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Shamans and Wizards: Glenn Kotche at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Saturday’s concert by Glenn Kotche. Agree or disagree? […]

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Saturday’s concert by Glenn Kotche. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In his introduction to Saturday night’s performance by Glenn Kotche at the McGuire, Philip Bither used language of sonic exploration to describe what the audience was about to see. Though he was mainly discussing ILIMAQ, the “drum kit opera” by John Luther Adams and peformed by Kotche that comprised the evening’s second half, both parts of the evening featured explorations of sonic and physical landscapes.

The first half of the show was a long collaborative composition between Kotche and multi-instrumentalist wizard Martin Dosh. Encircled by a full studio mixer, piano, marimba, drum kit, and a number of other keyboards, Dosh created, transformed, and reversed intricate live loops that revolved around, between, and within what Kotche played. For his part, the Wilco drummer also had a conventional drumset, a marimba, xylophone (which was bowed as often as it was struck with mallets), and a pair of bass drums that were never struck, but used only as a resonating surface for spinning, vibrating robot toys. The two artists seemed to be winding their way through the geography of their creation in perpetual motion, at times solidifying and coalescing around an understated piano melody played by Dosh that somehow tied everything together. And as the piece wound down, ending as it began with found sound conversational recordings and bowed xylophone, the robots in the back kept spinning, a lovely metaphor for the 20+ minutes of music the audience experienced.

John Luther Adams has made much of his music about and amidst the landscapes of Alaska, where he has resided since 1978, and Ilimaq is his most recent work. Written for Kotche, the piece is divided into roughly three sections, with Kotche playing on three different setups: first, a side-turned bass drum; second, a greatly-expanded drum set with multiple tuned toms; and finally a vast array of cymbals and gongs, also arranged in orders of tuning. Over the course of nearly an hour, Kotche displayed his virtuosity on all of the instruments, as his sounds were delayed and channeled by sound engineer Jody Elff though the McGuire’s speakers, creating the sense of being surrounded by drums in the middle of an icy, barren landscape. (Nearly imperceptible flickering lights in the McGuire’s ceiling even gave the impression of a starry night sky.)

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

Glenn Kotche. Photo: Ed Luna

For Adams, the extra-musical aspect of the piece is the “spirit journey” (the English translation of the piece’s title) of an Iñupiat, or Alaskan Inuit, shaman. Without wanting to make too reductive a characterization of the piece as new age-y romanticization of shamanism, Native or otherwise, the piece’s repetitions work to relieve the listener of the musical conventions and associations of a bass drum, ride cymbal, or a gong. I likened it to saying a word over and over until it becomes more sonic than semantic. However, in this case, the repetitions went on a bit too long, leaving me to unfortunately put this in the category of “appreciating” this music for what Adams and Kotche were going for, rather than really enjoying it.