Back to the future: Third Coast Percussion winningly melds music and dance traditions in Carnegie debut

Sat Jan 21, 2023 at 12:35 pm
By George Grella
Third Coast Percussion performed “Metamorphosis” Friday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Stephanie Berger

The Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion made their Carnegie debut Friday night in the in-the-round setting in Zankel Hall. TCP is a fine group bringing modern and contemporary music to listeners, so this was immediately a notable occasion. 

But the show (titled “Metamorphosis”) was more than just a concert and an excellent performance—it was an involving and supremely entertaining concept brought to life. The judgment about what to play was imaginative and displayed important thinking about just what it means to perform in front of an audience.

The music was terrific and that was the least of it. The group played an appealing,  near-seamless sequence (without intermission), that began with arrangements of Philip Glass and included Sonny X, a recent work by Tyondai Braxton, interlaced with the seven sections of Jlin’s Perspective weaving in and out. 

Arranging Glass’ Metamorphosis No. 1 and Amazon River for percussion quartet, of course, allowed the group to perform this attractive music; but it also connected Glass, a linchpin of the contemporary classical establishment, with Braxton’s gamelan-influenced work, and further to Jlin’s percussion music. The last comes out of the Chicago popular dance music scene, thereby embedding Third Coast and the evening into the sophistication and complexity possible in electronic dance music.

In a subtle way, TCP was making an argument about what can be called “classical music,” one that they and their contemporaries have already won. Classical music for centuries has included ideas from contemporary popular dance music—that styles in 2023 are far different than 100 years ago is just a superficial difference. And the modern innovation in classical of a separate percussion ensemble is the conduit that connects the music to all sorts of rich and exciting traditions, not just gamelan but rock, hip-hop, and more.

The fit between the mellow, beautiful harmonies of Glass and the complex timbres and rhythms of Braxton and Jlin (both of whose works were co-commissioned by Carnegie) was easy and strong. The connection was polyrhythms—Glass’s may be closer to Brahms and Jlin’s to Autechre, but they’re both just beats. With the near continuous playing, the music sounded like the different movements of a large-scale percussion symphony, and while the moods and dynamics and colors shifted, there was a commitment to movement all the way through.

That was doubled and underlined by the wonderful dancing of Movement Art, comprised of Lil Buck and Cameron Murphy. With choreography by Buck and John Boogz, who together are working out of street dance styles like flex and footwork, Murphy and Buck appeared in turn, expressing the rhythms of different sections through their movement, and also adding lyrical physical phrases in and around Third Coast’s playing. In some of the more rhythmically intense stretches, especially in Jlin’s fantastic work, the two were the melodies that the percussive scoring left aside. Taken together with the great dimension of dance in Tyshawn Sorey’s Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) last summer at the Park Avenue Armory, one hopes that this is the start of a trend of incorporating black dance styles into classical programs.

That this was an easy sell to a partisan, highly charged crowd that—encouraged by Third Coast—erupted into frequent cheers in no way undercut how thrilling and wonderful this all was. The ovations started long before the fabulous dance battle to Jlin’s “Duality” and the final section, “Derivative,” which was played and danced with the raucous freedom of an encore. It was almost beside the point that this was excellent music given terrific, energetic performances. 

Playing music of the time with dancers is something that goes back thousands of years, and to do it today is classic in the extreme. Strangely, to do this now in classical music is an outlier, but if any classical music lover, or arts administrator, wants to experience a musical performance that is propulsive, exciting, and full of gorgeous sounds all the way through, and that is not history but part of life today, then seek out a night for Third Coast Percussion’s “Metamorphosis” tour.

The Kronos Quartet plays in Zankel Hall, 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 27.

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