“Third Coast Percussion” talk career, Grammy nomination


Source: Reba Cafarelli

Third Coast Percussion. The group is nominated at the 62nd Annual Grammys for their 2019 album “Perpetulum.”

Wilson Chapman, Arts & Entertainment Editor

This is the second in a series of profiles of Northwestern Alumni nominated at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards.

When Third Coast Percussion receives a Grammy nomination, the first person Peter Martin (Bienen Masters ‘04, Doctorate ‘11) always hears from is his little sister.

“She’s kind of like my number one fan,” he said laughing. “She’s always excited for the Grammys, and she’s always the first person to notify me. She sits on her computer just waiting for the nominations. So that’s always great to hear from her.”

Third Coast Percussion is a musical ensemble based in Chicago. Composed of four Northwestern alumni, the group focuses on classical percussion music, especially music commissioned for the group or written by the members.

Third Coast won a Grammy in 2017 for its recording of the work of American composer Steve Reich. This year, they were nominated again for their album “Perpetulum,” featuring the work of Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars, as well as original work composed by the members of the ensemble.

“It feels great to be nominated,” Third Coast member David Skidmore (Bienen ‘05). “For years, people maybe didn’t consider percussion ensemble music as serious as music for a string quartet or an orchestra. But we feel with this past win and this nomination, the music we play is coming into its own and is treated as just as important as all these classical music types.”

Most of the members of Third Coast met at Northwestern, graduating between 2002 and 2006, and were all mentored by the then head of the percussion program Michael Burritt, Martin said. In 2006, the group started collaborating and playing in small local venues. They slowly grew in renown until 2013, when the members were able to quit their jobs to work full-time in the ensemble.

According to Martin, while percussion ensembles are common in music conservatories like Bienen, professional examples are very rare. As such, when the group started, they had very few groups to model themselves after. The group was passionate about the repertoire of classical percussion, however, and wanted to focus on the artform. Initially, they took inspiration from professional string quartets, while also working to establish themselves as a unique group.

“Those first few years were fun,” Martin said. “We learned a lot in those early days about how we wanted to identify ourselves as musicians and as an ensemble.”

Sean Connors (Bienen Masters ‘06) said the group sometimes thinks of themselves as “musical omnivores,” in that they incorporate many different styles and traditions into their music, as almost every cultural music tradition incorporates percussion instruments. The group also experiments with multiple different instruments, from standard percussion instruments like drums and cymbals and keyboards to instruments from specific cultures like the Zimbabwean mbira to found objects like pots and salad bowls.

Connors said that as a group, Third Coast is primarily interested in performing original work, as opposed to putting out recordings of their interpretations of classics like many traditional string quartets do. Although their previous Grammy-nominated album was a recording of the already published work of Steve Reich, their album nominated this year, “Perpetulum,” consists of material that was entirely commissioned or written by the ensemble. The title piece was written for them by Phillip Glass, and Skidmore wrote a multi-movement work called “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities,” that makes up the entirety of the first disc of the album. Martin and member Robert Dillon (Bienen ‘02) also contributed pieces to the “Perpetulum,” and the album concludes with the 21-minute piece “The Other Side of the River” by Gavin Byers.

“At the time we recorded this album, we were the only group in the world playing this music,” Connors said. “So that was about getting that music out into the world.”

Dillon said that one of the reasons why the group is passionate about the music they produce is because of their strong working relationship; although he has heard horror stories about chamber groups who can’t stand each other, the group gets along with one another and are constantly pushing each other to be better artists. Dillon said that, although the Grammy nominations are an honor, all the members of the group are in it because of their dedication to the music rather than a need for recognition.

“Nobody becomes a classical percussion ensemble because they want to be as famous as they can be, nobody is in it for the money or is in it for the fame,” Dillon said. “At the end of the day, none of us are in it for the awards. But the award feels really great. And it feels like an incredible recognition for what the community of percussionists are doing to become a part of the larger musical culture.”

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