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May 2015
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Wilco Drummer Glenn Kotche Brings “Wild Sounds” to Classical Audiences


Composer and musician Glenn Kotche

“Can this happen? Can we do it? Can the musicians actually construct instruments onstage and make music that I actually want to listen to? Can we transcend gimmick and theatricality and have actual musical merit? How is this going to happen?”

These are the questions that Glenn Kotche began to ask when devising his latest work, Wild Sound, with Third Coast Percussion and the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. The work comes to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for two performances on May 21 and 22, 2015.

Best known as the percussionist for the band Wilco, Kotche has collaborated with some of the world’s leading contemporary classical ensembles including the Kronos Quartet, the Silk Road Ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, SŌ Percussion, and eighth blackbird. “Those lines between classical music and rock have long vanished. People are just open to good music and good experiences,” Kotche said.

For Wild Sound, Kotche’s team created entirely new instruments that they construct and deconstruct on stage during the performance, the sounds of which become a part of the music. The work also incorporates field recordings Kotche has made during his travels around the world. He said he wanted to “take wild sounds and rein them in and put them into a musical context to really make them musical and not just noise.”

When Kotche was first approached by Third Coast to collaborate with a team of engineers, he said “I was a little concerned that we didn’t need the full breadth of their expertise, because a lot of this is more simple kind of construction.”

“Those lines between classical music and rock have long vanished. People are just open to good music and good experiences.”Glenn Kotche

He admitted that his wife, Dr. Miiri Kotche, an engineer herself, “saved the day the night before my first meetings.” She suggested the “possibility of wiring instruments and using an electronic aspect which completely transformed the scope of the piece. Originally, I was thinking about using contact mics in various surfaces so that we could capture all kinds of sounds.”

Eventually, they turned to Arduino technology, which uses sensors and actuators that allow devices to interact with the environment by sensing a range of data like light, motion, sound, and even location.

In Wild Sound, Kotche said “we’re using Arduino technology to trigger certain synthesized sounds that I wrote for the piece. Working with Arduinos really propelled the piece to where the final section is completely about technology and synthesized sounds, which goes in the complete opposite direction from where the piece begins – really raw construction, very wild, rough, homemade instruments.”

Once Kotche, Third Coast, and the engineers answered some of their initial questions, he said they began to pose more practical ones like, “How long does it take you to cut through this metal pipe? Is this safe for you to do on stage? How quickly can you make a bull roar out of a water bottle?”


Third Coast Percussion

Kotche and his colleagues ensured that the sounds of constructing and deconstructing the instruments have been seamlessly incorporated into the work as a whole.

“I had to think, ‘If this guy’s constructing, he needs to construct in time, in rhythm,’” he said. “I needed distinctive sounds to cue the performers to let someone know they should be, say, picking up a saw and clamping down that wood or that pipe and start sawing.”

He continued, “Or, ‘Oh, hear that bird?’ That’s got a rhythm that the audience might not pick up on, but it tells a musician he has to start sawing at the sound of that. Then someone else starts nailing, and they work together to create a rhythmic duo, while other people are doing other things. It’s a nonlinear approach to writing: instruments, then musical material, then figuring out how to marry those two.”

Even without the novelty of building instruments on stage or using new technology, Kotche said, “Writing for percussion is super exciting because traditionally, percussion is anything other than a woodwind, brass, or string instrument.”

With percussion, Kotche said, “You have this unlimited palate of sounds, you can go electronic or you can keep it acoustic, you can go with pitched percussion or you can go with idiophones – any direction.”

“It’s much more challenging writing for string quartet,” he said, “because you know what your sounds are, and you can use extended techniques, but you definitely have more strict parameters. For percussion, all that’s blown wide open, which is exciting but at the same time a lot of composers would agree that freedom can also be stifling to a degree.”

“It does fuel creativity when you know what you’re working with. Sometimes you can become confused by too many options,” he confessed. “But luckily, I have enough experience with percussion that I know what sounds I was going after.”

Also, luckily for Kotche, the musicians of Third Coast are some of today’s most talented percussionists, who have been called “superb” by The New Yorker and “brilliant” by The Independent (UK).

“The best part about composing for Third Coast is that it’s a collaboration,” Kotche said. “ I’m never going to say, ‘This is what I wrote, this is how it’s going to be played.’ I always defer to the experts.”

Click here for more information about the upcoming performances of Wild Sound at the MCA.

To hear more of Kotche’s original compositions, click here to stream an episode of Relevant Tones recorded here at WFMT.



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