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An Interview with Grammy-Winning Third Coast Percussion's Rob Dillon

16 February 2017

Third Coast Percussion, Steve Reich, Cedille

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Third Coast Percussion, a dynamic Chicago-based quartet have just won a Grammy for the best small ensemble category! primephonic spoke to one of their members, Rob Dillon, about the percussionists's world, from orchestral and chamber music to Ghanaian and Zimbabwean drumming in unique collaborations, as well as delving into the sound-universe of Steve Reich's works.

Third Coast Percussion’s Grammy-Winning album of works by Steve Reich

We’re incredibly honored and thrilled to share this music with such a large audience. It’s a really nice capstone to what we’ve been doing for years; we’ve been playing Steve Reich’s music since the very beginning of our ensemble 12 years ago, and in celebrating his 80th birthday a couple of months ago, we have been playing this music more than ever. So the Grammy feels like a convergence of this long process. All of this involvement with his music and celebrating his birthday make us reflect on the contribution he has made to music, both in the classical music world and the influence he’s had outside classical, particularly for percussionists. He’s really huge. He’s one of those composers who has put percussion front and centre and built music that was specifically intended for percussion instruments and featured us in such a big way that it has been part of the big growth of percussion as an expressive medium in the classical music world, bringing us out from behind the orchestra into fully engaged centerpiece of a performance experience.

Reich: Mallet Quartet, Sextet, Nagoya Marimbas & Music for Pieces of Wood

Steve Reich’s Oeuvre

There is something amazing about Reich – the things he was influenced by and continues to be influenced by as a composer, and music that he has then influenced, and the way in which those things are regarded in the classical music community. He has drawn so much influence from non-Western and non-classical music; Ghanaian drumming was very influential in a lot of his works, particularly his earlier works. The piece Drumming, a hugely important piece for him, was a result of the time he spent in Ghana studying Ewe music and a lot of the musical ideas from that time invigorated his work from that point on. He was very much influenced by jazz too – certainly John Coltrane is somebody he cites as a big influence, from a harmonic perspective. John Coltrane’s language is infused in Reich’s music, but so is medieval music, and the music of Bartok and Stravinsky, and all these different influences that filtered into him. His music was then put out into the world and there are so many contemporary classical composers and performers who have taken a huge inspiration from Reich. People in the pop world, the rock world, the electronic world, all these genres, have also taken a huge amount of influence and aesthetic from his music.

For us, growing up when we did – all of us are in our mid-thirties – means that we’re probably the 1st generation of musicians who grew up with Steve Reich’s music being part of the accepted canon. When we were all in college, it never seemed strange that we would be in a university ensemble such as a percussion ensemble or a new music group that would be performing Steve Reich. It was something people knew about and there was nothing unusual about a group like us performing this kind of music. But, go back a decade or two and to hear of somebody studying the music of Reich as part of the university curriculum would have seemed very strange. Back then, Steve Reich and his own ensemble were the main people performing his music, and maybe other groups were starting to commission him for new works. But none of us in the Third Coast were part of Steve Reich’s ensemble, none of us learned the music directly from him. And that feels like a very special moment. Steve Reich managed to make that leap that many composers want to make. The goal is to get to a point where the music lives independently of them, where it is played beyond the composer’s direct involvement and beyond their own generation. Steve Reich is in that place and we feel like we are part of that process. We’re the 2nd or possibly even 3rd generation of people who play his music. We studied his music with people who learned it from Reich but we didn’t have a direct connection with him until we released this album and were in touch with him about it, which has been a big honor. And maybe the most humbling thing about the whole experience is that we were lucky to have him send us his feedback about the album. We got a really nice note from him around the time the album came out; it was clear that he was sitting down and listening to the album and writing out his thoughts as he went. He had so many really positive and thoughtful things to say about it. It was very touching for us to know that he, on the one hand, approved of it and on the other hand, recognized that there were things about it that were a bit different from the performances that he had directly overseen or ways that he had heard it performed before. And that was a special experience for all of us.

