Third Coast Percussion at Constellation, 6/5

by Andrew Tham, photos by Tim Porter

On Sunday night, Third Coast Percussion performed a program entitled Currents at the Constellation.  Were you there, reader? Did you nervously make your way through the swarm of patrons in the lobby / bar? Were you there when they brought in folding chairs to accommodate the sold out crowd? Were you intimidated by the room mic stands–10 feet tall at least–mounted at the corners of the stage, as if they were generating a force field between the audience and the percussion quartet?

Most importantly: did you take the survey and get a FREE PAIR OF THIRD COAST PERCUSSION™ DRUM STICKS?

As ensemble member Rob Dillon pointed out in his opening remarks, the concert was called Currents because Third Coast was playing their most current repertoire.  Four of the five pieces on the program were world premieres, two of which were even written by ensemble members Peter Martin and David Skidmore.  Rob referred to this particular program as a laboratory, a way to try stuff out on their hometown audience and garner feedback before taking the new rep on the road.

That’s where the survey came in.  After the performance, audience members were encouraged to fill out a blue sheet of paper tucked inside their program booklets, asking them to describe each of the pieces and give their thoughts on the overall concert experience.  Feedback was welcomed, documented, and rewarded; free drum sticks, you guys.

So in honor of surveys and trying stuff out, Cacophony presents:

BANGER, BOINGER, OR ZUMM?

Which are you a fan of most? It’s a question as old as unsolicited time.  Fortunately, you’ll know the answer by the end of this review! What follows are five passages each describing a piece on Third Coast Percussion’s Currents program.  At the end of each passage, you’ll be asked to decide: Banger, Boinger, or Zumm? AND STAY ALERT, DEAREST READER: these passages are interspersed with a few pop quiz questions that are integral to determining your BBZ preference.  Every choice and answer has a mercilessly objective point value attached to it so come on, be honest with us; be honest with yourself.  You ready? Okay, here goes:

I. Peter Martin: Bend

The quartet plays a somewhat child-like chord progression on two marimbas, placing you somewhere between Pachelbel’s Canon and the Lion King soundtrack, only to deconstruct it through a series of timbral and gestural manipulations.  From the very beginning the players are already exploring the shadow of a single chord, scraping the wooden ends of their mallets against the keys or striking them with mallet heads wrapped in plastic for a subdued, whispered harmony.  It is fleeting, you feel, like all gestures in the piece; never quite settling on a particular technique or dynamic level.  Even the harmonic pattern at its clearest is subject to rhythmic interference, dispersing a series of pitches amongst the four players that results less in an arpeggio, more in a series of bouncy balls falling and sounding at their own rate.  At one point, bows are drowsily pulled across the keys of the marimbas, giving the effect that you are listening to the piece on slow rewind.  You think of tape reel; you become aware of time.

The chord progression returns in full force, replete with fast licks and arpeggiations that leap across the marimbas.  You find the climax perfunctory; you don’t really care about the return to the original material.  What you care about is the ambiguous transition from one gesture to the next, the way variations morph in and out of each other.  You ask yourself “did I need a ‘theme’ in order to realize that?”

1. You’ve had maybe one interaction with Third Coast Percussion’s David Skidmore in your entire life.  One day, you happen to run into him while he’s in his car, waiting at a stop sign.  He remembers your name.  He introduces you to his wife in the passenger seat.  He reaches out the driver’s seat window to shake your hand.  You have a giant wart growing on your finger.  Do you shake his hand or attempt a high-five instead?

II. Aaron Holloway-Nahum: How Animals Grieve

Third Coast Percussion return to the two marimbas, now also giving voice to the large bell plate hanging between them.  It looks like simple sheet metal but tolls like a heavy gong, unwieldy in its reverberation when hit by small mallets.  The quartet plays a lot of intricate parts on the marimba, a lot chamber music, but you don’t really listen to it.  You just watch that bell plate.  Each member of the quartet quickly reaches out in succession to hit it.  One at a time, they pay their respects to the bell.  You think “pay their respects” sounds appropriate because the piece is about actual loss of actual bodies.  The mallets rolling on the bell eventually overtake the room, irrespective of the marimba work.  Yet there is a kinship between the metallic rumble and the low register of the marimba that seems essential.  Spiritual, even.

