, but there was a management agency or representation agency that we were having talks with at the time that came to see both of those concerts. I just remember after Haunt of Last Nightfall, they didn’t know what to do with us because those programs were so different. You could tell it just kind of blew their minds. That was the end of that conversation with that management [laughs]. It just dried up after that.
FJO: So much for celebrating musical omnivores.
FJO: We already spoke just a little bit about your work with Devonté Hynes and Jlin. Those were both very different kinds of projects, although they are and they aren’t. You know, you listen to the music that you guys have done of theirs and it definitely fits in with this rubric of whatever we want to call this music—contemporary classical, post-classical; all these terms are stupid, right? But it’s not like their music is all that far away. So I’m curious about how you found both of them, or how they found you. And how doing stuff like this really thankfully is chipping away all these stupid divisions that we have between different kinds of musical practices.
Rob: Yeah, I think the thing that’s interesting about all these projects, and I think that includes everything from David Little’s piece to JLin’s piece, and Dev’s music, is that inevitably I think that the project feels like a success when it sounds like them. And somehow it sounds like us. For something like David Little’s piece, I think it’s really awesome that it comes through showing how percussion ensemble can be a vehicle for his voice. And I think the same thing is true for Jlin or for Dev Hynes.
Those are pieces where we were more actively involved, orchestrating the music. The fine line, or the thing that remains a goal through all of this, is we knew it would sound like us on some level. And we wanted it to sound like us on some level, but we wanted it to definitely sound like Jlin. We wanted it definitely to still sound like Dev Hynes. That was a tricky thing to do.“One of the criteria that came into play was: does it still sound like them?”
It came up at times during the orchestration and arranging process that we were going through. On the one hand, I agree the labels on music or genre defining, definitions or whatever can be counterproductive or arbitrary. But on the other hand, you want to find some rubric, some set of criteria when you’re doing a project like that. What is success? If we’re taking something that someone else wrote, and we have to figure out how to fit it on our instruments, what’s the difference between a successful or non-successful rendition of that? And I think for us, one of the criteria that came into play was: does it still sound like them?
David: I agree with everything Rob just said. But I will add that we listened to Jlin’s music and we loved it. And we were like: She’s a percussion composer. She writes software-based music, but she’s definitely a percussion composer!
Devonté was brought to us by a choreographer we were working with through the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, that amazing dance company. We did a bunch of research, like listening to the music he puts out as Blood Orange. If you listen closely, you hear the influence especially of Steve Reich, but also Philip Glass. And he’s got a whole Soundcloud that’s just his experimental and improvised music. Once we found that, it was like, “Oh yeah, this guy totally gets it.” And we had seen him interview Philip Glass. So it wasn’t as though we started from a place of being like there’s no way this is going to work, because that’s obviously not great.
The most important piece of that is that we had conversations with Dev and with Jlin. They were both deeply passionate about writing concert music and super excited about what we were doing. And super excited about the project. I could imagine myself on the outside saying, “If you just look at it on a surface level, what does Devonté Hynes have to do with Third Coast Percussion?” I think that’s an easy question to ask. But the reality is that you strip away a bunch of other stuff and all you have is five musicians who love music and making music and are interested in making music together.
When someone is interested in writing for us, and they take it seriously, and they write for us—yes, everything Rob said, we want to make sure that we’ve captured that composer’s voice. But if they’re interested in writing for us, and they write for us, and we work on it and we play it, it is their voice and our voice. And it expands our voice, too. I feel like it’s easy now to look back on David Little’s piece and retroactively find the sound of Devonté Hynes in that piece. But I actually think that when Dev’s piece came out, it was new for us. There were new things that we were doing. It certainly is the case with Jlin. I mean shit, we’re playing back beats in Jlin’s piece! I didn’t think we were ever going to do that. But we love Jlin, and Jlin love us. She worked hard on our piece. We worked hard on the piece. And so inevitably it is both of our voices. That’s the greatest thing about classical music: you get to speak in other people’s voices.
FJO: A real extraordinary example of that is that amazing Philip Glass piece. Talk about an elder statesman, he was over 80 when he wrote this piece. He has a huge reputation, as you even said in the introduction when you performed it on your streaming concert, he’s in the history books. But I think he wrote a piece for you guys that makes history again because he’s gone to another level in this piece. It’s clearly his voice, but you inspired him to go somewhere new. So that’s the other half of that. You want to bring across the voice of the composer you’re performing, but I think you also want—through what you’re doing—to take that composer to another level as well.“I think that’s true of all of our collaborators, this spirit of experimentation.”
