No one needs to be a rock tourist, especially when you live in a city that hosts your three favorite members of your single favorite band for a trio of unrelated gigs all in the same month--much less the same night, as was the case Thursday, when Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline played conflicting shows only a couple miles from each other. For all my willingness to book a cheap flight to whatever town for a random gig, it's nice when the artists come to me. Thus, scheduling conundrum aside, I wasn't about to let this local opportunity pass me by.
Kronos Quartet with Glenn Kotche, Herbst Theatre, October 25-26, 2007: How many times in your life do you get to witness the world premiere of anything (other than, maybe, a made-for-TV movie)? Well, there was the time I happened to be parked in front of the set for MTV's world premiere of Madonna's "Dress You Up" video, but honestly, it was no "Thriller."
But a world premiere was indeed part of tonight's billing, and that, along with Glenn's participation, was the most concrete piece of information I had about the show. Then again, I've taken bigger leaps of faith.
I'm the first person to admit that this sort of work falls far outside my very limited realm of musical knowledge. For example, the program reported that Glenn's composition would be presented in seven movements. I wouldn't know a movement if it slapped me in the face, though I figured we could expect seven discrete components. Where one ended and another began--once again, don't ask me. But ignorance be damned, I wouldn't have missed this show for anything.
What I can tell you is that the work started with each member of the quartet picking up an unusual instrument--chimes, bells, and other ephemera--and coaxing a gentle intro from each, while accompanying themselves with audible sighs and breaths. The cumulative effect made me wonder if Glenn had taken some inspiration from the title of his bandmate's recent release, Draw Breath by the Nels Cline Singers.
It gets a little fuzzy from here, but Glenn eventually joined in, supplying the percussion he's better known for. At times, he set a forceful, driving beat; at others, he added the subtle shadings of sounds elicited from his stable of out-of-the-ordinary implements; and for notable stretches, he did absolutely nothing but monitor the other players with a watchful gaze until it came time to hit his cues. The Kronos Quartet, in turn, eventually came back to the stringed instruments for which they're better known, though they'd revisit their array of whirligigs and whatchamacallits throughout the piece.
And though my description doesn't convey it so well, it wasn't all humorless intensity and concentration. During one of my favorite movements (?), Glenn and the quartet's Jeffrey Zeigler matched each other beat for beat as they whipped identical clacking noisemaker-like items back and forth, the whole time grinning at one another. In a separate segment, the quartet played handbells, sometimes applying bows and brushes to them, bringing to mind The Bells of St. Mary's as staged by, say, Laurie Anderson. In yet another portion, the music came in the form of small twigs or strands straw snapped by the quartet.
From the first time I heard him play with Wilco, I've been struck by Glenn's musical abilities--not something you can say about many drummers. My appreciation shot up another notch with these performances, as I saw for myself how Glenn's artistic ear extends far beyond his drum kit, as well as how other musicians respond to his guidance. It was sort of like finding out that the guy you know who does those amazing wheelies on his dirt bike also happens to occasionally race in wind sprints alongside Tour de France champions.
I've now had numerous opportunities to take in Glenn's work outside of Wilco, and his shows have always left me at least a little more enlightened. It's easy to pick out the elements in his solo performances that he brings to the band, but just as provocative are the sounds and influences that haven't percolated through to his mainstream work. Who's to say if any of these ingredients will ever make their way to Wilco's opus? I wouldn't bet against it, though.
This was my first time seeing the Kronos Quartet, who were as terrific as everyone says they are. Their opening selections were especially impressive: a contemporary, sample-heavy number by Amon Tobin; a modern selection of works by John Zorn, which hit nearly as much on the comical level as much as they did on the musical level; and Raymond Scott's classical, nostalgia-inducing "Twilight in Turkey," which practically invited you to recall all the Warner Bros. cartoons that made use of the tune. It should come as no surprise, however, that my favorite segment of the show outside of Anomaly was their take on Television's magnificent "Marquee Moon."
Glenn's composition was actually the last portion of a two-hour show that also featured two other young composers, Walter Kitundu and South Korean singer/dancer Dohee Lee, and their original works written for the quartet. At the end of the second night, all three composers joined the quartet for the show-closing bow.
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