Third Coast Percussion co-founder David Skidmore took up trumpet in the fifth grade after watching a middle school band play the “Theme From Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“The melody was on trumpet,” he said by phone, “and I thought it was really cool. So I played trumpet, and the whole year I spent looking at the percussion section. And that is so much cooler (to me) than trumpet. The next year I begged my band director, and he let me switch to percussion.”
Skidmore has been banging, tapping, shaking, scraping, slapping and coercing sounds from percussion instruments and mundane worldly objects ever since.
The inherent coolness of which he speaks will be on full display as the Chicago-based quartet, which formed in 2005 and became the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame in 2013, performs at the Mondavi’s Vanderhoef Studio Theatre on Thursday, March 31, and Saturday, April 2.
The performances will include five commissioned pieces that are alternately exhilarating, meditative and convulsive, and from 5 to 45 minutes long. They feature familiar (marimbas, tom toms, cymbals) and custom-designed instruments, multimedia enhancement, three octaves of chromatically tuned prayer bowls, and rhythmic language inspired by Swedish band Meshuggah.
“We are much more close to the Kronos Quartet than a drum circle,” said Skidmore of his work with fellow members Robert Dillon, Sean Connors and Peter Martin. “We play composed music in the same way that a string or saxophone or wind quartet rehearses. People that come to our concert expecting to hear Blue Man Group, that’s not what they are going to hear. But if they like Blue Man Group, they should come check us out because they would probably like us, too.”
Wilco drummer and classically trained percussionist Glenn Kotche composed “Wild Sounds,” one of the two main pieces of the event. “His first part of the idea,” said Skidmore, “was, ‘I want to write you guys a piece where you are building instruments on stage that you then perform with, and building the instruments is part of the musical content of the piece.’ And we were like, ‘That sounds awesome.’ We have no idea how to do that. But luckily one of our closest collaborators on campus is the College of Engineering.”
The union of musical and scientific disciplines resulted in microphones embedded in two worktables, live choreographed construction of instruments, and use of Arduino technology boards. Videos and field recordings from Kotche’s world tours with Wilco provide a narrative arc.
“We start with raw materials building from scratch,” said Skidmore. “As the piece progresses, we have more time to create more complicated instruments, so it’s like a human evolution taking place in 45 minutes.”
The other lengthy piece of the concert, David Little’s “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” combines pre-recorded heavy metal sounds and live percussion. This emotional roller-coaster ride was inspired by journalist Mark Danner’s documentation of a village massacre in remote El Salvador in December 1981 by a U.S.-backed militia.
“The result is a really powerful, dramatic, harrowing piece of music,” said Skidmore, “not only of a specific event but also just an awareness that even in this day and age, when we feel like we know what’s going on in the world, not everything gets reported. And once we find out about it, what’s our responsibility to make people aware of that?
“I think the possibility of coming to these concerts,” he said, “is that you walk away hearing the world in a new way. With Glenn’s piece, sounds you would have spent your whole life taking for granted, all of a sudden you can listen to here in a new way. Like you walk in with one set of ears and you walk out with another. That would be the thing that would make us the happiest, if that was the experience of each audience member.”
Third Coast Percussion
What: Multimedia exploration of percussive sonic possibilities
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 31, and Saturday, April 2
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, Davis
Information: www.mondaviarts.org or www.thirdcoastpercussion.com