A powerful combination of music and politics

Third Coast Percussion members, from left: David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors.
Third Coast Percussion members, from left: David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors.

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Third Coast Percussion, a quartet of Northwestern graduates now in residence at the University of Notre Dame, offered an exciting and fascinating performance at the Logan Center as part of this season’s University of Chicago Presents concert series. Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore created soundscapes of great power and remarkable musicality in an evening devoted to American works with political underpinnings.

The highlight of the program was “Haunt of Last Nightfall” a work by David T. Little, commissioned by Third Coast Percussion. It is the composer’s meditation on the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador in December of 1981, which he chillingly but tersely describes as an event “in which an entire village was erased by US Military-trained Salvadoran government forces, with American-made and provided arms.”

Such an atrocity might not seem an inspiration for the making of music, but Little’s approach is one that is both disturbing and beautiful. In addition to the live music of Third Coast Percussion, the performance featured a recorded background of evocative sounds and strong rhythms. Part of its strength was the ambiguity of the recording. Was it itself a requiem or a fusillade? Does the recorded sound represent the screams of the dying, a kind of chaos covering up such sounds, or the wailings of the bereaved?

Little, himself a percussionist, grew up admiring heavy metal music and that rock element permeates parts of the recorded element of the piece. The quartet added incredible thrust with a stage-stuffed arsenal of percussion, and while they always performed with combined precision it was their artistry that made the impact on the listener.

The wide variation of sound they created, from harsh bangs to organ-like supplications, were gripping. There were incessant pings and pongs throughout whose exact programmatic meaning could not be determined. Just as you thought a terrible section representing shooting or death came to an end, you were faced yet again with sound that might have represented still more suffering.

It was a deeply moving performance, enhanced by theatrical lighting, and it only let go of your throat when the music was finally finished.

Also on the program was Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” a piece premiered in 1972. Its impetus was a letter written by an Attica prison inmate, a man who later died (along with 42 others) in the infamous 1971 prison riots that forever altered our view of incarceration in America. That inmate, Sam Melville, was convicted of several bombings in New York City that injured 19 people. Melville said that he was motivated by his opposition to the Vietnam War and American imperialism, and he provided advance warnings of his bombings as well as political statements to the press.

Whether Melville was a poet or rendered less than fully coherent by his prison treatment is not clear from his text, which rambles from commentary on the communications of his fellow inmates (“the ravings of lost hysterical men”), commissary fare (“the experimental chemistry of food”), to his own feelings (“secure and ready”), and behavior (“I am deliberate — sometimes even calculating — seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others”).

Rzewski created an ingenious musical piece to accompany a reading of Melville’s text. It has a long, repeated bass line in sixteenth notes, and the rest of the musical ensemble (which is not defined and can be any configuration of players) performs according to a set of rules Rzewski sets forth which are semi-improvisational. It is purposively repetitive (including the accompanying text) yet it builds inexorably, rather like Ravel’s “Bolero” re-imagined as an institutional or political nightmare.

Third Coast Percussion used a recorded synth bass line as well as recorded voices reading the text. (Typically, the text is performed by a single, live performer.) The spoken part was created from thousands of audio samples of people from all over the U.S. reading Melville’s words, including many University of Chicago students.

The effect was powerful, and the quartet employed a wide array of instruments, even using bows on instruments where you have likely never seen bows employed, as they slowly made their way to the work’s climax.

The concert opened with “Credo in US” by John Cage, written during WWII. The composer asked for phonograph records to be used for some sounds, but Third Coast Percussion updated the work by using a laptop to play music by Shostakovich, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Rage Against the Machine.
The easy yet precise coordination of the quartet was always evident as they moved from section to section displaying intriguing skills.