Third Coast Percussion’s “Reaction Yield” Triumphs in Chicago!

Last year, SoSCC has commissioned Reaction Yield, an innovative work about synthetic organic and medicinal chemistry to be composed and performed by Third Coast Percussion in association with the exciting Ear Taxi New Music Festival in Chicago from October 5-10, 2016. Reaction Yield draws the analogy between the creation of a new composition of music from motif building blocks of tones, aural colors, rhythms, dynamics, and tempi with the process of creating a new composition of matter using a chemical catalog of molecules and a synthetic strategy.

This was the very first tcpgdp-eartaxi-img2133collaborative composition by TCP performers David Skidmore, Rob Dillon, Sean Connors, and Peter Martin; while each had composed before, they had never collaboratively composed a piece.  This was indeed part of the commission – working together from common building blocks to jointly create a new composition. Please check out the workshopping video in June 2016 with Glenn preparing videos and stills of the four TCP composers  hard at work (and play!). More information will soon be posted.

Even more importantly, you can now read and see more about this premiere, which took place on Saturday evening, October 8, 2016 in the Harris Theatre in Chicago. The performance of Reaction Yield by Third Coast Percussion was acclaimed as a highlight of the Ear Taxi New Music Festival !

One excerpt was entitled: “Weekend Ear Taxi Festival events include several winning premieres”, Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2016, By John von Rhein. (Chicago Tribune review):

“The marvelous Third Coast Percussion foursome began its segment with the world premiere of a jointly composed piece, “Reaction Yield,” inspired by modern science and deriving its haunting power from intricate rhythmic ostinatos that draw on a kaleidoscopic array of shifting percussion colors.”

An even more exciting review was entitled: “Third Coast Percussion provides an Ear Taxi highlight with jointly composed premiere”, Chicago Classical Review, Sun Oct 09, 2016 at 2:30 pm, by Tim Sawyier. Chicago Classical Music Review.

“Day four of Chicago’s inaugural Ear Taxi Festival came to a close Saturday night on the main stage of the Harris Theater with a program sponsored by the University of Chicago. After a New Music marathon at Preston Bradley Hall and performances at the Harris’ Cube Space earlier in the day, the evening showcase sustained the momentum of Ear Taxi’s unprecedented presentation of new and recent works with a program that included three world premieres, a Chicago premiere, and two works for berimbau sextet.

The program opened with Third Coast Percussion giving the world premiere of its own Reaction Yield. While all four TCP members—Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—compose their own music, this is the first work they have written together collaboratively. Commissioned by the Glenn D. Prestwich and the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club, which subsidizes pieces that fuse music and science, Reaction Yield was far and away the evening’s highlight.

While the work is divided into four connected movements, Dillon in his prefatory remarks was emphatic that no member was solely responsible for any one segment. A delicate pulsing suffuses and unifies the whole work, while the individual sections are discernible by changes in instrumentation. Particularly memorable was an interlude calling for four triangles of different pitches combined with glockenspiels, which generated an ethereal rhythmic tintinnabulation. Three members also performed on amplified kalimbas (thumb harps) for an extended period creating a hypnotic, meditative atmosphere. One hopes that this will be the first of many collaborative compositions from Third Coast.”

The article includes a photograph entitled: Third Coast Percussion gave the world premiere of “Reaction Yield” Saturday night at the Ear Taxi Festival. Photo: Nicholas Yasillo.

The performance was recorded for broadcast on WFMT and the European Broadcasting group. You may listen to the premiere in the link below!


SOSCC Interviews Composer Nico Muhly and Videographer Josh Higgason

Pre-concert interview from December 5, 2015 featuring Nico Muhly & Josh Higgason with Glenn Prestwich, representing the Sounds of Science Commissioning Club (SOSCC)

SOSCC: Nico, in the program notes for Control, you describe it as “five episodes describing elements of Utah’s natural environment and how people interact with it.” In a minute, I’ll ask you about each movement, but first can you give us the big picture, and how the composition came to be?

