Grammy-Winning Chicago Ensemble Explores Possibilities of Percussion

Chicago is home to a Grammy-winning quartet of classically trained percussionists who can make music out of anything.

And whether they’re playing marimbas and cowbells – or toys and toothbrushes – they drum up a lot of attention. Third Coast Percussion is nominated for a Grammy for the fourth year in a row.

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“We’re based here in Chicago. We play lots of shows here, and we also tour all across the country and the world,” said David Skidmore, executive director of Third Coast Percussion. “We write some of our own music and we also have lots of great music written for us by some of the greatest people who are writing music today.”

That list includes Philip Glass, Missy Mazzoli and film composer Danny Elfman.

“We try and be what you’d expect from a percussion ensemble, and plenty of things that you could never have expected from a percussion ensemble,” Skidmore said.

“Gauntlet” is a new work that has the ensemble making music from a table full of toys and everyday items.

“That’s one of the great things about percussion. Any object in the entire world can be a percussion instrument if it makes a sound and you like it. We explore all those possibilities,” Skidmore said.

The group came together while studying at Northwestern University, and make their recordings in town for Chicago-based label Cedille Records.

“This is a full-time job and the four of us have been making music together for over 17 years, so there’s a freedom that comes with that,” Skidmore said.

Who plays what is not really an issue when any ensemble member can play anything.

“Because each of our pieces calls for completely different instrumentation, we’ll look at the piece and either say ‘I want to play this part or I want to play that part,’ or, what happens more often is that we just divide the parts up alphabetically by our last name,” he said.

The most common misconception about ensembles like Third Coast is that performances will consist of just drummers playing on drums, Skidmore said.

“We do that and love that, but melody is also a hugely important part of what we do, melody and harmony,” he added.

The cool thing about once you’ve opened your ears up is that any sound that’s interesting to you is important. And we hope that some people come to our concerts and leave listening to the world a little bit differently,” Skidmore said.

Third Coast Percussion performs Wednesday night at Gannon Concert Hall on the campus of DePaul University, 2300 N. Halsted St. They’ll perform three world premieres – including that work with toys and everyday objects.

Their most recent album, “Perspectives,” is up for two Grammys – Best Chamber Music by a Small Ensemble and Best Engineered Classical Record. The Grammy Awards are Feb 5.

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