Review and photograph by Joel Reed
In addition to his thirteen years as Wilco’s drummer, Glenn Kotche has composed music for Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, eighth blackbird and other groups, and so joins the National’s Bryce Dessner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood in the small group of composer-musicians with solid credibility in both rock and new music worlds. He’s a natural then for the summer Bang on a Can residency at MASS MoCA in North Adams. In the days before his solo performance on Friday, August 1 he had been teaching the fellows of the summer institute, and three of his compositions were on the program for the festival’s concluding marathon concert on Saturday, August 2.
The last time I saw Kotche perform solo was at one of the Solid Sound festivals, where he played to a standing crowd in MASS MoCA’s 1000-people capacity Hunter Center, and before that, at the Morgan Library’s formal theater. It was a treat then to sit at a cafe table among the 200 people on the deck behind the museum, and Kotche, nodding to friends and students in the audience during his set, seemed to enjoy the setting as well.
Though playing solo, Kotche doesn’t do drum solos as you might hear them in a jazz or jam band set – he performs composed pieces, executed on a large and idiosyncratic collection of instruments, including drums and cymbals, strings and wires, gamelan, electronics and mechanical crickets. From these instruments he creates rhythms, tones and drones that reference widely-spread cultural traditions, but his presentation is far from traditional.
Kotche opened “Wild Things” – a response to Sendak’s children’s novel – by twirling an Aboriginal bullroarer rapidly (and dangerously, as the woman who got whacked in the head by one during his performance at a Solid Sound festival could attest) in the air; “Undiu,” co-written with the elder statesman of Boss Nova Joao Gilberto, is based in Brazillian rhythms; “Projections of (what) Might,” which he introduced as a tribute to Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and jazz great Eric Blackwell, has the most conventional sound – though he called the piece a trio, since he’s accompanying tracks of Allen and Blackwell’s work that he remixed.
The center-piece of the set was the “Monkey Chant,” a long reinterpretation of the Hindu epic about Virtue’s triumph over Vice. Traditionally, “Monkey Chant” is a Balinese piece for many voices, without any other instruments. In Kotche’s version, polyrhythmic drumming and gamelan suggest the dozens of vocalists traditionally involved. Since I’ve seen him perform this piece accompanied by a shadow puppet animation, I knew that some of its themes were associated with particular characters, and others dramatized calm or violent episodes in the narrative. This time, without the animation, the piece was more abstract; I enjoyed focusing more on the music itself, though I appreciated that I could mentally fill in he visual component.
A number of small boxes were arranged on a table behind Kotche, and he began “Monkey Chant” by opening each box to a growing intensity of cricket chirping; the piece fades to an end as he closes them. The crickets had another role in “Taisho,” co-written with bass player Darin Gray, with whom Kotche plays as the group On Fillmore. Taking advantage of the casual atmosphere at MASS MoCA, Kotche asked for a volunteer to serve as cricket chorus conductor, and he invited members of the audience up to take a box. At Kotche’s signals, the cricket conductor dramatically rose and opened or closed his box to cue the other participants to do the same.
This setting also gave Kotche the opportunity to perform John Cage’s “0’00”; after a few minutes of very busily arranging his gear and drumsticks, checking his laptop, and adjusting his seat, he sat still for a moment before thanking the audience – letting everybody in on the joke – and commenting that he can’t get away with that with a rock crowd. Though the line between rock and Bang on a Can audiences is blurrier than the comment suggests, the Summer Music Festivals open ears to new understandings of musical sounds and structures, and new musical silences, too, in ways that rock shows don’t.