Critic's pick: Glenn Kotche, 'Adventureland'

Contributing Music WriterMarch 24, 2014 

Critic's pick

Glenn Kotche

Adventureland

Leave it to a precocious percussive talent like Glenn Kotche to deconstruct and retool two suites into a new hourlong recording titled Adventureland — an album that is, in essence, another suite.

Even by the usual daring but playful standards of the longtime Wilco drummer and University of Kentucky graduate, Adventureland is just that. It celebrates Kotche's compositions for ensembles as much (if not more) than his actual playing, but it also beautifully represents one of contemporary music's most distinctive percussion voices.

Here are the primary inhabitants of Adventureland. First up is a seven-movement suite for string quartet and drum kit, Anomaly, that was commissioned by, and presented here as a collaboration with, the famed Kronos Quartet. Then we add The Haunted, a five-movement piece for two pianos and percussionists.

But here is where the scrambling begins. The movements to Anomaly are presented sequentially. The running order of The Haunted is completely reworked (the movements are presented in a sequence of 5-4-1-3-2). Then everything is meshed together with two additional works: one featuring the Balinese percussion ensemble Gamelan Galak Tika of Boston, the other teaming Kronos with the Chicago chamber group eighth blackbird.

Perhaps such cut-and-paste assembly of the pieces was intended by Kotche as an observational detour so the music could be appreciated on its own terms rather than as an assemblage of works featuring a variety of musical participants.

But then how would we explain the album-opening Anomaly, Mvt. 1, which takes Kronos out of the equation so electronics can voice the string and percussion parts? Then there is Dance, the finale movement of The Haunted (which, again, is served as the introductory section on Adventureland). It boasts sharp, clipped dialogue between pianists Lisa Kaplan and Yvonne Lam and the mallet-savvy percussion of Matthew Duvall and Doug Perkins. Kotche is listed as playing only "additional percussion," yet The Haunted's immensely animated tone is a signature mark of his compositions.

A similar giddiness pervades Gamelan Galak Tika's gongs and Balinese percussion on the minimalistic The Traveling Turtle. But it's on Anomaly, Mvt. 4 that Kotche's instrumental voice is as prominent as his compositional profile. As the Kronos strings build from a playful pizzicato intro into more strident chamber passages, Kotche's drumming enters and soon works into a rockish lather that wonderfully matches the drama of the strings before reaching a coda of meditative cool.

Don't let the stylistic variety of the pieces and their shuffled sequencing become a bother. In Adventureland, it's best to discard the road maps and enjoy the ride.

Walter Tunis, contributing music critic

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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