Third Coast Percussion and Ravi Coltrane perform on the 5
9th Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony on Feb. 12 in Los Angeles
Rich Polk/WireImage.com

The Versatility of a Percussionist

When I was in the later part of my university and conservatory training and the earlier part of my career, I was doing a mixture of teaching and performing with orchestras and then Third Coast Percussion emerged. Each of these activities informed the others in different ways. I was “on the circuit” as we say, for auditions, auditioning for the handful of openings in the US each year, flying around, preparing my excerpts and going in and trying to show my best in 5-to-8 minutes!

In the process, I learned so much and paid such an attention to detail and was so focused, both in the audition process and playing in the orchestras. It involved consistent execution and being a kind of a machine- with a sparkle of humanity mixed in there! There are 80 or so people in an orchestra and the whole performance depends on all of those people being ready to hit their part of that performance super solidly every time. Training for that is a very particular type of training.

This is always a good reminder because now, as a member of Third Coast Percussion, I am learning far more notes than I had ever learned before, whether for audition or for performing in an orchestra. Sometimes we’re working on multiple recital programs where we’re performing the whole time for an hour of solid music. So it’s always useful to remember that level of focus you were always trying to achieve, of every note getting your full attention and the preparation and being confident in your ability to execute it every time. To the point where you reach a comfort level and you are free to be expressive, without any doubt about how solid your execution will still be.

An Artist-Run Quartet

There’s something very different about being in a full-time percussion quartet, especially a percussion quartet that is an artist-run ensemble. We’re incredibly fortunate now that we have 2 additional staff members that are helping us run the organization. The four of us who are performers also run it and make artistic decisions, programming, what themes we’re going to explore, concert and educational work, recordings, utilizing new tech. There’s an element of that which is a lot of work, but it’s very exciting and very rewarding to be our own bosses. First and foremost, the 4 of us are its artistic directors, therefore we get to steer the ship in a way that orchestral players rarely get to. Even though that means we’re essentially working all the time and there are lot of things to juggle, balancing the artistic and administrative roles that we all carry, it’s really a dream to feel like we are in charge and we have the ability to mould and shape our own fate and decide what Third Coast Percussion is going to be!

Ensemble in Residence

We are the ensemble in residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. It is a wonderful facility! They do great work in presenting a huge variety of music, dance, and more. We’re in our 4th year of a 5-year residency there and it’s been really instrumental in the growth of our ensemble. They help us commission new works so that’s helping us to develop a lot of new repertoire. We have a great partnership with the university’s college of engineering which is maybe not the most obvious connection you’d imagine, but it has been so fruitful! There’s an amazing professor from the college of engineering named Jay Brockman who’s a music enthusiast in addition to an engineer and someone who is passionate about engaging with different fields and he had so many things he wanted to talk to us about, so many ideas. We’ve developed educational and community engagement activities with Jay and his students, particularly something we do every year at Notre Dame that we are also able to bring on tour with us: a presentation called Waves that explores the science behind sound and sound waves. It’s a presentation geared towards 10- or 11-year-olds and we make it flexible for slightly older or younger kids. It’s very interactive and involves an opportunity for the children to perform with us using small percussion instruments that Jay and his students designed and built using the technology available to them. So that’s been an amazing thing that has helped our group in refining the type of educational work and community engagement we are doing, to make it more meaningful and significant.

Michael Penn [education photo from Juneau]

Construction as a Performance

Also, the college of engineering has helped us with performance projects, so we had a really large work that the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center helped us to commission. In this project, a Chicago-based composer named Glenn Kotche, who is also a percussionist and rock drummer who has been collaborating with contemporary classical groups, composed this piece for us with the concept that he wanted us to be building instruments on stage as part of the performance! The performance consisted of the sight and sound of us constructing the instruments that we would then perform on. One person could be performing on an instrument while another would be building it! They were all made out of raw materials but then it became more and more complicated. It was going way beyond our own background and expertise. The college of engineering was amazing at helping to develop some of the methods of amplification for it: microphones built into table tops, built into alligator clips or meat thermometers, so that they were able to be attached to all sorts of different surfaces for amplification, but they also built all sorts of electronic instruments.

So these are things we never would have been able to do if it had just been the four of us in collaboration with Glenn. Without the engineering college, we never would have gotten anywhere near this level. So the final result of that is just above and beyond what we would have been capable of, so it brought us to different audiences and we’ve been able to share that particular project with audiences across America, in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and we also brought it to Europe, to Poland and the Netherlands. How cool to be able to share this project that is unique and personal to us, with all these different audiences! 