Nico: The Utah Symphony gave me a “dream commission:” write a piece about Utah and join us for our tour of five national parks in Utah. I said, “Sign me up”; I learned that Utah has incredibly diverse landscapes, like twenty different universes of visualization. Also, Control was written to give Maestro Thierry Fischer a lot of latitude and flexibility for interpretation, for play in the musical space, for balance, to highlight the talents of his newly acquired musicians’ talents, and to foster interfamilial interactions among instrumental siblings. In this way, he creates moments of chamber music within a symphonic landscape.

SOSCC: You told me earlier about the importance of the “back of the orchestra” as agents of change. What did you mean and how can we look and listen for this?

Nico: In general my music, like geology, is layered and contrasting, e.g., fast vs. slow, like water moving over rocks formerly shaped by moving water. In a musical sense, the brass and percussion create strong vertical chordal columns, contrasting with the fluid horizontal movement of the woodwinds and strings. It’s like plate tectonics occurring under bumblebees.

SOSCC. Another bit of science, and a question: it turns out that calcite or limestone, is the glue that cements sand, silt, and mud to make rocks under pressure. What is the musical glue that holds this work together?

Nico: It has a lot to do with repetition, like water following a course and carving a new course for itself. Repetition and also interruption; the process turns 180 degrees when something awful happens. The orchestra sort of forces a static thing into a new, pressurized situation.

SOSCC: So, that’s interesting. For me – a scientist who loves music – I understand the landscapes of Southern Utah in terms of four main forces: geology, meteorology, chemistry, and biology. Uplift and erosion shape the land, and chemistry and biology create its color and texture. From your point of view as a composer, how can science and music inform each other?

 Nico: Hearing you describe this, it’s very similar to how I describe music; we are using the same words. I really like these textures, these vertical moments of simultaneous information and horizontal moments providing directional flow. This is how the land works, and one of the advantages that we have tonight is the video instillation that makes visual many of these moments. Like in the fifth movement, we have rivers in St. George choked with red dirt.

Josh: Yes, there was a moment with a rainstorm during the film, with the color of river dark red and surreal and you can see and here the color and texture together.

Nico: And musically you can be very mathematical about how things relate with little patterns that flow. Then, when the river turns red in sort of a Ten Commandments moment, then you want big drums and the tympani.

SOSCC: Josh, can you tell us the importance of video in the live experience of a world premiere such as that we’ll experience tonight. How does it differ from films for the silver screen? Can you describe to us how you and Nico co-developed the overall performance art piece?

Josh: Video and music synergize each other in a live performance, which is completely unlike writing for a movie screen. This is not a film that commands your attention. Often it is intended to push your attention back into the orchestra, and have your attention move around to all the exciting things happening. Here, Nico wanted many fewer cuts, and longer pans to focus the audience’s attention to bows and the horns and all the hitting and moving on stage. This creates the maximum tension and enhances the musical experience, by for example big and slow vs. intimate and fast.

SOSCC: Josh, How did you choose the unusual sail-like fabric for the projection surface?

Josh: We’ve been trained to lean back and watch a big rectangular screen or big boxes, as passive observers. These swags or mountains of cloth asks the audience to lean forward, become actively involved with the action on stage both as listeners and observers. Your energy helps the performers stay fully engaged. The live music and video together provide an unparalleled total experience with action, tension, and drama that is unavailable in a recording.

SOSCC: Nico, now tell us a little about each of the movements and what the audience should listen for. The first movement (Landforms), like geology, is layered. This makes scientific sense to me also: The geologic movement is very slow, but sped up becomes a fluid process. We see a hoodoo or ridgeline or layers of rocks as static and fixed, yet this is the result of many years of processing frozen in time. It seems that music can accomplish a sort of time-lapse effect superimposing the static grandeur with rapid movement. Can you describe how or where we can listen for these effects in Landforms, particularly in terms of the contrast of the grandeur of complex low brass chords with insects and bird movements in the upper voices, solo oboe, and the compelling and urgent trio of pitched percussion.

