EXCLUSIVE: Wilco's Glenn Kotche on 'Wild Sound' for Third Coast Percussion, Notre Dame Engineering, Arduino Technology and Why Kentucky Lost to Wisconsin

By Maria Jean Sullivan on May 21, 2015 03:37 AM EDT

As both a modern composer and, of course, the man on the throne for modern rock 'n' roll's last band standing, Wilco, Glenn Kotche is nothing if not maddeningly prolific. With his credits on records nearing the century mark (do check out his most recent work on Missy Mazzoli's Vespers for a New Dark Age), his commissions, too, are coming in fast and furious and increasingly august: Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Sō Percussion, eighth blackbird, founding BoAC cellist Maya Beiser.

Add to those a national advert for Delta's Touch2O faucets and a drum kit on full display at the Rhythm Discovery Center Museum, and the city of Chicago's best drummer might just be the most heard contemporary composer in America.

Never one to rest on his laurels (or cash), for his latest trick, Glenn Kotche not only composed a highly inventive new piece for Third Coast Percussion, he created the very instruments for the performance proper...with a little help from his friends (i.e. faculty and students at the University of Notre Dame's School of Engineering). Premiering this week at the Contemporary Museum of Art Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York the following, Wild Sound also features field recordings Kotche captured while on tour with his day job.

Classicalite: Wild Sound for the guys in Third Coast (we talked to David Skidmore last year, great interview) features field recordings of modern life. Over the last six years, what cities or even specific locales did you glean the most sonic inspiration from? Since this piece seems to be about the dialectic of music vs. noise, are some places, some towns more "musical" than others?

Glenn Kotche: Yes, I used many recordings from my library that I've made over the years in Wild Sound. The recordings collectively form the "audio score," a term I use to describe them since they not only cue the ensemble and establish the groove in certain parts, but also sonically frame the four distinct sections of the piece. I typically record anything that catches my ear. So, that might just end up being a great mechanical drone or something blowing in the wind. But I also do go after scenes--places that are particularly dense or varied in their sonic make-up. It's really about the confluence of events and that can happen anywhere. I don't think I could say one locale is more "musical" than another; it all depends on what you're listening for.

C-LITE: Regarding the individual movements--"Wilderness," "Rural," "Industrial & Modern"--is there a composer or sound artist to whom you might be indebted? John Cage comes to mind immediately, but Michael Pisaro of the Wandelweisers has been doing amazing stuff with field recordings lately, as has Annea Lockwood. Should we read anything political about the more rural recordings, à la "ecological" composers like John Luther Adams or Ingram Marshall?

GLENN KOTCHE: Not in particular. I value all the folks you've listed. John Luther Adams and Jim O'Rourke have been big influences for me. But I think Max Neuhaus was my first introduction to sound installations or sound art. And I love the installations of his that I've heard. I've kind of always just tried to capture things, usually with no specific plan or agenda at the time of recording.

C-LITE: Another anxiety of influence, but geared more towards writing for percussion at-large, how do the famous works in the rep like Varèse's Ionisation or compositions by Cowell, Xenakis, even Neuhaus on Stockhausen affect a composer, like yourself, writing in 2015? For a piece like Wild Sound, on premise alone, I'm wont to hear better parallels with newer works, like David Lang's So-Called Laws of Nature for Sō. 

GLENN KOTCHE: Those composers and pieces really opened it all up for modern percussion and music, so they absolutely matter. I get excited about a lot of music that I hear--a lot of modern classical/art music (or whatever you want to call it) and especially music where any sort of genre distinction is blurred. Much of this is, of course, influenced by those landmark pieces and brazen composers. It's an extension. But I think I gather more influence by their creativity and willingness to question and try new things than I do by any direct compositional influence or techniques that they employed.

C-LITE: You've built your own instruments for your own works before--Wilco included. On this concert, you've got all the engineering prowess of Notre Dame at your disposal. I know Third Coast is in residence there, but can you speak a bit about how that idea got off the ground? And maybe how having those resources did or didn't work towards your process.

