In Conversation: Third Coast Percussion

In Conversation: Third Coast Percussion

Madi Chwasta caught up with Grammy-winning quartet Third Coast Percussion to talk collaborations, commissioning and creating iPhone apps.

In Conversation: Third Coast Percussion

Madi Chwasta caught up with Grammy-winning quartet Third Coast Percussion to talk collaborations, commissioning and creating iPhone apps.

In a short period of time, Third Coast Percussion established themselves as one of the worlds leading percussion ensembles. What inspired the creation of the group and could you have predicted the ensemble's success from the beginning? 

We studied this music in school with an amazing teacher, Michael Burritt, who is now a professor of percussion at the Eastman School of Music. We loved the music so much that we decided to try to make a living doing it. I don't think we really knew when we got started exactly what it takes to build something like this from the ground up, so I definitely don't think we could have ever predicted where we would be today! 

In terms of repertoire, your group commissions new percussion works by leading international composers while also performing percussion ensemble standards. How do you decide what to play and do you stick with a programmatic method for most projects? 

We'll often learn about a piece and keep it in the back of our minds for months or even years before we decide to play it. The same goes for composers — sometimes we'll be following a composer for years before we ask them to write for us. All of these decisions are very democratic amongst the four of us in the ensemble. We're all pretty eclectic, and we all like a lot of music, so sometimes one or two of us will be very passionate about a piece or a composer and that makes the others want to play that music too. It's better for even just one of us to be over the moon about something than for all four of us to be just ok with something.

Third Coast also collaborates with a multitude of artists across different disciplines, including musicians, architects and astronomers. As a group, how do you decide who to work with and what is your overall approach to collaborative art making? 

We're collaborative with almost every single aspect of what we do, so sharing the creative process with others comes pretty naturally. When we're working with any collaborator, we just try to be honest and have open communication. If we've decided to work with someone it's because we trust them, and hopefully, they trust us, so you start from there and then just work like crazy until you've got something everyone is proud of. 

Let's talk about your Grammy win for the album Third Coast Percussion Steve Reich. Congratulations! What was the recording process like and how did you approach the body of repertoire from a rehearsal point of view?

Thank you! We had been playing this music since we were students, and our very first concerts included music by Steve Reich, so we started the project with an intimate knowledge of the music. Then, we questioned everything. We brought in Russ Hartenberger (percussionist and original member of the Steve Reich ensemble) to coach us and give us his perspective. We took each piece apart measure by measure, phrase by phrase, listened to every past recording we could find, and at the end of the day we put together interpretations of each piece that we thought were respectful of the performance tradition, but still had our own voice. Then, the recording process itself was a dream — we worked with our long-time recording engineer Dan Nichols and producer Jesse Lewis, along with some incredible guest musicians (Oliver Hagen and David Friend on piano, Matthew Duvall on percussion).

Third Coast is also deeply involved in the development of education programs. What have been the expected and unexpected outcomes of working with young musicians?

I'm not sure if this was expected or unexpected, but we have learnt a ton about how to communicate with concert audiences by learning to communicate effectively to young audiences. A lot of the beauty in the music we play is wrapped up in its complexity, and when we can invite people into the experience by giving them a glimpse inside this complexity, then we are giving them a musical experience that they could not have any other way.

Aside from the actual music, there are many aspects to running an ensemble. Are you all actively involved in day-to-day practicalities? What extra-musical skills have you all had to develop along the way?

The four performing members of TCP are very involved in running the organization day-to-day. In fact, we're convinced that in the States, the only way to make new chamber your full-time job is to take your administrative tasks as seriously as your artistic tasks, at least until you've grown enough to hire more help without cutting into your own livelihood. We've individually and collectively learnt a great deal about fundraising, marketing, booking, production, contracting, publishing and licensing, and so much more. We take pride in this work, and even enjoy some of it! But first and foremost, we know that this work is what allows us to do exactly what we want to do artistically.

Your ensemble has been involved in the creation of several educational phone apps that allow audiences to engage with and understand the repertoire you play. Where did this concept come from, and how has it helped enrich your programming and non-performative work?

Developing apps was a natural extension of our other efforts to communicate to as many people as possible about this music that we are so passionate about. We have 3 free iPhone and iPad apps, based on composers we champion - John Cage, Augusta Read Thomas, and Steve Reich. They're meant to be fun ways for audiences to be actively involved in the types of music-making pioneered by these composers—music-making that the four of us in TCP get to be a part of every day.

2017 was a huge year for your group. What’s planned for 2018?

SO MUCH! We're releasing a new album called Paddle to the Sea on February 9, 2018. This includes the first recording of a work that the 4 of us composed together, also called Paddle to the Sea. It's named for an iconic Canadian film, and in fact is a new score for that film that we perform live. This is a fun and invigorating new aspect of our creative lives that we are very proud of. We also just premiered our first commissioned concerto for TCP + orchestra, by Augusta Read Thomas. It's a beautiful piece that we're looking forward to performing more. More commissions are on the horizon, including Philip Glass's first piece for percussion ensemble which he is writing for us this year. We're also continuing and expanding our educational projects, including the Emerging Composers Partnership, open to early career music creators from all over, and the launch of a new educational project in our hometown of Chicago in partnership with the amazing tuition-free music school called The Peoples Music School. It's going to be a fun year!

Keep up to date with Third Coast Percussion in 2018 here