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Interview: Wilco's Glenn Kotche on "Wild Sound"

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

Seeing Glenn Kotche play the drums can be like watching an inventor tinkering in their lab. Whether he's on tour with Wilco or playing an improv set in Chicago, he's typically surrounded by a variety of gadgets and outlandish percussion instruments, some of them homemade or repurposed. Collaborating with Third Coast Percussion, Kotche recently composed "Wild Sound," an ode to unconventional noise that will debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art this week. Ahead of the performance, we spoke with Kotche about the origins of the piece and why he decided to turn the stage into an instrument construction site.

You graduated with a performance degree and are best known as a drummer for Wilco. How did you become interested in composition?

It started when I became solo performer, which I never anticipated. When I was in college, I remember my senior recital being a nightmarish experience. I made some solo records in the late ‘90s, so I started to perform solo and realized that I liked the new set of challenges that it presented. When I record Mobile in 2006, I wrote percussion compositions for myself to play. Groups like Kronos Quartet and Eighth Blackbird heard it and started commissioning me because they assumed that I was a percussion composer.

When you’re composing for percussion, do you try to write pieces that are accessible?

I think it’s kind of the opposite. It’s easier to win people over than I ever imagined. Most people have never seen music made on drums with tuned cowbells, discs and electronics. It allows me to play to audiences with an open mind because they don’t know what to expect. When I play a solo show, I don’t hold back—sometimes the stranger I get, the better it goes over.

How did you conceive “Wild Sound"?

It’s an outgrowth of being a concert percussionist—we get asked to play all the things in the orchestra that don’t have a home. Within the last century, many people have begun writing for non-traditional, homemade and found instruments so the definition of percussion has been obscured. With “Wild Sound,” I wanted to address the question of “What is percussion?” and play with the idea of having Third Coast build instruments on stage. The narrative of the piece is dictated by my field recordings and mirrors human ingenuity, going from wild to rural to industrial to modern.

When did you begin working with field recordings?

Ever since I started touring with Wilco, I’ve always had a handheld recorder with me. If there’s an interesting sound or sound event, I’ll capture it. I’ve assembled a library of field recordings, and I get ideas by listening back to them. One of the seeds for "Wild Sound" was seeing if I could replicate an organic soundscape with an actual percussion ensemble.

You worked with the University of Notre Dame's School of Engineering to design the instruments used in the performance. What was that process like?

We worked with a group of students and professors throughout a semester, but initially I didn’t know how to challenge them. Luckily, my wife is a bioengineering professor at UIC, so she introduced me to Arduino, a system that uses physical actions to trigger sounds. I brought it up to the engineering department at Notre Dame and they were really into the idea and ran with it. I went to Notre Dame a couple times and the students showed us possible instruments involving infrared cameras and Arduino technology, so we just picked what would work best for the piece.

And then you tasked Third Coast Percussion with building some of these instruments during the performance.

Yes, they’re building and assembling—they have work gloves, hammers and power tools. When I started playing free improv gigs, I typically wasn’t playing rhythm. It’s more rubbing, scraping and bowing—getting all these different sounds out of the drums that you normally wouldn't. This isn’t foreign territory for percussionists—we’re used to doing a lot of strange things. I wanted to make it musical and not just make it a gimmick or theater.

Glenn Kotche and Third Coast Percussion will perform "Wild Sound" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater on May 21 and 22.

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