Interview with Glenn Kotche (Wilco)

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Chicago-based percussionist and composer Glenn Kotche (Wilco) has been called one of the most exciting, creative and promising composers and performers in modern music, receiving international attention for his “unfailing taste, technique and discipline” (Chicago Tribune).

He has recently launched his second solo album Adventureland (Canteloupe Records), and he’s made all 7 tracks of his piece Anomaly (featuring the Kronos Quartet) from that album available through a ready-to-go Ableton Live Set, via blend.io.



At Noisemaker Academy, we were commissioned by blend.io to adapt all of the stems from Anomaly to a beat-matched, playable session, ready for mashing up in Live. We caught up with Glenn recently to discuss the Anomaly project, his creative process for writing, and making Anomaly publicly available as an Ableton Live Set.

You’ve generously put Anomaly up on blend.io for Ableton Live users to work with creatively. What do you hope to see happen with your work?

Ideally something that I can’t even think of to write here! Something that catches me off guard and presents the music in a fresh light. All I can hope for is to say “wow – I never thought of that!” – and for new creative doors to open as a result.

Rhythmically there are a lot of 3 against 4 feels, and 12 rhythms too in the piece. These are really classic rhythms used in a range of percussion traditions around the globe, and they also have a really strong place in the history of american minimalist music (I’m thinking of Steve Reich’s Drumming, for example). Can you talk a bit to how you used these rhythms?

Indeed – and Reich studied both African and Balinese music, which both heavily influenced his earlier work. I’ve studied percussion traditions from around the globe as well and I now naturally like to keep things somewhat metrically ambiguous when I can. I like being able to feel a piece of music in different meters or pulses. Almost like an optical illusion or op art – where an image appears to be coming towards you or away from you depending on how your mind is interpreting it. I often try to write things that rhythmically or metrically lean in few directions at once.

Indeed – and Reich studied both African and Balinese music, which both heavily influenced his earlier work. I’ve studied percussion traditions from around the globe as well and I now naturally like to keep things somewhat metrically ambiguous when I can. I like being able to feel a piece of music in different meters or pulses. Almost like an optical illusion or op art – where an image appears to be coming towards you or away from you depending on how your mind is interpreting it. I often try to write things that rhythmically or metrically lean in few directions at once.

Any advice to beatmakers out there who want to explore 3 and 12 rhythms more?

Hmm – just realize that are many ways to divide up 8, 12 or16 (the most common number of subdivisions that we use in western music). For example 8 can be split into 4+4, or 2+2+2+2, or 3+3+2, or 2+3+3, or 3+2+3, or 4+3+1, and so on. I experiment with different combinations and orders of groupings – then I usually try one interpretation in my hands and another in my feet for example – pitting these “cross rhythms” against one another. I like the way this makes the music flow and the syncopation that results.

I’ve read that you took a very ‘percussionist’ approach to writing the string music, and percussion makes an obvious connection with rhythm and texture. I’m wondering what your approach to harmony and tonality was?

Very good question. I do a lot of writing from behind the drumset, so the form, rhythm and overall architecture of the piece are realized there. Then I need to fill that skeleton in – with pitches and harmony and more traditional elements of music. This is usually begun by chance: maybe I’ll begin with the tuning of whatever kalimba I have plugged in at the kit, or perhaps I’ll go through some of the rhythms on the vibraphone, celeste or even piano and flush out (via trial and error) the tonality that best fits what I’m after. I’ve rarely gone into writing a piece of music knowing that I want it in a certain key with the harmony unfolding in a specific way. On Anomaly Mvt. 2, for example – I believe the pitches I began with were based on the tuning of the drums that I was writing on.

Did the percussion-strings relationship work in reverse also? Did the musicality of the strings have an effect on your percussion playing?

Yes. The tuning of the drums, the implements I use and the sound choices are all influenced by the timbre of the strings.

I used a lot of dampening on the drums so they would be too open with lots of overtones getting in the way of the string parts for instance and to better blend with the pizzicato parts . I used mallets as opposed to sticks in several sections – again to be more sympathetic to the acoustic volume limitations of the strings. I stayed away from using a lot of cymbals – again to retain some control of the sound. I left the snares off for much of the suite so the snare drum wouldn’t pop out from the rest of the music too much. These are a few of the many considerations anyone would have to make when playing drums with a string quartet.

There are some cool analog sounds in Anomaly. How did you make the electro glitch sounds which can be heard in the first and 3rd movements, for example? Are you also approaching these analog sounds like percussion instruments?

I am. I can’t exactly remember how I got that specific sound in mvt 3. But I’ll use sounds that I’ve recorded out in the world or sounds that I’ve made by running acoustic material through effects pedals and processors or even customized sounds that I’ve tweaked in the drum brain controllers that I have. Sometimes, just by using a contact mic on an interesting quiet sound you can awaken it into this much bigger almost electronic sounding instrument – even though it’s still just this small acoustic sound under a sort of sonic magnifying glass. Anomaly mvt. 1, for example, just sounded more compelling to me using stock sounds from my music writing software – Sibelius – then using drums or strings.

But regardless, I’m thinking in terms of multiple percussion – having an array of sounds and timbres (acoustic, electro-acoustic or electronic) assembled into a kit or set (that’s what the drumset is at it’s core).

It seems that you’ve taken quite an ‘orchestral’ approach to the percussion parts, with different layers/parts played together to create a big ‘macro’ beat sound. What’s your approach for producing these sounds?

Well, I do hear parts of Anomaly as being “big”, which is why I chose to add some layers of instrumental textures at some points for the recording – something that’s not possible really for the live version. A good example is Mvt. 2, where I layer in hand claps, piano, crotales, marimba and tambourine to make sections bigger. When it comes to the production of these sounds – it’s all Pat Burns – who tracked and mixed the record. I work with Pat on most everything I do and implicitly trust him to make sonic decisions since we have a history and similar sensibility. I know that if I choose the right instrument and mallets and if I can play it well – he’ll make it sound great.

Download Anomaly Deconstructed for Ableton Live Here
http://glennkotche.com/

http://www.cantaloupemusic.com/

noisemakerInterview with Glenn Kotche (Wilco)

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