Sean: I wanted to just paraphrase something that Jlin told us, because I love it and I feel the same way. We were asking her what her favorite music is, or what she listens to, or who some of her idols are. That’s essentially the question we were asking. And she said, paraphrasing again, “I like the weirdos of every genre. Doesn’t matter. The people who are experimenting and doing weird stuff. Those are the people that I like, and that’s the music that I’m excited by.” And I think that’s true of all of our collaborators, this spirit of experimentation. I just wanted to say that. Jlin articulates it better than I can.
FJO: The other experimenters that you collaborate with all the time are each other. Right? As composers. We talked about these big, large-scale pieces that are kind of epic that you’ve done by these composers. But there have been at least two other epic pieces, one of them is Common Patterns in Uncommon Time, which is David’s piece. And another really epic piece is the collaboratively created piece you wrote, Paddle to the Sea.
David: Common Patterns in Uncommon Time was commissioned for the hundredth anniversary of Taliesin where Frank Lloyd Wright lived and taught. We still have a very cool relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy. And for the first time in my life, I had a chance to write a big piece—a big multi-movement, 30-minute piece. I would never have done it if I wasn’t writing it for Third Coast, because I don’t feel like I’ve yet written enough music to write a piece like that for people I don’t know intimately well. The reason for that is I brought in that piece and we did workshop it. I remember from the very beginning my idea was that it would be a much more collaborative project because at time we were all living in Chicago. I think of that piece as sort of a precursor to Paddle to the Sea because I was really asking the guys for input on a whole bunch of stuff. There’s all kinds of stuff in that piece that I would re-do if I was doing it now. But then we wrote first a piece together called Reaction Yield; that was a great experience. Then Paddle to the Sea in some ways is my favorite piece that we play because it feels very natural to play. And I think that’s by the nature of the fact that it quite literally is our collective voices.
Rob: It was fun to be able to team compose. At that point, we’d already really adopted this philosophy that every commissioning project we do should be very collaborative. Any time we work with an outside composer, they should come in person to our studio and try things out. I think we gained a lot through that process that then allowed us to do this piece Reaction Yield and then ultimately Paddle to the Sea collaboratively.
The challenge that we had to figure out was how to make it sound like one cohesive piece with all four of our voices going into it. Reaction Yield supplied at least, on the first level, a method for doing that. We ended up compiling a collection of thematic material before we started composing particular sections. We created this encyclopedia of themes that we all could draw on throughout the piece as we were composing it. So as each of us composed different movements, regardless of what the texture or energy was of the section we were working on, we could keep going back to that same common set of material that we could each draw on. Then we extended that idea more when we went to Paddle to the Sea, because in Reaction Yield, we still wound up with very clear sections; it felt like four movements. We’d written more material beyond those four movements that ultimately got taken out of the piece. But it was really our goal in Paddle to the Sea to not make it feel like four separate movements or sections, but to have it all blend a little bit more together. So we approached it less in blocks, but we still took this approach of coming up with a bunch of themes first and then everyone can draw on this common material.
FJO: But you do each separately write different sections and then it gets put together as opposed to, say, what John Cage and Lou Harrison did in this amazing piece Double Music, where it was like these two simultaneous compositions that got played together. Considering your history with Cage, I was wondering if some of Paddle of the Sea was created that way or if you want to work that way, but I guess you haven’t yet.
Peter: Yeah, no. Paddle to the Sea was very much collaborative. While certain people might have spearheaded a certain section, or a certain portion of it, [collaboration] was always in the spirit of it and I think for the most part that happened in pretty much all of it. It was at one point handed to somebody else to do some revisions.
The one thing I would say too about Paddle to the Sea that made it easier to have multiple people working on it, but still have a unified voice, is it was set to film. That film already had a set narrative or a set story, so we story-boarded the music before we ever wrote a note, if that makes sense. Just because we knew that if there were themes or there were scenes in the movie that related to each other, we knew that we wanted the music then to relate as well. So we could say, this portion of music in the first five minutes of the film should relate to the music in these last five minutes of the film. Early on in that process then, we would have Rob take both of those sections, at least an initial stab at that, so we knew that that relationship would be there because they would be working on it thinking of the relationship.“There’s something to having a broader idea, a broader outline, a broader narrative to help construct a piece.”
I think there’s something to having a broader idea, a broader outline, a broader narrative to help construct a piece. When you’re working collaboratively, that makes it more cohesive in the long run.
David: I’ll borrow an idea from Peter and also just say that writing Paddle was an extension of everything that we do every day as a group. We have to decide when we’re going to take vacations together. At the same time, not together [group laughter].