Third Coast Percussion performing a work by Glenn Kotche, Wild Sound


We are so enthusiastic about collaboration and the collaborative process in general. The engineering collaboration has been so fruitful and we have developed a kind of philosophy around collaboration even in the way we commission composers. When a composer is writing us a new work, we are very insistent that we have face time with them throughout the process. They meet with us in Chicago and they get to know our instruments and get to know us a little bit and our personalities and where we’re coming from. We have a program geared towards emerging composers that is focused on the collaborative process too. It’s not just an opportunity for them to write a piece for us but an opportunity and a requirement for them to come and meet with us 3 separate times and try things out and explore. We found, particularly with percussion instruments, it helps the final product to come out and allows the composer to take some more risks, to find out what’s going to work and what’s not before they build a whole piece on it.

Composing as a Team

The four of us in the group also do a lot of composing. We all write music and this process of collaborating with composers has given us a newer challenge which we have taken up more recently which is composing works together  - collaboratively composing a piece. We’ve got two different pieces so far that we’ve collaboratively composed as a quartet.  We’ve been exploring what that collaboration looks like: taking the traditional model of the composer with their pen and paper away, and getting more into the team effort and joint creation. It’s fun! It comes with a lot of challenges, though. It has given us a way of composing things that we would not have tried otherwise and frankly, it was a way to make sure that we’re all writing music. We all wish we could compose more, but if we commit to this as a group and there’s a deadline, it pushes things along and there’s no substitute for having multiple brains working together to hash something out. The feedback process and the interactive and collaborative work that we do as a quartet (as with other composers) is really valuable in shaping the music. It’s good that we also get along really well as people, because we spend a lot of time together!

The Musical Life of Chicago

It’s a wonderful time in Chicago. Over the past 10 years or so, a wonderful contemporary classical music scene has emerged. People we knew in college or who grew up around the same time were out there, were wondering how to shape their career around their artistic ambitions. It’s turned into a really exciting, inspiring, nice warm community. People are very supportive of each other and very excited about all the work that’s going on. We’ve been really fortunate to collaborate with these groups like Eighth Blackbird who have been at this a few years longer than us and are further along in their career. We knew them before we had even formed this ensemble. We had met them at Northwestern, and they were friends and also important mentors around the time we were getting this group started. It was valuable to sit down with some of the members of Eighth Blackbird at that stage. It’s nice to know that everybody is so supportive of each other.

Spektral Quartet are our peers and we had some great opportunities to perform with them recently. We played a great piece by Augusta Read Thomas which we performed at the Ear Taxi festival. They’re long-time friends and it was great to work with them to perform that piece. We were nominated for the same category in the Grammys, as was Lincoln trio, another Chicago group, and that’s a great sign of strong representation of Chicago! So it’s pretty cool to see Chicago represented so well and getting the attention on a national and international sphere. The music community is so wonderful and it’s very fertile soil. Also the theatre and dance communities here are amazing.

In the Near Future….

For the next couple of months we’ll be on the road a lot, practically in a different state every week. We’ll be performing different programs that are a mix of standard repertoire and works that members of the group have composed, one of these new works that we composed together, and some big commissioned works. We have one piece by the fantastic composer Donnacha Dennehy which we premiered last season. A lot of that touring also involves educational work at universities and arts centers around the country. We’re leading a performance of John Luther Adams’s big outdoor piece Inuksuit for many many percussionists in Arkansas.

We’ve got a big work premiering next winter based on the theme of water and how people’s lives are affected by bodies of water and waterways. There’s a great children’s book that was called “Paddle to the Sea”, which was made into a film in the 1960s, so we collaboratively composed a new soundtrack to this that will be performed live with a screening of the film. That project also includes some music by Jacob Druckman and Philip Glass. We have been studying Shona mbira music from Zimbabwe, and will be performing a piece about water spirits called Chigwaya, which we learned from a great Zimbabwean musician Musekiwa Chingodza, also as part of the Paddle to the Sea project.

Third Coast Percussion's Rob Dillon, in conversation with Rachel Deloughry

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