Third Coast Percussion drumming up excitement at UChicago

A typical music performance might elicit applause; musicians venturing further might invite limited audience involvement. But the four players in Third Coast Percussion, who returned this fall for another residency at UChicago, have jumped several mighty steps ahead.

Not only have they picked an unlikely theme for their instrumental shows—politics—but they’ve also worked hard to get students involved in their showcase performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 1 at Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.

“We’re a chamber music ensemble, and sometimes that creates a big barrier between the audience and performers,” said David Skidmore, who co-founded Third Coast nine years ago. “We’re always working to break that down. We look at politics as a way to inspire new avenues for our music—and give more people an entry point into what we’re playing.”

Third Coast Percussion’s residency is sponsored by the University of Chicago Presents, which brought Third Coast back after a wildly successful February residency. “They’re wonderful communicators, generous with the audience, great at connecting and have a strong stage presence,” said Amy Iwano, the organization’s executive director.

Add “daring” to that list. In less-capable hands, there’s always the risk that non-musical media folded into a concert can sound self-indulgent or contrived. But Iwano said Third Coast mixes creativity and craft so well, the upcoming shows have created palpable excitement.

Part of the anticipation results from how Third Coast wowed the Hyde Park campus just eight months ago. As they contributed to UChicago’s “Envisioning China” festival, they played the Smart Museum, staged a show in a student dorm, worked with UChicago’s Lab School, and joined Sunday services at Rockefeller Chapel. That’s about as varied a string of venues as any quartet can hit in a short span.

Where music and politics connect and collide

This time around, Third Coast will return to Rockefeller for the 11 a.m. Sunday service on Oct. 26. There they’ll perform excerpts from David T. Little’s Haunt of the Last Nightfall, a work the group commissioned and will play in full as the centerpiece of the Logan Center show.

Little, who turns 36 the day before the Rockefeller appearance, is a New York-based composer who earned his PhD exploring the intersection of music and politics. Haunt of the Last Nightfall was inspired by the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador, in 1981. First reported by Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and later followed up by Mark Danner in The New Yorker, the tragedy took more than 800 lives. Danner’s dogged reporting inspired Little’s work.

“David had never heard of El Mozote before and how the whole event had been covered up,” Skidmore said. “It really haunted him, and so we looked at playing David’s piece.” On the day of the show, Logan visitors also can view the work of Susan Meiselas, one of the first photographers to reach El Mozote after the massacre. Afterwards, Little will join Third Coast for a post-concert talk.

Another selection has unlikely roots. John Cage’s Credo in US was written in 1942, at the apex of World War II patriotism. “Cage wrote this piece in response to that,” Skidmore said. “You hear tin cans, radios and electronic buzzers; one of the members of our group plays gospel piano and what Cage called ‘cowboy tunes.’ There are many times where one voice interrupts another, and it ends up being fun.” A radio also will be turned on randomly, making it impossible to predict how the satirical composition will tilt in this live performance.

The role of UChicago students in the Nov. 1 show at the Logan Center dates to Orientation Week, when undergraduate and graduate students read excerpts from the letters of Sam Melville. A political dissident housed at Attica Prison, Melville was shot and killed during the 1971 riots there. Recordings of the student narrations will embellish Third Coast’s performance of Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together, a driving work of musical moto perpetuo.

As for being back on campus and working with University of Chicago Presents, the Third Coast Percussion members are happy to be engaged in the UChicago community. “It’s been fantastic,” Skidmore said. “The U is very, very interested in connections made across various disciplines. We love interacting with such a wide range of students and faculty, so it’s a really strong relationship we’ve begun to develop.”

A human rights panel discussion will take place at 3:30 p.m. in Room 801 at the Logan Center on Nov. 1. The panelists will discuss the topic: “Lessons from El Mozote: Violence and Human Rights in the 1980s and Today.”

Moderated by Susan Gzesh, executive director of the University of Chicago Pozen Family Center for Human Rights and senior lecturer in the College, the panelists are Oscar Chacon, president of the National Alliance of Latin American & Caribbean Communities; Joaquin Chavez, assistant professor of history, University of Illinois at Chicago; Eric Stover, faculty director of the human rights center and adjunct professor of law and public health, University of California, Berkeley.

Tickets for the Third Coast Percussion’s Nov. 1 show at the Logan Center for the Arts are $25, $5 for students with a valid ID. The Rockefeller Chapel performance on Oct. 26 is free. For more information, call (773) 702-2787 or visit