Can an hour-long album of something technically labeled “classical music” actually be the closest thing to musical theater’s tradition of an original cast recording?
It can in the case of last month’s release of one of the most exceptional new albums of any genre during the pandemic (move over, Taylor Swift!). It’s titled Archetypes and it’s by a Chicago-based, Grammy Award–winning quartet called Third Coast Percussion.
Archetypes is produced in collaboration with one of world music’s most notable duos, the Brazilian-American father-daughter team of Sergio Assad on the guitar and Clarice Assad on piano, bass guitar, and anything else she decides to play (or sing). Each of 12 tracks takes a persistent “archetype” from psychology, mythology, and ancient history — think Ruler, Jester, Hero, Innocent, Lover and so on — and draws a musical portrait of that archetype in a unique soundscape.
But Archetypes began as a live concert, almost a “show,” that mixes elements of a fully planned-out musical score with improvisations and even choreography largely directed by Clarice Assad. She had the inspiration of combining her Brazilian jazz chops with this quartet of percussionists when she first saw Third Coast Percussion in 2015 at Chicago’s distinctive Ear Taxi Festival.
The “Archetypes” concert featuring Third Coast Percussion and the Assads went on the road right at the beginning of 2020. You can imagine the implications of that timing. But when the six musicians retreated to the studio to record the tracks, they kept the idea of the staging and improvisation in mind, much like capturing a new piece of musical theater in a cast recording.
Still, there are two reasons I have to tell you this is “classical music.” The first is a matter that’s very relevant to Washington-area listeners. The album comes from Chicago-based Cedille Records, a classical but notably adventurous label founded and run by James Ginsburg, the son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The second reason is that the four members of Third Coast Percussion are conservatory graduates from Northwestern University who were originally trained as a percussion “chamber group,” analogous to a string quartet. Yours truly being a fellow Northwestern grad, I’m able to tell you that “Third Coast” means the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, although I understand that Gulf Coast residents from Florida to Texas may have a different claim on the term.
Still, if you walked into the beginning of the show, as captured at the beginning of the album, you’d probably first think you walked into a rock musical or pop concert. In the show, Clarice Assad had Third Coast’s David Skidmore go out onto the stage alone and do a 30-second pure riff on the drumset — much the way many rock concerts begin — before any of the other players even appeared. This device is copied for the ear in the first track of the album.
That first number of the show represents the first of 12 archetypes — the “Rebel.” “Clarice was picturing an actual rebellion that needs people,” David Skidmore told me in a recent telephone chat. “It needs someone to lead it off and others to follow and foment the energy that you would need to overthrow the order, whatever it is.” Remember that Skidmore is talking about an ancient archetype. He’s not actually advocating a revolution, as I knew from hearing him laugh through the end of that comment.
“As the groove kicks in, the instruments enter one at a time and lock in,” says Skidmore. Clarice Assad herself, in a recent Zoom chat with me, added: “You can’t do it alone. You have to have others follow you.” Her own entrance in the piece is on the piano — yes, with its 88 hammers hitting three strings apiece, the piano is technically a percussion instrument — and the real magic occurs when the piano sound mixes with one or more of the “mallet” instruments that all of the Third Coast Percussion members play.
Those are the vibraphones, marimbas, and xylophones that produce actual notes rather than simply the effects of drums and cymbals. A special moment comes nearly two minutes in when Clarice Assad actually starts singing wordlessly. In classical terms it’s a “vocalise” that swoops and bends notes and that eventually yields to her father, Sergio Assad, on the guitar, trading lines back and forth with the vibraphone and other instruments. A return of Clarice’s vocalise signals the climax of the “Rebel” archetype as all six of the musicians bring the number to a close.
Halfway through the album, a huge circus-like atmosphere invades the room with the “Jester” archetype. “This was actually the most challenging piece to record, because it was very much designed for live performance,” says Skidmore. “When we perform this piece live, Clarice does all kinds of call-and-response with the audience. She brings us up on stage one at a time and conducts us live on stage. So what we ended up doing [in the studio] was preserving what I think of as the jokes in the piece.”