Nico: As I said before, there are repeated cycles of chords. The goal is a large stack of vertical objects, like a hoodoo is a big vertical pile, a Looney-Tunes massive thing. The idea is you create that with a million moving parts, turning around each other, really an illusion of solidity. The tension is between things that are moving very very fast and things that don’t move at all. The percussion trio is riverish, but more about rocks than water. For me, that is marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone playing with very dry sticks. Timbre can suggest certain structures.

SOSCC: In the second movement (Mountain), I think of the Wasatch, big and majestic, but you’ve chosen a softer, warmer vision. First, can you explain the use of ricochet on the strings – how does the ricochet connect with mountain?

Nico: The strings are very still; however, the last player in each section, like the 17th first violin, have pop-out solo roles, by dropping their bows onto the strings to create an effect of insect-like buzzing like cicadas or crickets. Usually, the mountains are skied on, but what about in the summer?

Josh: Yes, we shot these at Park City in the summer. Fields, sculpted slopes, and shot ends on a snow-maker that is a strange surprise and unexpected weird landscape feature.

SOSCC: In the third movement (Beehive), the arrival of pioneers leads effectively to a “change of control”. This happens in all scientific disciplines. We control conditions in an experiment, but we cannot control fundamental processes or outcomes. Can you tell us about the musical gestures that convey this dichotomy of control in your piece?

Nico: I’m interested in the history of Utah, which is so tied up with industriousness and making an inhospitable climate more hospitable. Man has manipulated the land and used it to advantage and make it bountiful, like the collective grain storage and early settlers working together. More recently, Utah became a tech hub – the first telegram, the first fiber optic hub. The land is something with which one dances. Technology was a driver of western expansion. This is a sort of scherzo movement, lots of activity and fun, but it ends in a terrifying way, with a feeling that we have lost control. Indeed, Control captures the basic tension of man vs. landscape; we can shift and alter the landscape in the short term, but ultimately nature regains control.

SOSCC: Nico, tell us about the juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal forms in the 4th movement (Petroglyph & Tobacco), from the simultaneous chordal information for the petroglyph cliffs contrasted with the flow of the trombone line. I found this fascinating and very moving.

Nico: What I did, I wrote this gigantic vertical thing with everyone playing large chords at the same time (the cliff faces), and under the trombone spells out a Ute tune song, which was not passed down culturally but used in interacting with settlers when begging for tobacco. That conflict of thinking something is old, is mirrored by the pre-Columbian petroglyphs juxtaposed with the more recent graffiti of people in the 1920s carving in the rocks. People are more horizontal and more baffling, and this generates different complex lines over the verticals. I’ve modified the tune, throwing it off kilter by adding or skipping beats. Landscapes have broken rules too, thanks to both external forces of man as well as of nature. Yes, humans leave their impact on environment, but the environment leaves its impact on humans.

SOSCC: In the last movement (Red Dirt) the red dirt is also chemically meaningful. The red particles are in suspensions (muddy rivers) or bind to surfaces and fabrics. But to me, red dirt is a sign of being alive – our blood contains an iron-containing protein (hemoglobin) and binds oxygen. Oxygen is why the rocks are red, and oxygen is the key to our life – our blood protein hemoglobin has an iron atom that binds oxygen and makes it red. Oxygen gives us life and ultimately rusts us out. Tell us more about your reaction to red dirt. Finally, in Red Dirt, you employ the géophone, a favorite instrument of Maestro Fischer. Tell us about the importance of this instrument to you and to the piece.

