Third Coast Percussion gets political with American program at Logan Center

Sun Nov 02, 2014 at 11:37 am

By Tim Sawyier

Third Coast Percussion performed a program of American music Saturday night at the Logan Center.
Third Coast Percussion performed a program of American music Saturday night at the Logan Center.

On All’s Souls’ Eve the four members of Third Coast Percussion concluded their fall residency at the Logan Center for the Arts with a University of Chicago Presents program of American works inspired by political upheaval. The quartet of players—Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—was formed in 2005, and since 2013 has been the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Throughout its eight-year history, the group has garnered much critical praise and Saturday night’s performance made clear that such acclaim is well deserved.

The evening opened with John Cage’s Credo in US. Written in 1942 in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Credo is the first of the composer’s works to feature radio and phonograph records—avant-garde elements that would later become Cage’s calling cards.

TCP’s performance opened with Sean Connors calmly taking the almost blacked-out stage, sitting down at a small desk on which there was an open MacBook (a modern stand-in for Cage’s phonograph player), and with a single click of the mouse, making the hall’s speakers boom with the opening bars of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. To these the rest of the quartet took the stage—carefully littered with a panoply of instruments and mallets—and for the duration of the episodic 12-minute work, TCP used these to create a semi-organized cacophony evocative of Indonesian gamelan music (with the periodic intrusion of the sound of a rotary phone ringing). These textures were punctuated by abrupt grand-pauses that TCP executed with breathtaking accuracy, freezing in unison after each one, as from the centralized laptop and speakers came a backdrop of multifarious recorded “political” music ranging from Shostakovich to Bob Dylan to rap.

Towards the end of the piece Connors switched “instruments” from the computer to a transistor radio. Some comic relief was provided as a crackling State Farm Insurance advertisement came on over the speakers over the manic exactitude of the other three members’ playing.

The evening continued with Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together. Inspired by Sam Melville, the architect of the 1969 bombings of public buildings in New York City, who was ultimately killed in a prison uprising of his own instigation at Attica, the text is taken from a letter the criminal wrote while incarcerated.

For this performance, TCP recorded the voices of dozens of UChicago students reading Melville’s letter, creating what member David Skidmore called “one massive multi-person narrator” in a short documentary film that preceded the performance itself. This narration was played over an obsessive, pulsating bass-line (programmed into a synthesizer) as the TCP members elicited the eerie, haunting sounds of bowed marimbas and vibraphones, and delivered precision unison slams on non-pitched instruments with chilling exactitude.

The centerpiece of the evening was David T. Little’s Haunt of Last Nightfall, TCP’s recording of which (New Amsterdam Records) has been nominated for multiple Grammys. Inspired by the December 1981 massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador, where over 800 left-wing Salvadorian guerillas were slaughtered by the Salvadorian army, Haunt opens with recorded metronomic tapping, over which sustained (also recorded) instrumental lines soar. The work as a whole is rather schizoid; sections in contrasting moods and textures, ranging from triumphal to ethereal to menacingly warlike, are starkly juxtaposed, and, in this performance, were even accompanied by well-calculated changes in stage lighting. The steady tapping pulse returns repeatedly with the insistence of The Tell-Tale Heart, providing some unity to the 30-minute work.

While the performance was a tour de force of ensemble playing, sonic intrigue, and clearly the product of intensive study and rehearsal, were it not for Little’s detailed notes about the piece, its inspiration, message, and indeed point would have been completely lost (though one need not necessarily have been cognizant of what inspired such engrossing music to enjoy a performance of this caliber). Overall the evening was an edifying sampler of the ambiguous, at times adversarial relationship between music and politics in the 20th century, and a window into how that relationship may continue to evolve.

Tafelmusik will perform “The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres” 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Logan Center.

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