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Third Coast Percussion's borderless music finds inspiration in fleet-footed beats

Third Coast Percussion's new album, <em>Perspectives</em>, is the group's most accessible.
Saverio Truglia
/
Courtesy of the artists
Third Coast Percussion's new album, <em>Perspectives</em>, is the group's most accessible.

The style of electronic music and dance known as footwork might appear a strange bedfellow to classical music, but the Grammy-winning group Third Coast Percussion embraces the fleet-footed sound on Perspectives, a new album that pushes the notion of a percussion ensemble into fresh territory.

Footwork is the hyper-beat music born in Chicago's underground dance competitions and house parties in the late 1990s. On Third Coast Percussion's album, the style undergoes a mesmerizing transformation in a seven-movement suite called Perspective.

The music, which often clocks at 150 beats per minute or more, is by Jerrilynn Patton, a footwork fan who began slicing up her own electronic beats at her parent's home in Gary, Ind. She was working in a nearby steel mill when Dark Energy, her debut album, won her critical acclaim in 2015 — although she says she's tired of journalists trotting out the story.

Going by Jlin, the electronic artist has absorbed footwork, but turned it inside out for her collaboration with Third Coast Percussion. She did not score the work on manuscript paper, but instead brought her myriad layers of audio stems to the Third Coast musicians and together they fashioned a version that could be performed on over 30 instruments.

On "Derivative," metal bowls filled with water and struck by mallets help lay down a woozy, head-bopping groove, along with bongos, a bamboo "devil chaser," various gongs, woodblocks and car parts.

Another unconventional partnership on the album finds Third Coast Percussion composing music with another band, the duo Flutronix, comprised of flutists Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull. Their piece, Rubix, features punchy flutes dancing over a chilled out vibraphone, and foggy episodes where marimba, whirly tube and bowed flexatone provide an evocative backdrop of light and shadow.

There's one more combination on Perspectives that may surprise you, and it comes courtesy of Danny Elfman. You may know him as the front man for the peculiar '80s rock band Oingo Boingo, or better yet by his nearly 100 film scores, for movies like Edward Scissorhands and Good Will Hunting. For the Third Coast musicians, he composed a four-movement piece simply called Percussion Quartet. Unlike a lot of academic music for percussion ensembles, Elfman makes his quartet sing sweetly, leaning heavily on the warm sounds of the marimba interlocking with tinkling tubular chimes and pitched metal pipes.

It says a lot about this group's commitment to brand new music when the oldest piece on the album is from 1988. Philip Glass' Metamorphosis No. 1, originally for solo piano, undergoes an expansive, serene renovation. At one point the gentle, see-sawing theme is taken up by a melodica, and later sparkles with a flurry of glockenspiel and crotales.

Third Coast Percussion, with albums like Perspectives, continues to push percussion in new directions, blurring musical boundaries and beguiling new listeners.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 18, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said that the concept of percussionists playing as an ensemble, outside a symphony orchestra, is less than 100 years old. In fact, around the world, cultures have made such music since ancient times, but in Western classical music, percussion ensembles began less than 100 years ago.