GLENN KOTCHE: The collaboration was proposed to me through TCP via the DeBartolo Arts Center at Notre Dame. I thought it could be interesting and fun, but that many of my ideas were too basic to employ engineers. They relied more on design and construction than engineering. The real breakthough came when my wife, a bio-engineering professor at UIC, suggested I look into Arduino technology. She showed me all kinds of musical applications. Jay Brockman at ND was fully versed with that and was into the idea. We were only able to use a fraction of the possibilities that the students came up with, but I'm so thankful that we did collaborate. The trajectory of the piece really relies on what they came up with. Any cross-disciplinary collaboration that I've been a part of has always proven fruitful and a valuable learning and growing experience. This experience solidified that belief.

C-LITE: There's an inherent kind of destruction to all percussion music, aside from the physical act of literally beating on objects. And this piece both constructs and deconstructs the instruments you, Third Coast and Notre Dame spent so much time bringing to fruition. Again, is there any kind of political notion--surface or underlying--regarding ephemerality or the like?

GLENN KOTCHE: Maybe at the onset of writing the piece that was a hidden notion, but the need to stage the piece multiple times and have working materials each time precludes any notion. TCP needs to keep constructing during the piece, so the deconstruction is not a priority--just making sure the next instrument is assembled in time is. Some instruments are disassembled and some get trashed, but others we need to be more careful with since our resources are limited.

C-LITE: In your recent work, at least for percussion ensemble, you seem to have shied away from pitched percussion, per se. Granted, it's not pitched in terms of 12-tone equal temperament, but I was wondering if this was a conscious move on your part. As in, not sounding specific notes.

GLENN KOTCHE: No, I've not shied away. And I actually don't really agree with that. I'd love to write more without relying on fixed pitched instruments. But as you'll hear in Wild Sound, the big anchors of the piece are notated and pitched. The final epic plexiglass Arduino-board piece was actually written on marimba, and TCP sometimes does a version on marimbas. Also, Drumkit Quartet #51, which I originally wrote for Sō Percussion (and TCP will perform on the first half of the concert), that was originally written for four drumkits, but then I arranged it for four marimbas. My most recent pieces for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and cellist Maya Beiser also rely on pitched material. So, maybe my next few pieces won't. I guess, like anything for me, I need balance.

C-LITE: You mentioned programming. Your 51st quartet, two major Steve Reich works, even "Undiu" by João Gilberto. What's your thinking when it comes to programming an evening of all-percussion music? Do you look for conceptual threads? Or is it just music you want to play and/or wish to be heard?

GLENN KOTCHE: It was mostly the guys in TCP that came up with the program. We all threw out ideas. Then, they had to consider logistics with equipment and space and had to come up with a balanced program that works with the second half. I give them full credit.

C-LITE: Looking ahead, beyond Wilco's May tour all the way to the brilliantly curated Solid Sound at MASSMoCA, I see you're billed with former Kronos cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Your duo work with him is something we don't hear too much from. I'm curious as to how you two met.

GLENN KOTCHE: We met when I was commissioned to write Anomaly, the seven-movement piece for string quartet and drumkit that I composed for the Kronos Quartet. We hit if off right away. And he's such a monster player, I'm always up for playing with him. He then also commissioned me for a piece which ended up being the title track of his first solo record, Something of Life. He's a joy to work with and his wife, Paola Prestini, is an incredible composer and organizer, as well.

C-LITE: Finally, alas, your Kentucky Wildcats didn't win the NCAA tournament this year. (But they totally should have). As a most distinguished U.K. alumnus, but still Midwestern-born, what didn't they do against Wisconsin that they should've?

GLENN KOTCHE: Win! Without postulating about specifics--which I don't consider myself equipped to do anyway--I think they just needed to, and weren't able to, shut down Wisconsin's Kaminsky. 'Nuff said.

Celebrating 20 years in the making, Kotche and Wilco are currently on a mini spring tour themselves, culminating with Solid Sound Festival, the band-curated music and arts festival held at Bang on a Can stronghold MASS MoCA. On that bill, Kotche will perform as member of the trio Loose Fur with bandmate Jeff Tweedy and producer Jim O'Rourke, as well as with On Fillmore, his percussion duo with Darin Grey.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Wilco, Glenn Kotche, Wild Sound, Third Coast Percussion

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