Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco Performances concluded the first round of its PIVOT concerts with a recital by Third Coast Percussion. The Chicago-based performers were the quartet of percussionists, Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. The group was formed in 2004, but Dillon and Skidmore are the only founding members remaining. (One of the other founders was Jacob Nissley, currently Principal Percussion for the San Francisco Symphony.)
The program prepared for last night was conceived, at least in part, to serve as a “release tour” for Third Coast Percussion’s debut album. Produced by Cedille Records, the album went into circulation at the beginning of this year, thus acknowledging the landmark status of this year. As many who read this site probably know by now, 2016 is the year in which Steve Reich will celebrate (on October 3) his 80th birthday. So Third Coast Percussion had the honor of getting the festivities off to a start in January with the release of a thoroughly engaging all-Reich album.
Last night’s selection from this album was “Music for Pieces of Wood.” Composed in 1973, this was the earliest piece on the recording and the longest single track. True to its title, each of the performers had a pair of wooden blocks and tapped one against the other. Each pair had a distinctively different pitch, which almost conveyed the impression that the music was like a four-part madrigal, an impression reinforced by well-calculated moments of thematic recurrence. Indeed, the interleaving of different rhythmic patterns could easily be taken as a percussion version of the thematic interleaving encountered in the madrigals of (for example) Claudio Monteverdi.
Still, even for those who may have been familiar with “Music for Pieces of Wood” through one or more recordings, last night was still a significant experience. With the addition of visual cues, the ear is better equipped to sort out the tightly-knit superpositions of the four rhythmic lines. Thus, what may strike the ear as little more than fascinating textures on a recording now reveals itself, through the eyes, as an intricately calculated study in counterpoint that reaches beyond Monteverdi to Johann Sebastian Bach.
These impressions are reinforced by the very act of performing. From a social point of view, one could appreciate how each performer was acutely aware of the activities of the others. Yet, for all of that intensity of focus, there was also an infrastructure of joyfulness to the comportment of those four bodies making the sounds. This was a vividly delightful reminder that Reich’s music has never been about the scrupulous calculations behind his rhythms. It has, instead, always been about the very act of making music and the pleasures associated with such acts.
The only real disappointment was that this accounted for only the first quarter-hour of a one-hour evening. The remainder of the program presented Glenn Kotche’s 2014 “Wild Sound.” As percussionist for Wilco, Kotche is trying to divide his time between the social world of the pop scene an the more “serious” (scare quotes intended) world in which attentive listening takes the highest priority. The program notes that Third Coast Percussion prepared claims that “Wild Sound” “fully embraces Cage’s philosophy that all the world’s sounds are music, and that the percussionist’s job is to bring all of those sounds to the stage.”
Sadly, this view of Cage is a tad too reductive. It would be fairer to say that Cage believed that music was in the ear of the listener, so to speak; and, as a corollary, one could have a “musical experience” through any auditory stimuli that the ear encounters. (Many of Cage’s works enhanced those auditory stimuli with visual stimuli; but listening was still the “core” activity.) Thus, as a latter-day take on Cage’s philosophy, “Wild Sound” comes dangerously close to a Fundamentalist reading of Scripture, which overloads the lexical significance of every word while letting the overall semantics evaporate into an incoherent ether.
Nevertheless, there were positive elements to the piece. Most interesting was that every instrument was created specially for performing this piece. The result is that the eye takes in performers experimenting with a prodigious variety of objects, not all of which “work” very well (Cage’s philosophy included accepting this possibility). There was also a sense that the piece was reasonably well-divided into separate sections. Unfortunately, one had to consult a Web page to find out what those sections were (wilderness, rural, industrial, and urban). As a result, the performance itself seemed always to teeter on a sharp edge with “serious play” on one side and “fatuous self-indulgence” on the other. Whatever magic Third Coast Percussion had woven to lure the attentive listener into their performance of “Music for Pieces of Wood” never quite worked for “Wild Sound;” leaving the inquisitive listener more than a little thankful when the piece finally concluded.