Every rock ‘n’ roll fan loves a good drum solo—but for some percussionists, one drumkit simply isn’t enough. Enter Glenn Kotche, composer, percussionist, and rock drummer extraordinaire.
Best known as the drummer in the alt-rock band Wilco, Kotche is a Grammy award-winning artist with a colorful palette of collaborators. Over the past 20 years, he’s worked with artists as diverse as Andrew Bird, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Phil Selway (of Radiohead), the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird, and John Luther Adams. His latest collaborators, though, take contemporary percussion to the next level.
Sō Percussion is an experimental percussion quartet dedicated to creating and performing collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and unapologetically contemporary musical works. Comprised of percussionists Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting, Sō Percussion can make music out of just about anything.
Whether they’re playing quijadas and conch shells for a John Cage piece, crotales and timbales for a Paul Lansky commission, or even just blocks of wood with strings for a Bryce Dessner work, Sō Percussion’s wide-ranging repertoire stretches from the “classics” of the 20th century up through most innovative new works drummed up just last week.
So it should come as no surprise that Sō Percussion wanted to get their hands on some Kotche originals. Thus, “The Drumkit Quartets” were born.
“I originally conceived of writing a suite of drumkit quartets after finishing a string of commissions and projects for mixed instrumentation,” Kotche said. “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 Drumkit Quartets” came about while Kotche was touring with his band—he decided to write a quartet in each city he visited, inspired by the sounds and spirits of that specific place.
“These ideas ranged from conceptual blueprints to fully realized and notated pieces,” Kotche said. “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.”
But Kotche didn’t just limit himself to the drumkit—or even four drumkits, for that matter; the quartets actually include percussion instruments as varied as marimbas, triangles, hi-hats, and hand-crank sirens.
“Since I’ve learned to trust the music when it deviates from a preconceived plan, I didn’t resist leaving drumkits out of some of ‘The Drumkit Quartets,’” Kotche said.
The album begins with “Drumkit Quartet No. 51,” inspired by Kotche’s travels in Toyko, Brisbane, and Berlin. Minimalist melodies drip like raindrops through the static tonalities, directing the focus toward the uncoiling rhythmic cycles. Across the 10-minute work, the musical texture slowly shifts and expands to include backing sound collages comprised of field recordings from Kotche’s travels. An accompanying haiku recited by Yuka Honda adds a stark contrast to the immersive musical textures.
The group then backtracks to “Drumkit Quartet No. 1,” a short work with more of the traditional, aggressive arena rock feel. The three-movement “Drumkit Quartet No. 3,” by contrast, is orchestrated entirely on metallic instruments, exploring a number of diverse melodic timbres ranging from dry cymbal work to more resonant pitched percussion.
“Drumkit Quartet No. 6” is another exploratory piece in which Kotche breaks down the drum kit to focus on the individual voices (such as the bass drum, tom-toms, cymbals, and snare). The result is a 5-minute work which showcases the personalities and expressive qualities of each part of the kit and highlights how the individual voices converse and interact to create a unified sound.
“The four members of the group serve as a model of how four limbs operate both independently yet in concert when playing the drumkit,” Kotche said of his inspiration for the piece.
“Drumkit Quartet No. 50” takes another decisive turn: it is actually completely free of physical drumming, instead focusing on the wide-ranging timbral and textural aspects of the instrument. Kotche heavily features his own customized implements and preparations for drumkit, including hand-crank sirens and jingly, jangly metallic elements. Written in collaboration with Sō Percussion, the piece is a malleable music collage exploring the relationship between the performer, the performance space, and the audience.
The group gets into a somewhat more traditional percussive groove with “Drumkit Quartet No. 54,” a work inspired by field recordings Kotche made in Vienna. The piece examines the traditional rock beat in a very propulsive, powerful, and surprisingly danceable 4-minute rhythmic mashup.
The album ends with another rendition of “Drum Quartet No. 51”: this one a Chicago realization of the original. Denser background recordings and more daring musical textures highlight the delicate marimba melodies, and the entire work echoes with an ethereal shimmer.
But whether performing dry and precise percussive melodies or richly textured marimba motives, throughout the album Sō Percussion doesn’t miss a beat. The group brings power, precision, personality, and innovation to whatever they set their drumsticks to.
The album is over too soon, but hopefully this won’t be the last collaboration between Kotche and Sō Percussion—because these five guys are on a roll.
So Percussion was in Seattle for a residency with the UW World Series and the UW School of music last month. We presented their performance at Meany Hall as a live broadcast and welcomed them into our studios for a video session. Here are the fruits of those endeavors!