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“Song of Queztecoatl” by Lou Harrison


“Song of Queztecoatl” by Lou Harrison

Performed by Third Coast Percussion

Mallet Selection for this Piece:


Terry Gibbs Signature (M33)

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This line offers a rattan handled mallet for every dynamic range on vibraphone or marimba. Cord wound heads.


Orchestral Series (M141)

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Medium hard nylon for a focused sound on xylophone and bells.


Tim Genis Signature (GEN4)

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Outstanding clarity in softer passages. Felt core.


Lou Harrison became a percussion ensemble pioneer partly by necessity — he could make money writing for modern dance companies and use of percussion overcame problems of lack of space and shortage of money — and partly by his own predilection. He had become enamored of the many sounds from non-Western musical traditions that could be heard in San Francisco in the 1940s, and collected non-Western musical instruments, including percussion, which he supplemented by objects found in junk yards (e.g. brake drums and wash tubs) that proved to have their own interesting musical qualities.

Harrison had a strong interest in the history and cultures of Mexico. Harrison came to own a full-color reproduction of materials from Mexican codices, which are pre-Columbian and pre-Colonial Aztec books. Harrison found the color reproductions fascinating, and decided to write music concerning the life of Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” hero-god depicted in some of the pages in his book. Although there was no film project involved here, Harrison imagined the music he wrote might be used for a film capturing images from the Mexican codices.

The ensemble for Song of Quetzalcoatl is a collection of drums, Mexican instruments, and metallophones, including some of his “junk” instruments and Chinese instruments. The piece calls for bells, wood blocks, dragon’s mouths, two sistrums, cowbells, suspended or muted brake-drums, wooden rattle, snare drum, guiro (a Mexican rasp), glass wind chimes, triangle, gongs, tam-tam, tom-toms, and a low bass drum.

The piece is approximately six minutes long and begins with a rhythmic pattern that recurs throughout the piece. The music has the quality of a procession or ritual, particularly in the first portions of the composition. The ending, which is hushed, has an awestruck, magical quality.

– Description by Joseph Stevenson – Edited by Third Coast Percussion


Lou Harrison was one of the great composers of the twentieth century–a pioneer in the use of alternate tunings, world music influences, and new instruments. Born in 1917 in Portland Oregon, he spent much of his youth moving around Northern California before settling in San Francisco. There he studied with the modernist pioneer of American Music, Henry Cowell, and, while still in his twenties, composed extensively for dance and percussion. He befriended another of Cowell’s students, John Cage, and the two of them established the first concert series devoted to new music for percussion. They composed extensively for these concerts, including their still popular collaboration Double Music. In 1942, Harrison moved to Los Angeles to study with the famous Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA. Steeped in the atonal avant garde of Schoenberg’s school, he moved to New York the following year, where he made a name for himself not only as a composer, but also as a critic under the tutelage of composer/writer Virgil Thomson. Harrison also worked at editing the scores of American composer Charles Ives and conducted the first performance of Ives’s Third Symphony (which won Ives the Pulitzer Prize). Harrison also published a study of the music of atonal composer Carl Ruggles, and the influence of Ruggles and Schoenberg comes through in works such as Harrison’s Symphony on G and his opera Rapunzel. However, the stress and noise of New York led to a nervous breakdown in 1947. To help his friend recover, Cage recommended him to Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, where the quiet and idyllic setting proved conducive to studies in Harrison’s new interests, Asian music and tuning.

In 1953, he moved back to California and (then) rural Aptos, where he resided for the rest of his life. Despite his relative isolation from the music world, in the 1950s Harrison completed a remarkable set of works exploring new tunings and approaches to tonality, including his Strict Songs for just intonation orchestra and chorus. In 1961, he was invited to the East-West Music Encounter, a conference in Tokyo, which proved a leaping-off point for extensive studies of Asian music, first in Seoul, then in Taiwan. In the 1960s he created some of his best known works incorporating these influences, including Pacifika Rondo and Young Caesar. In the last, an elaborate puppet opera, he used for the first time instruments designed and built by his new life-partner, Bill Colvig.

In 1975, Harrison met K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat, familiarly known as Pak Cokro, one of the great masters of the Javanese gamelan orchestra in that century. Pak Cokro not only instructed him in gamelan music, but also encouraged him to compose for the ensemble. Over the next ten years, Harrison would produce dozens of works for gamelan, often in combinations with Western instruments, such as Philemon and Baukis (violin and gamelan), Main Bersama-sama (horn and Sundanese gamelan), and Bubaran Robert (trumpet and gamelan). He and Colvig built various sets of gamelan instruments, including ensembles at colleges where Harrison taught at various times–Mills College, San Jose State University, and Cabrillo College. In the 1980s, with the rise of interest in the “new tonality” and world music, the world began to catch up with Lou Harrison, who by the time of his death was recorded on dozens of CDs and was the subject of many festivals and tributes. On his way to another festival in his honor in January 2003 in Ohio, Harrison suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 85. As a composer, artist, poet, calligraphist, peace activist, Lou Harrison dedicated his life to bringing beauty into the world, and those of us who remember his warm generosity, his integrity of spirit, and his irrepressible joyfulness, owe a great debt of gratitude that he did.


Praised by Time Out Chicago for “chops, polish, and youthful joy in performing,” Third Coast Percussion uses an impressive array of percussion instruments to create a performance experience like no other. With exceptional talent and dedicated artistry, this “sonically spectacular” (Chicago Tribune) quartet combines the driving intensity of drums, the beautiful warmth of marimbas and vibraphones, and the surprisingly exotic sounds of everyday objects to make music that is playful, memorable and profound. In performances around the country, the Chicago-based ensemble has swiftly gained national attention for effortlessly combining the energy of a rock concert with the precision and sophistication of classical chamber music.

Third Coast Percussion presents concerts for all audiences, from the percussion novice to the contemporary music aficionado. Third Coast has introduced percussion music to chamber music series in Chicago (Rush Hour Concerts, Millennium Park, Chicago Cultural Center), Virginia (Garth Newel Music Center), Pennsylvania (Dickinson College), and Wisconsin (Taliesin), securing immediate invitations to return to each of these series. TCP has also championed some of the most formidable repertoire for percussion including the music of Luciano Berio, Philippe Manoury, Wolfgang Rihm, Louis Andriessen, Martin Bresnick, George Crumb, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Frederick Rzewski, Toru Takemitsu, Tan Dun, and Iannis Xenakis. The ensemble is constantly adding new works to this already expansive repertoire.

Third Coast Percussion also has the distinction of being the only professional percussion ensemble in the country to self-present a full season of concert percussion music. In their hometown of Chicago, the group performs 4 to 5 concerts each season. The ensemble is dedicated to performing the greatest concert percussion music alongside lesser-known and rarely performed master pieces.

Highlights of the upcoming 2011-12 season include a major focus on the percussion music of John Cage in celebration of his centenary in 2012, and an exploration of the relationship between percussion and architecture through a new commissioned piece from ensemble member David Skidmore, in commemoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Third Coast is also active in developing new works. Future premieres include commissioned works by Glenn Kotche and Augusta Read Thomas.

The members of Third Coast Percussion—Owen Clayton Condon, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—hold degrees in music performance from Northwestern University, the Yale School of Music, the New England Conservatory, and Rutgers University.

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