Nico: Complicated prompt but I’m going to do it! I’m from Vermont and I have seen pictures of red, but seeing it in real life is absolutely shocking. It’s not a Yankee red, like a grey or slate. This is bright emergency red, vivid, like blood. I took a hike in St. George, and cleaned up and after driving to Salt Lake, flying to London, taking a getting to my friends apartment, and preparing to shower when a huge cloud of red dust just exploded all over his entryway. It’s not forgettable. Red dust is metaphorically and literally the lifeblood of Utah. Humans think they take control by leaving their mark, carving names into rock as in the fourth movement, but then red dirt symbolizes the persistence of environment on people. It gets everywhere, like glitter – anyplace you take it, you can’t get rid of it; it persists and becomes part of the new place.

 Look down to the front left in orchestra to see the géophone, which is a frame drum filled with pellets (green in the photo below) symbolizing earth. The géophone was also used by French composer Olivier Messaien in From Canyon to the Stars, which was also about Utah’s red rock country. It was about stylizing the sounds of the earth and making them beautiful. This instrument is a particular favorite of Thierry Fischer, thus providing another critical connection for the source of inspiration.

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L to R: Glenn Prestwich, Nico Muhly, Thierry Fischer, and  Josh Higgason (and interim CEO Pat Richards in background)



Muhly’s Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) Premieres at Abravanel Hall

In Sounds of Science Commissioning Club’s second commission with the Utah Symphony, Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) by Nico Muhly premiered in Abravanel Hall on December 4 and 5, 2015

Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra), composed by Nico Muhly and with videography by Josh Higgason, is a sequence of five episodes describing, in some way, an element of Utah’s natural environment as well as the ways in which humans interact with it. This post describes the piece and several rehearsal snippets. For additional information, please see the KSL Channel 5 News piece, as well as the next blog post highlighting the preconcert interviews. This is the third of three Utah Symphony Commissions by award-winning, living American composers. A CD with Control by Nico Muhly,  Eos by Augusta Read Thomas and Switch by Andrew Norman will be released on 75th anniversary CD in March 2016. Two of these – Switch and Control – were co-commissioned by SoSCC!

Program Notes from the Original Score

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The 1st part (Landforms) begins with a texture of strings, interrupted by forceful chords. A solo oboe works slowly on top of this process, and is itself interrupted by a progression of aggressive chords that slowly ascend, presented at two different (but close enough to rub together) speeds. These ascending forms become more seismically unstable, and a trio of pitched percussion (xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone) creates a more mathematical grid; here, as in many other places in Control, I tried to reference, however obliquely, the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), whose visionary work Des Canyons aux Étoiles (1972) deals with Utah’s landscapes and the spiritual possibilities found therein. The section ends as it began, but somehow changed, observed by the pitched percussion and subtly transformed.


The 2nd part (Mountain) imagines a mountain in the summer, with various insect-like punctuations from the winds, and a heavily fragmented string section, with small groups of players and soloists splitting from the crowd. A solo viola and solo violin spin simple melodies under and over this texture, sometimes as plain as a single note displaced over all possible octaves. We end with a slightly ominous tuba and piano bass line suggesting, perhaps, that there are other uses for mountains that purely organic ones.


Part 3 (Beehive) deals with Utah’s history of technological innovation being used to control the landscape. I tried, in various places, to use the orchestra to convey what must have been the pioneers’ shok at the wild shapes and colors of the landscape; here, that landscape is fully gridded, plotted, and divided and put to agricultural use. The key here is a productive busyness: Utah claims one of the first telegrams ever sent, and, more recently, some of the first fiber internet connections; industriousness is built into the pioneer wagons, the early plows, collective grain storage, charity, education, missionary work, and an ever-changing relationship to technology. Morse-code-like rhythms dominate the first half of this movement, and suddenly, a trio of trumpets take over, echoed by a trio off oboes, then flutes, then various chimes and bells. We end with a solo cello above a busy grid of triangles and woodblock.