Peter: That would be awful.
David: That would be hilarious. You know, who wants the lake house? We had to decide, like at this current crisis, big important things that impact our personal lives. We have to decide them together. We have to decide which composers we’re going to commission. We have to have artistic planning conversations about what repertoire we’re going to program. And so writing a piece together in a way is the same thing. You’re just making a bunch of decisions and you’re being collaborative.
Just to tie this up, I’m proud of Common Patterns in Uncommon Time. But I definitely think that piece would be way better if it had been written collaboratively by the four of us. It’s insanely difficult to bring four voices together and make it one voice. But when you are able to do that, the end result is better. That’s what we found.
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Part 4. Making Music in a Post Covid-19 World
FJO: Another original piece that you guys play, Rob’s One Concession to Glee, I only discovered recently through the video of it you posted on YouTube. I assumed that it was a brand new piece created for this new world we’re all living in, but the last frame shows the score and it’s from 2019. It’s almost like you predicted that this current world would happen. Or maybe it just lends itself to that kind of interpretation.
Rob: It’s funny. I did write that piece for a particular circumstance, but it was not this particular circumstance. Sean and I were playing a gig. It was the one outside gig that either of us did in the last two years. It was with a friend in Chicago, John Corkill. The situation was that we were going to be camped out in the corner somewhere playing on a table and we weren’t going to have a lot of space or time to set up or anything. So we were thinking of things that would work as table-top pieces. But I asked, “Would it be all right if I wrote a short little piece for this?” And John said, “Yeah, for sure, do it.”
And so I put this together quickly with the practical limitations in mind, thinking that that was the weird situation I was preparing for. But it happened to work out well that this was something that we could all take home and record our own parts individually, now that we’re each working from home.
The logistics of being a percussionist is something that we never get away from. David was saying that for the very first gigs we were doing, we were going around to schools and playing the first part of Drumming because it was four sets of bongos. (And also, it’s an awesome piece, but still, every concert that we play, we have to think of those logistics.) So I found it a fun challenge in a couple of pieces I wrote for Third Coast to consider a limitation from the beginning and hope that I write something cool and useful and enjoyable out of that context. I think we’ve addressed this a couple of times, but there are awesome pieces we wish we could play more and the logistics limit the number of times we can play them. It doesn’t make the piece any less great, but it just means it’s hard for the group to do as often. So when we find a piece we really love that’s logistically feasible, it just opens up more opportunities to share that piece.
FJO: Dare I posit that since you’re so good at working through logistics, and that’s what you’ve had to do based on the kind of ensemble that you are, that in a strange way you’re really equipped—as much as one can be equipped—to deal with this crazy present moment that we’re all in. You did these two amazing concerts. You were obviously in the same space together doing those. I don’t know if for the next things you’re doing whether you’ll be in separate locations. How do you function as a group now that we’re all isolated from each other, like we are right now in this conversation?
David: We have ongoing conversations about both what feels safe to us and what is responsible. The four of us and our studio manager, who runs the live streams, have all self-isolated for the past few weeks. So we’ve only seen each other and the people that we live with. That’s the way that we’re able to come together in our studio in a way that feels safe to us and feels like it’s responsible. We do address it for each of our live stream concerts.“We have ongoing conversations about both what feels safe to us and what is responsible.”
Then in terms of being equipped to make the pivot, we have a few things about our particular scenario for which we’re just really fortunate. One of them is, because we’re a percussion quartet, we have a rehearsal studio that we rent. So 24/7/365, it’s a place where we can set up a live stream studio and leave it set up. We had invested in a bunch of cameras and microphones, not to live stream, but it was also something that could be converted into a live streaming set-up seamlessly. And we have an amazing team. In addition to the four of us, we have three full-time staff members. Colin, who is our studio manager, basically taught himself how to do multi-camera, multitrack live streaming in the weekend between when our last live concert was and the next Monday when we met to figure everything out. A lot of it is just happenstance and I guess just good fortune on our part. We count it as a blessing not only because it allows us to continue to be creative, but the thing that’s been the most important to us—I will certainly say for me—about those concerts has been the reaction of the people that have been watching it. Even though we’re not all in the same space, it brings people together in real time to share an experience. That’s the kind of thing that is so easy to take for granted, until it’s not possible. And now that it is, in this limited way, it feels really precious.
