Glenn Kotche


(Nonesuch; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 21 February 2008

Q: Why did the drummer join a band?
A: He wanted to hang out with musicians.

Or so goes the popular caricature that, speaking as a drummer, is not entirely inaccurate. I picked up drumsticks after hitting the wall on my guitar talents, knowing that laying down a 4/4 beat can sometimes be as essential and speak with as full-throated an exuberance as to play a part as intricate as a pocketwatch. Following the nineties drum school exemplified by David Lovering and Dave Grohl (play simple, play accurate, hit hard), the drummer’s ability to anchor a song’s tone - the inherent tonality of drums - was somewhat bled out. Glenn Kotche’s third solo album, however, primarily owing to a counter-caricature defined by Steve Reich is, conceptually speaking, narrative told with the mechanism of drums and various percussive instruments; technically, an experiment in discovering rhythm in the negative spaces between beats. And so, not at all the slavering drum figure who literally works behind the more charismatic scenes. Mobile is the sound of a master drummer playing poetry.

Kotche’s performances are remarkable. They sometimes herd otherwise effluent chimes and padding noises into densely layered, complexly structured rhythms, other times allow a single tone to dominate the mix in order for the listener to consider its duration and consistency, but are almost always to beauteous effect and require the preeminent skill of a musician who happens to slum it in one of the world’s best respected bands. Knowing the role he shares with most of the rest of Wilco in supporting Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting vision, Kotche is here free to explore his instrument without the responsibilities of complementing Tweedy’s (or Loose Fur’s Jim O’Rourke’s) lyrical or vocal tone, and he uses that freedom not to cut loose or to approximate the artistry of his bands’ front men, but to fashion from the rawness and power of his rhythmical progenitors (many of whom found homes on Nonesuch’s found sound, “World” recordings Explorer Series) an ambitious, artistic, beautiful album cut from an immensely varied cloth of influences and styles.

Insofar as Mobile establishes goals that it hopes to achieve, it’s as simple as reading the liner notes: each of the album’s eight tracks, as well as the album’s umbrella perspective, are outlined with the detail of a first-year musicologist’s textbook. For some (“Projections of (What) Might…”, “Reductions or Imitations”) the experiment at hand is as simple as “expanding a simple pattern into a piece of music, allowing the micro to become the macro.” For others (“Monkey Chant”), complex issues of narrativity and voice are introduced as a traditional story is transposed for drums, using distinct sounds for characters a la Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Q: What did the drummer get on his I.Q. test?
A: Drool.

Kotche writes of “Monkey Chant”: This is a loose retelling, through percussion, of the monkey army’s battle from the Hindu epic Ramayana tale. My version follows the narrative of this story, often attempting a literal representation of certain parts such as some character interactions. […] I assigned specific voices from parts of my electro-acoustic drum kit to play the roles of the characters. […]”

In which “Rama, 7th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (protagonist)” is represented by “wires and stick on the drum head and drums in the final section.” And so, not exactly a Peter Criss solo album.

Each of Mobile’s tracks is steeped in academia and exhilarating intellect, an ambition that gives each of the album’s moments a purpose and sets behind it the listeners’ reward. Where some albums struggle to link songs together thematically, even with the aid of multiple instruments and the exactness of literal statement, Kotche uses melodic visitations between songs and the linking of drum tones to moods to guide his listeners from one track to the next, effectively marking each step of his musical exploration like a guided tour. The album has heady roots, exploratory in both a cultural (as is the case in “Monkey Chant”) and technical sense (most of the rest of the album, using a variety of instruments, both conventional and built by Kotche) that obviously belies a heavier power at work than a human drum machine. Opener “Clapping Music Variations” is predicated on Steve Reich’s 1972 “Clapping Music,” a multilayered composition mapping out handclaps for two to explore the way each fills in the spaces of the other. Far from lip service, Kotche’s “Clapping Music Variations” then transposes each clap from the Reich original onto a drum kit and expands upon it, an exercise to be applauded for the skill it requires as well as its attention to detail.

