“I didn’t get into this to be a composer!” says Glenn Kotche, laughing somewhat helplessly. When I reach the drummer for Wilco, he is in his studio, busily rehearsing a set of his compositions for an upcoming set Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, and his protest has a weak sound to it. Most of the works he will be performing can be found on Adventureland, his second solo album, on Bang On A Can’s label Cantaloupe. The record serves as a document of Kotche’s last seven years exploring the vanguard of modern classical, during which he’s written for ensembles like eighth blackbird and Bang on A Can. At the Big Ears festival, his works will mingle among those of The National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, not to mention those of giants like Steve Reich.
In other words, the drummer and percussionist is looking more and more like a “composer” every day. The shimmering, multi-hued Adventureland includes Anomaly, his first full string quartet, which he wrote for the legendary Kronos Quartet, and a suite of works called Haunted, which touch on gamelan textures. Anomaly, the quartet, nods at its status with its title — it might be the first string quartet composed at a drum set in history.
When I ask him what inspires all this, I can almost hear him shrugging over the phone. “I already have a good gig with Wilco,” he says. “I have lots of other outlets with On Fillmore and Loose Fur. I don’t need more stuff on my plate. So if I was going to tackle this, I wanted to make sure I was doing something original, something that was me.”
When did you first have your idea to compose a string quartet with your drum kit?
In 2006, I saw Kronos Quartet play Terry Riley’s “The Cusp of Magic” with Wu Man on pipa. It was the first time I’d seen them since college, and for some reason, it was then I had the epiphany that I could approach a string quartet like a drummer. Each member would be like a limb. Mostly, the technique was a way to over the scary aspect of doing something totally unknown. I definitely didn’t consider myself a composer at that point. I never had any composition training or anything; I’d only written for percussion. But I had a vibe melody I’d improvised that I knew would work as a theme, so I had it rattling around in the back of my mind.
What was the leap from drums to strings like? How do you get from your left foot to the viola line?
The thing that broke the barrier for me was just messing around with broken triplets — which you might know best from Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick.” It’s a showy technique, like a guitar lick, basically. I was experimenting with doing those slower, and doing different combinations of drums, realizing I could get pitches out of this tom, and that one…gradually, a melody emerged, which I put into composing software and arranged from there. It was all done in solitude. It’s a funny way to do things, I guess.
Since this was such new territory for you, did you play it for anybody along the line to get a gut –check, “Am I on the right track”-sort of opinion?
No! [Laughs] It was all done in solitude. On the tour bus, everyone’s always working on a lot of projects, so I didn’t go up to anyone to ask them to look at mine. I do always ask for feedback from my wife, because she’s not a trained musician — she’s a professor of bioengineering. So she comes in with no baggage and can hear something specific in it others don’t. She’d be the only one.
Did you listen to any specific string quartets while you wrote? Even if they didn’t influence your piece directly at all, did you have a soundtrack while you wrote it?
You know, the quartet that Kronos actually started with — Black Angel by George Crumb — struck me as pretty much perfect, just an incredible piece of music. That kind of stuff, which has a lot of extended techniques and interesting textures in that piece that gave me the courage to write the first and the fifth movement, which are quite different on the record than they are as a live experience. Even prior to joining Wilco, I was doing a lot of free improv around Chicago, and I used a lot of extended techniques — using contact mics and kitchen implements and bows — to get different sounds out of the drums. I used Black Angels to give me the courage to bring some of that into my string quartet.
These pieces represents several years’ worth of work for you, right?
Yeah, that’s why it’s been so long since I made a record, because I’ve been so busy writing pieces for other people. After I wrote Anomaly originally in 2007, Bang on A Can commissioned me first, and then I wrote a big piece for eighth blackbird. I was writing a lot for projects, or doing remixes, or stuff like that. Everything had a deadline. The Haunted pieces came about because I needed to write something for myself, something that had no restrictions or parameters.
I actually took the piano solos from the piece I wrote for Bang on A Can for the first movement of Haunted that I wrote, Haunted Furnace. And from there, it just grew — from one piece for two pianos to three pieces for two pianos and two celestes, to five pieces for two piano and two percussion. It kept developing, and for me, it was indicative of that whole time. I was cutting my teeth as a composer, struggling to find my own voice. That’s why all these pieces all go together for me, even though they were written over the course of years — for me, they all tell some part of the same story.
Is there a piece on this album you’re particularly proud of, one where you broke through as a composer?
There are a couple of pieces on this album where I do feel like I’m approaching my own sound, or getting close to a sound that sounds, to me, a little bit original. I really love the first movement of Anomaly, the electronic one. But Triple Fantasy — I just love that one. The only goal with the record was that I wanted to keep it under sixty minutes. I don’t like super long records! Triple Fantasy brings me close to that, but I loved it, so I ended up cutting other pieces down to make room for it. It’s kind of the apex of the record.
What’s next for you along this path?
Well, I have a record’s worth of material in the can for So Percussion, which is just being mixed now. I recorded John Luther Adams’s Ilimaq, which is a piece I commissioned from him through a consortium of five different universities. I’m writing a big piece for Third Coast Percussion in conjunction with the engineering department of Notre Dame, so the students are going to build all the instruments and destroy them as part of the piece. Brooklyn Rider has a string quartet I wrote for them. I guess I’m definitely a composer now! [Laughs]