Peter: I’ve been reflecting a lot on this. I think all of us have been reflecting a lot on various things in our industry over the past couple of weeks. David alluded to this. We’re in a fortunate situation and also something that I think is unique in our field is that Third Coast Percussion is our full-time job. And it’s a full-time job for our three staff members, too. So rather than a group of freelancers who aren’t making all their income from this, which I think a lot of chamber ensembles are, this is everyone’s full-time job and everybody’s still getting a pay check. Everybody’s livelihood is intact right now with Third Coast Percussion which is not the case with a lot of other chamber ensembles dealing with this crisis. And I think that’s worth noting because we are very, very fortunate. It’s just how we are structured in that it is an all-in, full-time job. It gives us a capacity that I don’t think a lot of chamber ensembles have the luxury of. I’m really thankful for that.
I hope it may be as a result of this that the larger world of classical music and chamber music might take a pause and reflect on how our general model of the gig economy and independent contracting might not be as sustainable as we once thought it was.“Our general model of the gig economy and independent contracting might not be as sustainable as we once thought it was.”
Then I would just add that from Day One, or even before Day One, when we saw this happening, we all collectively came together and realized that we were going to have to pivot to a live stream model eventually, because that’s just the direction where all the arrows were pointing. It happened very quickly and again we were just fortunate. Like Dave said, we had a rehearsal studio. We also had over the last couple of years invested in some recording equipment and video cameras that we hadn’t even used for the original purpose that we invested in them. But then it made that transition that much easier. We knew that cancellations were coming and we thought of it as a way that we would be able to leverage keeping a portion of our fee by offering live streams. That has happened some. But it also just opened up an opportunity for us to make music together and to bring our music to the public during this crisis. This is a very unique situation that we’re in.
FJO: I’d like to probe that a little more if I may, hopefully not getting too personal about it, but I think this is important for everybody who cares about new music. All these gigs have gotten cancelled and all these people have lost their work. You guys lost all your live gigs as well. So you do this stream, which is amazing—it’s a whole concert which is incredible. But it’s free for everybody. Which is also awesome, because you’re reaching people you might have never reached, new audience members from all over the world theoretically. But the stream itself is not income-generating because by its very nature it has to be given away. You’ve made all these amazing recordings, but that economy imploded. So many people are no longer buying recordings; they’re just streaming things and you might wind up getting five cents or a way smaller fraction of that for it. So what are the revenue streams? I know that you’ve had business partners for some of these events and I guess that works short term, and hopefully this will be over before too long, but I wonder if that’s also not sustainable ultimately.
Dave: I think you made a really, really good point, Frank. I’ll speak to this because I’m the member of the ensemble that works with the presenters that we partner with. Reba, our managing director, is in charge of that aspect of things, but I speak from the artistic side when I speak to presenters. They’re just as devastated as we are in the short term. They’re trying to figure out who they are and what they do when their entire business is based around bringing people together to see stuff and no one’s allowed to come together.
There are some in a situation where they have been able to say, “Okay, our job is to bring people together and we can do that online now, even though we can’t do it in person.” So we’ve had conversations with a number of people who’ve been thinking in that way. But not every presenter is able to think in that way. For some presenters, ticket sales are such a [significant] portion of what they’re relying on that the idea that they could pay an artist if they’re not seeing any revenue themselves is insane. There are also other amazing people in our field.
John Zion, who is an artist manager, has created a new—I don’t know a ton about it, but it’s basically like an online concert hall where you pay tickets to see online streaming concerts. I think we’re all still in a mode right now where there are no rules and we’re just kind of figuring it out. I think sooner rather than later, to your point Frank, if we’re going to avoid live performance and are going the way of recorded performance, then monetizing it and people realizing and expecting to pay for it has to become an integral part of it. Because we’ve seen with the recording industry that that isn’t the case. And it’s changed the landscape and it’s drastically hurt the income of a lot of artists.
Rob: It’s interesting. We are a not-for-profit organization. Most of the presenters who would hire us are not-for-profit organizations or maybe part of larger not-for-profit organizations. And there’s a whole set of expectations around the culture of that that have evolved over a very long time. Like people expect that underwriting live concerts is the way that you have certain kinds of live concerts in your community. And that, as well as the expectations you were talking about, like do people expect that they have to buy a ticket for something or do they expect that everything is accessible to them?“Do people expect that they have to buy a ticket for something or do they expect that everything is accessible to them?”
Now, of course, everything is sort of out the window and there’s this new way of experiencing things. And even more than that, you can’t experience things in the old way of live concerts. So people will have to develop new expectations. And if it becomes something that people expect is normal—that you buy tickets to see a streaming concert, or that you donate to underwrite a streaming concert, or that you hire musicians to play a streaming concert—that will affect the way that this moves forward. But the playbook isn’t there right now. Everyone’s trying to figure out what makes sense. And they’re sort of drawing on what would be normal as a model, but just also trying to figure out what could possibly make it sustainable.
