Third Coast Percussion taps, teases and tickles in Stave Sessions finale

March 22, 2015 at 2:50 pm

By David Wright

Third Coast Percussion performed Saturday night in the Celebrity Series’ Stave Sessions festival.

Stave Sessions, the week-long mini-festival of cutting-edge musical presentations by Celebrity Series of Boston, ended with a bang Saturday night.  And a whisper, and a murmur, and a caress.

Anyone who thought an evening of music entirely for percussion instruments would sound like a pots-and-pans rack falling off the wall was in for a surprise, as the Chicago-based quartet of players called Third Coast Percussion led listeners through their mysterious, funny, endlessly inventive and often exhilarating musical specialty.

The fact is, this group didn’t actually manage a healthy kitchen-implement fortissimo until the last piece on the program, so intent were they on teasing and tickling the audience’s artistic sensibility.  But when it came, the raucous climax of John Cage’s Third Construction put an exclamation point on Celebrity Series’s new venture devoted to everything young, cool and emerging–not just in performers but (it is fervently hoped) in audiences.

Even the performance space was the newest in town: the Berklee College of Music’s high-ceilinged cafeteria, open barely a year, with its two-stories-tall windows looking out over Massachusetts Avenue, was transformed for this series into a club, with a hundred or so patrons seated at round tables, plus a couple of rows of chairs for those less able to think outside the concert box. In the back, a small bar served beer, wine, soft drinks, and the Stave 8, a frozen cocktail apparently invented for the occasion.


In club fashion, the performers—David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors—took turns engagingly introducing the numbers from the stage.  But a set list obtained after the concert was a reminder of how helpful a printed program can be. Knowing, for example, that the haunting second movement of Augusta Read Thomas’s Resounding Earth for singing bowls was subtitled “Homage to Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez” added a layer of meaning to the music.

On the other hand, there’s something liberating about the box-of-chocolates approach—you never know, et cetera—so maybe the answer would be to make the printed list discreetly available to patrons on their way out.

Minimalism and percussion ensembles seem made for each other, the one delighting in the play of patterns, the other traditionally assigned the role of timekeeper. So it was no surprise that half the items on Saturday’s program either sounded like they might have been composed by Steve Reich, or actually were.  Put another way, half the pieces were mainly about the groove, while the rest had other, equally interesting agendas.

The performers began by grooving to Fractalia by Owen Clinton Condon, a rhythmic ramble for four players at two marimbas, amusingly disrupted by non-Reichian thwacks and other effects on drums.  In the and-now-for-something-completely-different spirit of the evening, Condon’s piece for familiar percussion instruments was followed by one where the only instrument was a table.

In Table Music, composer Thierry De Mey took a Baroque term for a musical accompaniment to dinner and interpreted it literally, carrying the concept of drumming with one’s fingers on a tabletop to unheard-of heights.  Seated at a flat surface equipped with discreet amplification, their hands spotlit like dancers, the three players tapped and clapped, slid and slapped in a mesmerizing audiovisual show, with music seemingly by Mr. Bojangles and choreography by Pilobolus.

Thomas’s bowls came next, 20-plus of them, tuned chromatically and manufactured especially to play this piece. Tapped and stroked by four players in elusive rhythms and often at the threshold of audibility, the bowls mingled their long-lasting tones to produce an abundance of those uncanny meta-vibrations called “beats.”

Where to go from this moment of spiritual stillness? Why, to a piece inspired by Meshuggah, the Swedish heavy-metal band, of course.  As David Skidmore described his composition Percussion Quartets, the inspiration came not from the band’s loudness but from its experimentation with complex rhythms. Players prowled around the array of marimbas, steel bars, tuned blocks, and other instruments to produce a Reichian mix of fractured and superimposed rhythms, which yielded for a time to a steady, hypnotic tap of eighth-note chords, only to return with even greater complexity at the end.

The concert’s second half opened with the only actual Steve Reich composition of the night, Music for Pieces of Wood. Equipped only with a block in one hand and a stick in the other, the four players swayed and stroked and eyed each other like a string quartet as they tapped out Reich’s infectious, ever-changing rhythms.

Following that, Peter Garland’s Apple Blossoms for two marimbas seemed to contradict the whole idea of percussion, as the quartet used fluffy beaters that looked a bit like flower clusters on sticks to slowly set the instruments’ resonators vibrating until they swelled to an organ-like sonority.  With the players’ wrists shaking rapidly throughout, one can only imagine the stamina it took to play this gentle piece.

Of course, found objects are the joy of percussionists and their audiences, and so, according to Peter Martin’s introduction, Alexandre Lunsqui’s Shi (which means “food” in Mandarin) began with a trip to Chinatown (Chicago? New York? San Francisco? Rio de Janeiro?) in search of things to make sound with.  The resulting array of racks, plates, glassware, bamboo mats and more, played mostly with ivory-colored plastic chopsticks, inspired some of the more manic behavior of the night, to the audience’s audible delight.

The program closed with music by the patron saint of found objects, John Cage. This being Boston, it seemed appropriate to hear a piece of early music, and Cage’s Third Construction was composed in 1941, which is about eight centuries ago in percussion-music years.  Coffee cans and a pasta strainer joined deep tom-toms in the ensemble, along with two rope drums, objects that, when a string is pulled, emit a groaning sound not unlike the bellow of a bull moose.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this radical expression of yesteryear was how comfortable it all sounded now, as Cage’s score settled into a nice groove one could dance to.  But that was before the rope drums rumbled their mating call, and Martin began blowing great blasts on a conch shell. The avant-garde beat goes on.

The next music presentation of Celebrity Series of Boston will be Lisa Batiashvili, violin, and Paul Lewis, piano, 3 p.m. March 29 at NEC’s Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661.

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