Petroglyph and Tobacco

Part 4 (Petroglyph and Tobacco) begins with the simple, aggressive rhythms of stone-carving, hocketed between different families of the orchestra. Eventually, a melody emerges, a Ute song. It is too easy to project a romantic ancientness to the music of Native Americans; in this case, the song was used when begging for tobacco: post-European-contact evidence for modern malleability of Native American cultural traditions. Similarly, next to a petroglyph, we see modern graffiti, or graffiti from 90 years ago (Rulon Rushton, 1929, making his mark on history). The landscape and its inhabitants are in a constant dialogue.

Red Dirt

Part 5 (Red Dirt). I’ve spent a good deal of time in the St George area in southern Utah, and one of the most striking elements of the landscape is the outrageous red color everywhere; it’s visually inescapable. More notable, though, was the way the red dust permeated my hair, my clothes, my shoes, and the carpet in my motel. I flew to London the day after a long hike, and when I took off my socks, a confetti of red dust landed on the ground: the Utah landscape had followed me halfway around the world. We can control the landscape, but it has a way of reminding us of its permanence. This section turns a simple chord progression into clouds, shifting forms, and made of many moving parts.

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Pre-Concert Interview: Switch is a Game of Control

On the evenings of November 6 and 7, 2015, Glenn Prestwich of Sounds of Science Commissioning Club (SOSCC), interviewed Switch composer Andrew Norman. The following are edited excerpts from that interview.

SOSCC: Andrew, can you describe the concept behind Switch, which you describe in the notes as “a game of control”. Tell us more about this concept and how your music explores it.

Andrew: Each percussion instrument is a switch that controls other instruments in specific ways, making them play louder or softer, higher or lower, freezing them in place, and setting them in motion again. The soloist, dropped into this complex contraption of causes and effect, like the unwitting protagonist of a video game, must figure out the rules of this universe on the fly, all while trying to avoid the rewind-inducing missteps that prevent their progress from one side of the stage to the other.

SOSCC: So, that’s interesting. For me, the concept of a switch is more biochemical. All of our physiology is controlled by molecular switches, and control in space and time is essential for our bodies to function properly. In scientific terms, we think of switches as causes with physiological effects. Can you talk to us about cause and effect in this piece?

Andrew: Absolutely. It is 100% about cause and effect. The soloists triggers sounds in an X implies Y fashion, but in Switch it is different than cause and effect in traditional classical music. There, harmony and form provide expectations and achieve balance. Tominant resolves to tonic, exposition of theme leads to development and recapitulation. In contrast, Switch becomes its own universe with its own unique set of rules. Some can be readily heard, some not, but the piece visually and aurally is a self-contained entity.

SOSCC: Andrew, you’ve described the slapsticks as one of the “switches”, the “cosmic channel changers”. Can you explain your thinking?

Andrew: Instead of being broken into traditional movements, Switch exists as a system of different “channels” each with its own unique sound world, that are flipped between by the playful (and devious) snaps of the channel-surfing slapsticks at the back of the stage.

SOSCC: Can you elaborate about how you have created a universe that has a set of rules? What are those some of those rules?

Andrew: For example, the slapsticks are “cosmic channel changers.” There are simultaneous stories always in progress underneath the surface, and the slapstick switches from one story to a new story, picking up in the middle of the story. The feeling is one of tension, anticipating next interruption that may last a few measures, a few seconds, or a few minutes before the story changes again

SOSCC: Another analogy that you have used is that of a pinball game, with Colin actually identifying himself as the pinball. Tell us about how we will see and hear this tonight.

Andrew: Live performances, in this case a world premiere, emphasizes visual experience and physicality of the performance. The audience is the first to see as well as first to hear, the premiere. Emphasize the living nature – a play not a movie – of the piece. Be sure to watch the choreography of the soloist, Colin Currie, as he attempts to make it across the stage from his running entry from stage L to his quiet, slow disappearance from stage R. During the process whenever the strings do a massive 2-measure gliss, that’s a reset button that requires him to “start over”. Thus, he feels like he’s the pinball in an orchestral pinball machine.

