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Glenn Kotche: Drumkit Quartets

On February 12, Sō Percussion presents a program that will include a new piece by former rock drummer Glenn Kotche titled Drumkit Quartets. Below, Kotche discusses how the idea of writing a quartet for drumkit was conceived.


I originally conceived of writing a suite of drumkit quartets after finishing a string of commissions and projects for mixed instrumentation. At the time, I was feeling a strong desire to get back to writing for percussion. More than that, I wanted to write without any concern for tonality and really just explore new possibilities for my primary instrument—the drumkit—in an ensemble setting.

The original conception of the drumkit was as a multiple percussion configuration that incorporated a huge variety of percussive effects and instruments from all over the world. In the instrument’s first century though, the tendency was to treat it mostly as a timekeeper in groove-based music. I think the timbral, textural, melodic, and rhythmic possibilities of the instrument haven’t yet been explored nearly enough. I try to do that through my solo performances but jumped at the chance to try it with such an incredible and forward-thinking percussion group as Sō Percussion.

These pieces came about at the time I was touring extensively with my rock band, Wilco. I got the notion to come up with an idea for a quartet in each new city that I traveled to. These ideas ranged from conceptual blueprints to fully realized and notated pieces. Many were conceived but not finished, and when Sō Percussion approached me, I thought these would be a nice addition to their repertoire and would be a perfect fit for their personalities. I set out to choose a well-balanced selection of quartets that would focus on different possibilities of the instrument. Once I was immersed in these pieces, I found that I preferred some of the versions that I rearranged or rescored on percussive voices other than drumkits. Since I’ve learned to trust the music when it deviates from a preconceived plan, I therefore didn’t resist leaving drumkits out of some of the Drumkit Quartets. The cities attached to each quartet reflect where the piece was conceived or where a major breakthrough occurred.

Drumkit Quartet #50 (Leffinge, Chicago): This quartet proved the most challenging to finish for me. I knew I wanted it to be free of drumming and instead focus strictly on the timbral and textural aspects of the instrument. The first part is for hand-crank sirens—an instrument that I love and use on my drumkit, and that largely dismisses defined pitch. The score for the second part is a chart of a sequence of events that each performer will traverse independently of one another. Each event gives an option of a sound to create, none of which are produced by being struck, and some utilizing my customized implements or preparations. I asked each member of Sō Percussion to make me a recording: The order of the sequence of the series is derived from the length of these recordings. I wanted this part to be malleable and to give the performers control over exactly how the music proceeds. The third part of the quartet features the playback of my collage of Sō’s recordings; at the same time, the quartet members “play” another percussive effect while exploring the performance space and their relationship with the audience.

Drumkit Quartet #54 (Vienna): This quartet originated from a desire to reexamine the basic rock beat. I wanted to try moving the traditional hi-hat eighth-note bed to the bass drum, creating a more robust and powerful beat. The remaining three limbs could then create the melody and implied meters of the groove. This quartet is a collage of these types of beats in a series of phrases, several of which are intentionally metrically ambiguous in order to keep the work organic and musical. The sound design references the field recordings I made that were the original inspiration for the grooves.

Drumkit Quartet #51 (Tokyo, Brisbane, Berlin): Although this quartet was written for drumkits, I found the arrangement for marimba quartet to be much more compelling. I kept the tonality static in order to direct the focus to the uncoiling rhythmic cycles, and used shifts in register and sound design to provide scene changes in the music. The sound design at times either supports or contrasts with the serene nature of the music. These backing collages mostly comprise recordings that I made while traveling. The construction and noise sounds where recorded while in Berlin. I wrote the accompanying haiku—which you’ll hear beautifully recited by Yuka Honda—concurrently while writing the piece during a few days off in Tokyo and Brisbane. Yuka Honda is a New York City–based multi-instrumentalist musician, composer, record producer, and co-founder of the band Cibo Matto.

Drumkit Quartet #3, Movement III (Minneapolis and Chicago): This piece is primarily concerned with rhythmic consonance and dissonance. It features a collapsing formal structure as it progresses, creating rhythmic tension as a result. It’s realized on metallic instruments.

Drumkit Quartet #1 (Los Angeles, Russell & Auckland): The most ferocious of the quartets was also the first. I had the idea to pit the quartet against a visual and audio onslaught in a brief and brutal dance. The noise elements where recorded in New Zealand. This piece acts as a final intense and noisy exclamation point to this suite of quartets.

—Glenn Kotche



So Percussion
Sō Percussion
Friday, February 13 at 9 PM
Sō Percussion

“Through a mix of consummate skill and quirky charm, this mercurial quartet has helped to ignite an explosive new enthusiasm for percussion music old and new,” says The New York Times about Sō Percussion. This program includes a new piece by former rock drummer Glenn Kotche, whose works combine impeccable rhythms with fleeting, haunting melodies. “The range of colors and voices that Sō Percussion coaxes from its menagerie is astonishing and entrancing” (Billboard).

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