Olivia Kieffer | 30 May 2019
On March 29, 2019, Chicago-based quartet Third Coast Percussion released their newest album, Perpetulum. This is a powerhouse of a recording, with virtuosic performances by the ensemble throughout. It is certainly a “percussionist’s percussion album,” though anyone with an open ear for neverending rhythms and percussive timbres can appreciate it. Those who are well-familiar with the standard Western percussion ensemble repertoire may enjoy the secret musical “throwback” gems peppered throughout the record. The title track comes from their much-anticipated Philip Glass commission, which is Glass’s first composition for percussion ensemble.
This 2-disc set includes two works commissioned by the ensemble (“Perpetulum” by Philip Glass and “The Other Side of the River” by Gavin Bryars), and three compositions by members of the ensemble: David Skidmore’s “Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities,” “Ordering-instincts” by Robert Dillon, and Peter Martin’s “BEND.” For an ensemble that has been together for just over a decade, this is a prolifically recorded group;. “Perpetulum” is their ninth original album, and they are featured as performers on a further seven albums.
The entirety of Disc 1 is David Skidmore’s 35-minute, seven-movement electro-acoustic piece “Aliens With Extraordinary Abilities.” If I could encapsulate Skidmore’s piece with one word, it would be “relentless.” A thread that runs throughout the piece is the feeling of motion within stasis, and stasis within motion. This is helped in part with an often-appearing washy electronic landscape in the backing track, with frenetic mallet virtuosity in the foreground.
The first movement exemplifies this stasis-motion paradox best, with its very fast rhythmic ostinato that changes only when the harmony shifts. The second movement features an electronic drumbeat, which adds an effective fresh breath of air in Skidmore’s mallet writing here – a possible nod to David Maslanka’s 1991 percussion octet “Crown of Thorns.” The harmonic pace of the arpeggios in the 3rd movement are reminiscent of Gavin Bryars’ percussion quintet “One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing.” The fourth movement features polyrhythmic ostinatos and is the longest movement in the piece, and as the centerpiece it appropriately has the most musical contrast of all the movements. The last three movements contain similar musical material as the first four. The titles of the movements, including “Torched and Wrecked” and “Don’t Eat Your Young,” are inside jokes between the ensemble members.
A full sit-down listen of Skidmore’s “Aliens” will leave one emotionally and mentally wiped out. Its frenetic athleticism goes hand-in-hand with the one thing that can be said about Third Coast: they certainly do have extraordinary abilities.
The best piece on the album is also one of the shortest. Disc 2 opens with Peter Martin’s “BEND” a quartet for two marimbas. Martin makes effective use of anything but hitting the bars with a mallet (though there is plenty of that, too!). He employs dead strokes, the sides and back ends of the mallets struck and rubbed on various parts of the bars, and an extensive middle section where the players bow the bars, which sounds just like electronics. The music plays with resonance, dynamic, and textural transitions in a way that most keyboard percussion does not. The pop/fusion chords that appear and reappear are reminiscent of Daniel Levitan’s “Marimba Quartet” and “Sculpture in Wood” by Rudiger Pawassar.
Martin drew his inspiration for this piece from the player piano compositions of Bruce Goff, an architect and amateur composer. “BEND” is a masterful composition for marimbas – captivating and joyful, with a fresh musical language throughout that surprises and delights.
Second on Disc 2 is Philip Glass’s “Perpetulum,” a quartet in four continuous movements. When I first heard that Third Coast had commissioned Glass to write a percussion quartet, my anticipation was high. When I finally got to hear the recording, it was in my car, on the long drive from Milwaukee to Cleveland. I listened again many times, in different settings over the past month. What caused me to keep returning to the piece was not the sense of euphoria that normally accompanies hearing new music by one of my favorite composers. Instead I was blindsided with both bewilderment and disappointment, not by the performance (which is outstanding!), but by the music itself.
Part 1 starts with a big throwback to early Western percussion ensemble music: not only the instruments used are of that era (sistrum or tambourine, bongos, tom-toms, woodblocks of various sizes, snare drum), but the use of simple rhythmic motifs, played in unison or in pairs. It reminds me of “Canticle No. 1” by Lou Harrison. A sort of Caribbean mallet theme is presented, that reappears in variation throughout the work. Part 2 features a minor-ish melody followed by an extended march for unpitched percussion, which stretches for too long.
Next is the cadenza, which Third Coast members wrote, and is absolutely marvelous! It’s fun, as if 1980’s Philip Glass and David Skidmore got together for lunch, had too many Red Bulls, and decided to start a band. Part 3 is a creative yet lackluster combination of material from the previous movements. The thing is, overall the piece is kind of fun, and Glass, as always, proves himself a master of form. However, it’s a good 10 minutes too long, and could do without the second Part altogether.
In “Ordering-instincts” by Robert Dillon, the four percussionists share wooden planks, crotales, and tom-toms. The planks are used very melodically, but without specific pitches, and the crotales are used in the same way. At times, rubber balls are rubbed on the drum heads, which is a lovely timbral effect. The piece has constant polyrhythms, reminiscent of “Signals Intelligence” by Chris Adler, but “Ordering-instincts” is much more of textural and temporal interest than rhythmic interest. It’s a well-crafted piece of music, with never a boring moment.
Last on the album is Gavin Bryars’ “The Other Side of the River,” a powerful and mesmerizing piece for marimbas, tuned gongs, and woods. It’s very long, clocking in at 21 minutes. One should be prepared for a long haul of slowly changing atmospheres underneath slowly changing melodies and themes. Listening is like getting surprised by a Morton Feldman encore on a piano concert, except Bryars’ music here is very busy and plenty loud instead of quiet and sparse. Toward the end there is a glorious full ensemble chiming, which sounds like church bells. Bryars is a virtuoso of beauty. His music never fails to move the listener, and “The Other Side of the River” is no exception. ■