Third Coast Percussion Champions Steve Reich

In February of 2016, Third Coast Percussion (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore) released their sixth recording in partnership with Chicago-based label Cedille Records. The album, simply titled Third Coast Percussion/Steve Reich, is a collection of definitive works by the eminent American master. Recorded over the course of a week in December of 2014, the program includes four contrasting works composed by Steve Reich between 1973 and 2009.

It is certainly safe to say that the form and aesthetic pioneered by composers such as Reich, Glass and Riley has become a large swath in the foundation of the current generation’s standard  repertoire. A tenaciously American archetype, the consonant pulsations and rhythmic mantras of this pioneering group have carried over into the voices of subsequent generations of composers and landed before the fingers, mallets and lips of energetic young performers with great regularity.

Third Coast Percussion manifests this special energy with an expertise and insight not limited to simple technicalities. It seems to have become a kind of default as of late to praise every new recording on the grounds of a good performance and energetic repertoire that seems easy to listen to. But this is more than just an entrancing, glittery object. For music in which control, precision and technique establish the most basic departure point, which hovers just above a surface concealing the potential depth and profundity encoded within, remarking on how well they played is not enough—nonetheless, Third Coast Percussion knocks the performance out of the park.

Third Coast Percussion-- Photo by Saverio Truglia

Third Coast Percussion– Photo by Saverio Truglia

What rises above the undulating din of Reich’s kinetic waves is the compelling arc both on a granular scale (through the development of each piece) and as a survey over the evolution of the composer’s output in near reverse chronological order, starting with his Mallet Quartet (2009), Sextet (1985), Nagoya Marimbas (1994) and concluding with Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).

Like any live concert program, the curation of the recording is, in a sense, like a work unto itself; a new composition that is uniquely intelligent, evinced in the connections made between its components and their relationship to the whole. There is a threat imposed by the contemporary mode of consuming recorded music—the streaming, play-listed and track-based model—that promotes the tendency to listen in sections and therefore praise in soundbites. The very nature of Reich’s brand of American Minimalism precludes the possibility of such frankness in comprehension, as his works evolve with great subtlety over long periods of time.

Hearing the entire album as a kind of macro-work, it is at the sudden break between the first and second movements of Sextet, some twenty-six minutes in, that peaks as a dramatic high-point. The subtle emergence of timbres and themes across the entirety of Mallet Quartet contrast like glittering crystals enclosed within a dark, wooden nutshell, and transition and meld into the driving piano of Sextet, offset by the almost alien droning of synthetic organ tones. Pianists David Friend and Oliver Hagen join the group, each alternating between piano and synthesizer assisting to bring this character to life. Reich’s typical counter-material returns, as if plucked out of Mallet Quartet, drawing an arc across the opening movement that barrels through an abrupt transposition into an uncharacteristically sparse and brooding section, marked by glassy hues and booming membranes.

Steve Reich - Photograph by Jeffrey Herman

Steve Reich – Photograph by Jeffrey Herman

The work proceeds through two more shifts of this nature, pressing the album forward and into Nagoya Marimbas, which dials back the ensemble to a duet for the instrument and reduces its energy to a warm monotone explored in stereo. Music for Pieces of Wood jumps out of Nagoya Marimbas with an intensity analogous to that of the shift between the first and second movements of Sextet, distinguished by an ongoing wooden timbre drained suddenly of pitch or tonality and revealing a stark, rhythmic exposition. Percussionist Matt Duvall, borrowed from another of Chicago’s vibrant contemporary music ensembles, eighth blackbird, joins to complete the prescribed ensemble.

The laudable effort that Third Coast Percussion has put into Steve Reich is a testament to the living legacy and enthronement of composers like Reich into the musical and cultural norms of our age. Cedille Records, which boasts a number of Grammy nominations and wins for ensembles like this one, deserves special praise for their contribution to these efforts as they continue to provide an invaluable service to this important literature.