Third Coast Percussion
Third Coast Percussion | Credit: Saverio Truglia

Quartets from all the other families of musical instruments are common ensembles, so why not a percussion quartet? Third Coast Percussion is four men from Chicago who lay out their battery of instruments across the stage in patterns dictated by the content of the piece they’re going to play, and then they have at it. They displayed their work on Wednesday, Jan. 25 at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, their first appearance there, though not their first in the Bay Area.

The concert featured four works, all recent and designed expressly for Third Coast, each slightly less than 20 minutes long. This turned out to be a good length for listening to a particular expression of percussive sound before it got tedious.

A listener might expect all-percussion music to consist of a lot of deafening thumps, but Third Coast stays far away from the style of a marching band. This group’s basic sound is soft and gentle, focused on tuned mallet instruments: xylophones, marimbas, and other such devices. Much of the music was based on repeating patterns, but without the rigorous working out of such patterns that would make for minimalism. Fundamentally, the pieces differed in how the composers made these patterns interact.

Third Coast Percussion
Third Coast Percussion | Credit: Marc Perlish

The evening’s closest approach to conventional modern classical music was Millennium Canticles by Missy Mazzoli. Mazzoli’s orchestral works favor peaceful sheens of string music, with winds and percussion providing quiet decorative frills on top, so when she writes for percussion alone, the frills are what’s left. The players set up patterns in contrapuntal cascades across each other, initially on xylophones, forming a fast, quiet rattling sound. Vocal whispers and grunts are added. Then one or gradually all four players move to other instruments and set similar patterns running on those: drum kits, bells, and a loud, low electronic-sounding growl created while walking away from a large bass drum.

It’s quite different from Perspectives by Jlin, a seven-movement suite of which we heard four movements, with a fifth as an encore. Jlin (the nickname and stage name of Jerrilynn Patton) calls herself a producer rather than a composer. Her background is in contemporary dance club music from the Chicago area, a style called “footwork,” and she creates her works entirely electronically on her computer. Much of this sounds like percussion music anyway, so she was a natural choice to collaborate with Third Coast.

The concert music is the players’ realization of Jlin’s soundtrack on acoustic instruments. This doesn’t require much in the way of unusual playing techniques, other than rubbing the nonplaying end of a mallet over a key, which produces a light moaning sound.

Jlin uses patterns in a distinct fashion. While Mazzoli has all four players using the same pattern in overlapping waves, shifting them frequently, Jlin holds the patterns longer, repeating them without development but with each player doing something different from the others. Her music is lively, filled with abrupt individual whaps that ultimately don’t add up to a climax.

The four members of Third Coast (Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore) collectively composed In Practice. Based on their own warm-up routines and exercises, it comes out between Mazzoli and Jlin in compositional style. There are odd and unexpected cross-rhythms, electronic drones, eerie sounds made by applying string bows to the ends of the instrument keys, heavy strikes, and a degree of building up to climaxes.

The highlight of the concert was Gauntlet by Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, a glorious expression of Applebaum’s talent for whimsy combined with coherent, effective music-making. Third Coast had asked him to write for a small selection of instruments so that his work could easily be taken on tour. He took this as a challenge to write for as many physically tiny instruments as could fit into two suitcases.

Third Coast Percussion
Third Coast Percussion | Credit: Elliot Mandel

Accordingly, Gauntlet is played with about 200 small objects, spread out for performance on a 24-foot line of tables. Starting at one end, the players as a group shuffle slowly down the tables, playing their way through this gauntlet — thus the title — of objects. Some are actual musical instruments (harmonicas, triangles, whistles), some are noisemakers (duck calls, squeak toys), some are incidental in their noise capacity (a coffee can, aluminum foil), and some hardly make any noise at all (kitchen gloves, a straw and cup). Sometimes the players are all wielding different copies of the same item for a few moments, but much of the time it’s totally different items. The range of tone color is enormous.

Applebaum exploits this range with a compositional style different from the other works on the program. Rhythm shifts continually, but at most moments the players are all expressing it together instead of overlapping at different points in a pattern. Accordingly, he is able to build up his sound into coherent climaxes, resulting in musical waves reminiscent of the style of that classic work for percussion ensemble, Ionisation by Edgard Varèse.

That completed a survey of sonorities and compositional styles demonstrating the percussion section has what it takes to make a satisfactory concert by itself.