Gradually, players begin to leave their post to find a new station with hollow wooden flutes or bird whistles.  The miniature wind instruments sigh and whimper as the remaining two players saturate more and more negative space with bell tolls and quick bursts of bird calls on the marimbas.  Some other tiny instrument squeaks like a mouse; you’re very much in the wilderness now.  And yet, you still can’t stop watching that bell.  One player starts to circle around it, striking it occasionally.  The others eventually join in, each with a different mallet that make it thunder or ring like tin or high frequency feedback.  You forget about marimbas.  You think only of bodies leaving, bodies circling, bodies in ritual.  The quartet dampen the final ring of the bell together, their hands resting on the plate as if it were a tombstone.

2. You’ve invited Third Coast Percussion’s Rob Dillon over for a Sunday brunch.  He is your first guest and brings with him a beautiful berry pie.  You overhear him talking with your roommate in the kitchen about the difficulties of deciding how to program a concert season with his ensemble.  Do you join the conversation or go into the living room to eat snacks?

III. Danny Clay: play book

You watch the quartet play a series of musical games whose rules are not revealed but rather discovered.  In the first movement, two players perform rolls on different sized Chinese hand gongs, while the other two players search their shared vibraphone for a pitch to match what they’re hearing, then roll on it, crossfading between the two timbres.  The game is fun to watch but also satisfying to listen to; the cloudy vibes growing out of the thunderous gongs and vice versa, the process of echoing and transposing.  In another movement, a series of piercingly high woodblocks are triggered by one player in a chain reaction of rhythms, each performer moving at their own rate.  The triggering is moved around from performer to performer (is it decided instinctively? Is it written out?) and eventually the group moves from high sounding blocks to low sounding planks.  The concept of the superimposed rhythms remains but the tone has darkened, dampened, aged.  It’s as if the piece has instantly become a memory of itself.

These movements are interspersed with playful games where pitched bells are used to signal between players; whether it’s passing a gesture around in a circle, determining if one player is playing the correct rhythm, or performing the correct number of attacks that correspond to a playing card.  Performers are disqualified, winners are applauded, there is time for you to laugh without fear of missing valuable sounds.

And then the last movement grows seamlessly from the bright pitches of wooden combs, to lullaby-esque music boxes, to a hymn on the vibraphone; from ambient to human, and back to ambient, as marimba harmonies roll in underneath the vibes and dissipate.  And it begins to rain, obviously, and you smile and look around at everyone smiling and looking around.

3. Third Coast Percussion’s Sean Connors asks you to rent a van for the quartet because they’re playing a gig in Wisconsin and they have a lot of equipment to bring with them.  You show up at the van rental store on time, drive the U-Haul to the studio for load out, and luckily you finish ahead of schedule so you can catch a ride home.  15 minutes later Sean calls you saying he can’t find the van key and you realize it’s still in your pocket.  They are now going to be late.  The studio is five miles away from your house.  Do you wait for a bus, ride your bike, or borrow your roommate’s car without permission?

IV. Nick Zammuto: Green Yellow Green Red

Enter the multimedia portion of the evening.  Here you see a video of a fuzzy white caterpillar, trudging hastily along a rock.  It’s hard work.  Rob Dillon beats out an incessant two-against-three pattern on the vibraphone (no pedal, no wetness whatsoever) that often climaxes in a rhythmic diminution.  The two notes that continuously bounce around each other are always changing; the rhythm remains fairly constant.  It syncs up with the flat percussive sound popping out of the loudspeakers.  The presentation is matter of fact, almost silly.