SOSCC: For myself, I actually connected to this piece through a scientific analogy, which you and I discussed a few days ago. If the orchestra is the body, then the sections of the orchestra are tissues, and the individual players are cells. In this context, the soloist is the brain and central nervous system, both in control yet under the control of the body’s tissues and cells. Moreover, the three percussionists in the back of the orchestra act in communicating between the tissues and the brain, sort of the peripheral nervous system.

Andrew: That makes total sense to me, because the orchestra is a living, dynamic organism with a great degree of physicality and movement that gives artistic interest to the live performance.

SOSCC: You’ve said that percussion is both the ultimate challenge and the true essence of music. What do you mean by that?

Andrew: Percussion is the ultimate in interpretating a bizarre and often piece-unique lexicon of symbols and converting them into sound and music. It requires the percussionist to go deeper into the nature of the sound than simply what the symbology alone provides. Moreover, percussion has no standard notation; it’s like rearranging the keys on a piano for each piece. Indeed, in this piece and others I’ve composed, I expand the lexicography for the strings, expanding with new symbols to evoke more percussive and more extended types of sounds from the instruments.

SOSCC: Tell us about “sampling,” and how the main melody is fragmented, like a jigsaw puzzle that Colin is trying to use his control to reassemble.

Andrew: The concept here is like that of “sampling” – a common technique in hip-hop and other musical modalities from baroque to jazz to pop. Small motifs or bits are extracted out of an established, recorded piece and built into a new work by manipulating the extracted motifs. In Switch, this occurs throughout, but you are always feeling dropped into the middle of something still being assembled.

SOSCC: Any final comments?

Andrew: Abstract or absolute music is a model for how my composer’s brain works. The music exists in time but in its abstract form in my mind; there are many random, unpredictable connection and tangents, distractions, getting stuck, etc. Ultimately, I convert this abstract form into notation that musicians can then recreate and reinterpret into a physically exciting musical performance that communicates my concepts to the audience.

Switch – A Game of Control – Premieres in Salt Lake

From the Original Score, by Andrew Norman:

“Switch is a game of control. Each percussion instrument is a switch that controls other instruments in specific ways, making them play louder or softer, higher or lower, freezing them in place, and setting them in motion again. The soloist, dropped into this complex contraption of causes and effect, like the unwitting protagonist of a video game, must figure out the rules of this universe on the fly, all while trying to avoid the rewind-inducing missteps that prevent their progress from one side of the stage to the other. Continue reading

Emergence is a triumph in Logan!

Blog posting for Crossroads: Emergence

From SoSCC founder, Glenn Prestwich:

Although the music had already been commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet (FSQ) and composed by Libby Larsen, the project sounded like an ideal opportunity for the newly-formed SoSCC to become part of a quintessential embodiment of our mission – the expression of science through music, and creating a collaboration between science and the performing arts. To this end, I attended the February 2015 premiere of Libby Larsen’s music by the FSQ, and began a dialogue with Rob and the FSQ about how SoSCC could best participate. In the end, our sponsorship of Emergence took the form of support for videographer Conor Provenzano, whose video projections were presented with actor Robert Scott Smith and the FSQ playing the five-movement string quartet. Since the video was an integral part of the performance art piece, we were recognized in the program in the following manner: Continue reading

Music & Science in the News

To all our readers:

Starting this summer, I will be calling attention weekly to publications, posts, websites, editorials, and other places where music and science overlap. If you come across something that you’d like to share, please call it to my attention at Continue reading

Sounds of Science Launches Website

April 20, 2015 – Sounds of Science Commissioning Club launched its website today! See who is involved with the project. Check out our calendar of past and upcoming events. Stay tuned for the latest updates on SoSCC sponsorships, collaborative commissions, and original commissions on scientific subjects.

We’ll describe progress on projects underway, projects funded, composers and performers involved with SoSCC, and our expanding plans for commissions for the next 2-5 years.

Occasional blogs will highlight other connections between music and science in the popular press, the musical community, and the scientific literature.