It’s difficult to get away with rewarding pure skill on a self-legitimizing basis, but what elevates “Clapping Music Variations” to its level is that it is also immensely listenable. Like Reich’s original recording, the counterbalanced noises can be fascinating to the exclusion of all else, enveloping the listener in its myriad noises while seducing one’s attention with the universality of rhythm. While much of Mobile, like “Clapping Music Variations,” has technical and conceptual aspirations, it also rarely forgets the way a drum beat can get people, seemingly against their better judgment, to move. Rhythm is disarming, and knowing the scholarly premise of these songs is not necessary to enjoyment. Having a rock background, throughout Mobile Kotche periodically enters long periods of groove-based drumming, like throughout the “Mobile” triarch and especially the gargantuan beat of “Mobile Part 3” and electronic surge of “Projections of (What) Might…”. But, like Reich, Kotche’s music is best listened to intently, hopefully in headphones, where each sound punctuates the space of one’s attention fully until it forms waves of repetition. The variations that then emerge may as well be whole new pop songs rather than a moment’s ephemeral noise.

Mobile is far more musical than blinkered, platonic rather than pedantic. Closer “Fantasy on a Shona Theme” would be welcomed on any number of Kotche’s other projects for being purely lovely. Vibraphone and bells are nightbugs finding each other, not in swarms, but in fleeting, unpredictable paths. The idea that percussion is meant to be accompaniment is soon forgotten.

Q: How many drummers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Five. One to screw it in and four to talk about how Neil Peart would have done it better.

There are four primary experiments comprising Mobile, as explained by Kotche: Negative rhythm, or the spaces between rhythm, and how they contribute to the rhythm as a whole; transcribing melodies to drums; stretching the subdivisions of rhythm far beyond their normal capacity or replacing them with different musical elements; and establishing themes that would migrate across the span of the album, tying together each of the songs as if they were ribbon despite their stylistic differences. With this quartet of notions pinning down the album’s eight tracks, and the massive centerpiece “Monkey Chant” peering out from inside the complex framework of Mobile’s peaks and crags, Kotche achieves something difficult: to build upon the technical and narrative accomplishments those who came before him while simultaneously standing outside of the convenient box provided for drummers by not only the majority of the musical community, but also by some of the art form’s most well-regarded performers.

“Mobile Parts 1 & 2” and “Reductions or Imitations” recast piano into a percussive role, emphasizing, as the album does throughout, the interchangeability of percussion and melody. In addition to striking notes out on drums, by placing piano strikes where he does Kotche proves that the inverse is also possible. “Projections of (What) Might…”, meanwhile, rolls electronic and organic drum constancy over melodies sounded out by bells, and “Individual Trains” gets abstract, pulling minute pings, like eraser shavings blown across a desk, together into one. That the album is performed entirely by instruments outside of the traditional band’s range is not surprising, but impressive.

If there is a barrier to enjoying the album, it’s that much of it is continuous, with at least a ride cymbal or high-hat counting beats between swashes of noise. This lack of negative space, a chance for the listener to rest however integral the use of negative space is to the album’s thesis, is admittedly a heavy demand of the listener (especially for those coming to the album without the intention to decode, for whom conventional song structure or even conventional drumming is tantamount to enjoyment of an album). Though Mobile is rarely an album to which pop’s foot soldiers can dutifully point out that “it’s just noise,” there are moments where presence can be mistaken for confrontation when absence might have more clearly defined the parameters of each song.

To this I can only speculate that, given time, Mobile’s many-layered accomplishments will unravel to any listener. Glenn Kotche’s work here is not meant solely for the drumming community anymore than is Steve Reich’s; give Mobile time, and it will fasten itself, embed its patterns, and stay with you longer than you could have imagined a solo percussion album ever could.