Five blocks of wood, four thick dowels, and a mallet. If that sounds like the ingredients for a woodworking project from your 8th-grade shop class, you were not at Kilbourn Hall Tuesday night with Third Coast Percussion.
The four members of the group -- David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Conners -- were joined by Eastman Professor Michael Burritt for the most minimal of several minimalist pieces sprinkled throughout the concert. Burritt had mentored all of the group's members when he was teaching at Northwestern University and they were clearly delighted to be sharing the stage with him.
The piece, written by Steve Reich and aptly titled "Music for Pieces of Wood," was fascinating in its deceptive simplicity. The wood blocks, thick or thin and probably from various trees, had different timbres. The percussionists coaxed an amazing variety of sound (some of it quite melodic) from them.
This work, stripping the elements of percussion down to their most basic level, was emblematic of Third Coast Percussion's allure. All of the Chicago-based group's members are virtuoso musicians but it's their expansive view of percussion's possibilities that sets them apart. They certainly delighted the two-thirds-full audience last night at Kilbourn.
The following piece, "Apple Blossom" by Peter Garland, showcased another sort of minimalism. Each of the four musicians played with four mallets but instead of striking the two marimbas they shared, they touched the bars quickly but softly, forming one gigantic chord that metamorphosed gradually through the piece. The visual element of the soft white heads of the mallets hovering over the bars was as beautiful as the music.
For a group so enamored of minimalism, Third Coast Percussion sure brought a lot of stuff onto the stage. Aside from the two marimbas in a V formation, some standard drums, and a couple of small xylophone variations, there were, at different times, four large tables filled with objects that never would have suspected they were percussion instruments.
The simplest of these were three shallow wooden box-like structures used to play "Table Music" by Thierry De Mey. All manner of tapping, clapping, and scrapping created a rhythmic tour de force on the most basic of "instruments." Because of the graceful (and sometimes synchronized) movements of the percussionists, this piece, and much of the rest of the concert, became a ballet of sorts, involving intricate choreography.
The most complicated tableful of "instruments" was used to play "Shi" by Alexandre Lunsqui. In search of new sounds when composing the piece, Lunsqui had visited Chinatown and purchased an array of objects ranging from bamboo mats to barbeque grates. In keeping with the inventive nature of the group, the work was played mostly with chop sticks. But one of the piece's most vibrant sections consisted of group members sawing away on metal-rod violins with smaller rods of metal. This work contained no shortage of absurdity and bordered on a Marx Brothers routine.
The most beautiful composition of the night featured a table full of "prayer bowls," metal bowls varying in size. "Resounding Earth, Movement II: Prayer," by Augusta Read Thomas, written with Third Coast Percussion in mind, had a kind of ancient variation on the contemporary electronic loop pedal that is now commonly used to build multiple harmonies by musicians during performances.
The bowls could be struck like bells, but they had another more powerful property. When the head of a mallet was gently rolled along the top-edge, a haunting drone would gradually build. Several times in the piece these gorgeous sounds were summoned from the bowls and while they were resonating, subtly beautiful melodies were tapped out above them until they gradually faded away.