That must have worked, because Skidmore says his three-year-old daughter is always demanding to hear the beginning of the piece, with the comical sound of a “mouth harp.” Perhaps you didn’t imagine trained musicians to be using these, but “Jester” also includes a slide whistle and a duck call, as well as one of Third Coast’s members, Robert Dillon, banging on a cast-iron skillet. There’s also a “Flexatone,” which is a small flexible metal sheet suspended in a wire frame that produces a sound immediately recognizable from classic cartoons.
“But it’s theatrical, almost like a frustrated conductor who cannot control his or her musicians,” laughs Clarice Assad, who “composed” the Jester archetype, even allowing for the improvisation. “I cue each one of them to play, and things go wrong. The audience when I cue them, they make a sound. It’s like a game. It’s supposed to be funny!”
“We did have a hard time putting that together on the album,” she says (although it certainly turned out great). “We thought, how are we going to capture all that into just audio? I think it was fine, but I’m going to mention again, it’s a lot better live!”
Skidmore himself composed one of the tracks, a surprising take on the archetype of the “Lover.” “I didn’t want it to be a really schmaltzy track,” he says. “I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to be what I think love actually is, rather than a romanticized ideal of it.” He came up with a fascinating concept of two people not entirely in alignment and “moving at different speeds” but linking up their musical threads at the end.
Musically, Sergio Assad on the guitar and Clarice Assad on the piano pair up at one speed representing one of the lovers, and Third Coast member Sean Connors and Skidmore pair up on two of the mallet instruments moving at a different speed for the other lover. Skidmore designed the music so that the harmonies of the two groups’ notes do logically line up at any given moment, even if the rhythm doesn’t until the very end.
“What was interesting was to think about what it actually means to love somebody, not just be infatuated with them,” says Skidmore. “At some point you let go of your expectations that you’re going to be aligned in all ways at all times. And instead you find a way to move, each in your own way, and align on the things that are most important.”
Two more of the tracks on Archetypes bring a kind of folk-rock feel to what is ostensibly classical composition. “Innocent” is centered around Sergio Assad’s guitar with Clarice Assad’s vocalise and the most bell-like of the mallet instruments. “Caregiver” has exceptionally pleasing chord sequences and harmonic transitions centered around Clarice Assad’s piano. Sergio Assad’s acoustic guitar stylings include clearly audible sliding along the strings, with bell tones from the percussionists contributing to the sense of caregiving in the piece.
Fans of the kind of contemporary “classical” or serious music that drops the traditional sense of a key center or scale get a nod as well. The archetype “Sage” by Third Coast member Robert Dillon is essentially atonal — meaning music that is not in any particular key — with deep tones on the piano and what may be a bass drum provoking a sense of the infinite or unfathomable, eventually adding a ticking figure that seems to further indicate infinite time and space. The archetype “Orphan,” composed by Sergio Assad, seems almost deliberately aimless and sometimes even lost before settling into a final long chord.
The archetype “Magician,” also by Sergio Assad, features some real virtuoso playing on the mallet instruments and the guitar in shifting and unpredictable rhythms, with short, peek-a-boo phrases suddenly and repeatedly appearing out of drums and various percussion playthings. And whether intentional or not, the archetype “Creator” by Third Coast member Sean Connors evokes a pointillist concept reminiscent of music imitating the paintings of Georges Seurat in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George.
A nearly infinite amount of music has been composed in all genres, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like this. It’s the kind of discovery that will have you picking out favorite tracks and listening to them many times over while pondering the meaning of persistent archetypes that have spoken to human generations from time immemorial.
The album Archetypes by Third Coast Percussion was released on March 12, 2021, by Cedille Records of Chicago. It is available from Cedille Records, from Amazon, on Spotify, on Apple Music, and on several other streaming platforms including the specialty classical music service Idagio. For more information about Third Coast Percussion, see their website and check out their appearance on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concert” series.