For us, being our own not-for-profit, that’s part of the structure that helps us now that we have people who are donating. Even though they can watch the live stream concert and they don’t have to pay for it, the ones we’ve done so far, they choose to donate. Or folks who have been supporters of us for a long time who are just helping to chip in a little bit more because they know that these are really challenging times. And the question again becomes: how long is that sustainable? We’re all just figuring it out.
Peter: It’s challenging because nobody knows what the full duration of this is going to be anyway. So when you’re trying to forecast or you’re trying to figure out how you are going to stretch that or bridge that with these new models that we’re creating, there’s no timeline for it. It’s a challenge. We’re all dealing with this together. We’re doing the best that we can and again we’re fortunate in that we really do have an amazing team. We’re all focused on this thing and this thing exclusively for our livelihood together. That’s just afforded us certain opportunities. We’ll just have to see what the world is like in a couple years. We’ve seen cancellations through June. We haven’t had any cancellations after that, but that’s not to say it’s not going to happen. Again, nobody really knows.
Maybe the other thing about this is, and I’m sure you all and anybody who’s watching this has seen in the news right now (this is mid-April), they’re actually starting to talk about opening up the economy. Those discussions are starting to happen and there’s a lot of nervousness and questions. But I think the reality is that people need to be aware of is that there’s not going to be one day where it’s like: “May First. Woo hoo! Everything’s good again. You can all go to your concerts.” It’s going to be a gradual roll out.
I’m no expert; I just have to assume this thing. I remember when things started getting shut down. First it was anything above a thousand people cancelled. Then it was anything above five hundred people cancelled. Then anything above a hundred. That actually happened pretty rapidly. Every couple of days. Every day there was another decision that got us to where we are right now. When we get to the other side of this thing, I feel like the same thing is going to happen, but in reverse and it’s going to be a much more gradual process. So we’re going to get to a point where they’re going to open up for people to be in groups of up to fifty people. And they’ll see how that works for a couple of weeks to a month. Then it’ll be a hundred people and we’ll see how that works for an extended period of time.
FJO: But even if things come back slowly and we may be told that we’re allowed to do certain stuff again, are people going to want to? Are people going to be too afraid to sit next to each other in a small venue that holds three hundred people where the seats are tight and close together? Instead, and this idea comes from my initial wrong assumption about the composition timeline of Rob’s Glee piece, might this situation create new lasting models for compositions and performances? How can you rehearse in such an environment? How can you commission new works? You’re always actively doing these things, so how could this possibly change your practice and result in new kinds of music-making scenarios?
Dave: We’re actually working on a new small work that’s designed to be played by the four of us at our homes. Whether that expands into a larger practice remains to be seen. I don’t know. We’re still figuring it out as it goes. I definitely agree; I think it’s going to be as complicated as humanity is. I think there are going to be people who flood new music venues the second that they can and that they’ll do it in a frankly somewhat unsafe way. And I think there are going to people who for the rest of their lives are going to feel uncomfortable. Someone who’s gotten sick and is in a hospital right now in a terrifying situation because they went to the wrong grocery store at the wrong time—that could affect someone for the rest of their life. So I think it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to be complicated. But I think the thing that’s not going to change is that people are going to want to experience things together and we’re just going to have to figure out how that can happen.
Rob: People are going to keep innovating in whatever way with whatever options are open to them. And the longer it goes on, the more new and different possibilities will arise. But everyone’s going to miss that live experience.“Make a plan, but be flexible.”
Sean: It’s the thing that we always tell each other and that’s getting me through this: make a plan, but be flexible.
FJO: Thank you guys. I didn’t think we could sustain this, but it was almost like we were in the same room together. Well, sort of. Thank you also for calling attention, in your second live stream, to the New Music Solidarity Fund, which New Music USA is administering and getting the funds to people. I think it really is about us seeing each other as all part of the same community—the composers, the performers, the venues, the administrators. We see when something like this happens that when one piece of it falls down, suddenly everything is falling down. So we have to build each other back up and you guys are a prime example for how to make that happen.
Dave: Thank you.
Sean: Thank you, Frank.
Rob: Thanks a lot.
Peter: This was wonderful to have a chance to talk with you. Please be safe and be healthy.
FJO: And one of these days in person.
Peter: Yeah, that would be great.