The caterpillar is replaced by a turntable spinning different colored vinyl records and you wonder if you’ll ever see the insect again.  You don’t.  It’s green / yellow / red vinyl from here on out.  Except the yellow looks more like orange and the red is mostly white so as the records cycle through you just think about the seasons, which makes sense, because the vibes seem to expand and retract their collections of pitches; from pentatonic to diatonic to whole tone.  Behind the turntable is a tree with Fall leaves and a blue sky; the contrast between nature and technology makes you feel uneasy.  You don’t like that the turntable’s circuit board is showing.  But the looped images and never ending climbing around of the vibes keep you calm.

4. The cover for the new Third Coast Percussion album bears a strange resemblance to the cover for the new Kanye West album.  Coincidence or deep-rooted marketing ploy?

V. David Skidmore: Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities with video by XUAN

Before this piece is performed, David tells the audience he likes that music can move in different speeds at the same time.  You become excited by this prospect as it shapes the way you listen to the entire piece.  When the vibraphone melody–a collection of throbbing descending long tones–enters in the first movement, you imagine it hovering around the plaintive chords of the accompanying vibraphone.  The atmosphere is somewhere between cheesy space and somber ceremony; you enjoy the ambiguity.  An arhythmic scraping cymbal enters the space and you sense that the three instruments are each moving at their own rate, independent but coinciding for this brief moment in time, like you and your fellow concertgoers.

The following six movements exhibit breakneck speed noodling / vamping on keyboard percussion, interlocking drum beats that build grooves like pyramids (or maybe a Radiohead song), and a visual component that is part kaleidoscope, part glitch, part psychedelic iTunes visualizer.  There is a lot of material.  You forget a lot of the material.  The hovering melody in the vibraphone seems to return frequently, or at least that formula; a slowly winding set of pitches that glide over a rapid succession of malleted chords.  You stop caring about it, it’s gone on for too long.  You think this is what techno might sound like if it were orchestrated but you don’t really want to dance to it.

In a few of the movements a set of pre-recorded synths enter through the speakers, overlaying their flurry of pitches on top of a glockenspiel or vibraphone lick.  The synths attempt a rhythmic union with their acoustic counterparts but they don’t mix; their timbre is clearly computer-made.  The superimposition reminds you of the occasional static that throbs over the visuals, calling attention to the digital artifice; you are just watching a screen.

5. You are a member of Third Coast Percussion and you are playing a piece of extremely quiet music.  However, the rhythms are fiendishly complex and you need to give very clear cues to your ensemble members throughout the piece.  Do you cue with your breath, your eyebrows, or your entire head?

SCORING

Please add your points up to determine which you are a fan of most: Banger, Boinger, or Zumm.

-For every passage you identified as a Banger: +3

-For every passage you identified as a Boinger: +2

-For every passage you identified as a Zumm: +0

-For question 1: Hand-shake (+2), High-five (+1)

-For question 2: Join conversation (+3), Eat snacks (+0)

-For question 3: Bus (+2), Bike (+1), Roommate’s car (+3)

-For question 4: Coincidence (+1), Marketing ploy (+3)

-For question 5: Breath (+1), Eyebrows (+3), Head (+2)
 

BANGER (Scores 20 and up)

You knew it all along, didn’t you? You sly devil.  Just kidding: THERE IS NOTHING SLY ABOUT YOU WHATSOEVER.  If there was a motivational poster that said “Go for it!” and it showed someone naked skydiving out of a plane, that naked skydiver would be you. Thanks for speaking up because someone had to say it.

BOINGER (Scores 10 - 19)

I really appreciate you not telling that embarrassing story about me in front of everyone.  You are more than welcome to give a speech at my wedding.  Go ahead, kiss me on the cheek, I know your intentions are not malevolent.  But also: hey, thanks for speaking your mind when you need to.  Not enough people do that, you know what I mean?

ZUMM (Scores 0 - 9)

Okay, okay: STOP saying that you’re not needed to successfully make this mac and cheese recipe; you are a valuable member of this kitchen and you don’t need to be so hard on yourself.  The love and care you gave to those bread crumbs was unlike anything the culinary world has ever seen.  Please remember that this isn’t a test, you’re just here to have fun.  Most importantly, thank you for telling your colleagues how you felt; it’s all too important these days.