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Glenn Kotche and Marcos Balter: Meet the Composers, Chicago-Style

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The Morgan Library & Museum might very well be the last New York City venue one would expect to host the world premiere of a series of works called Drumkit Quartets. But Glenn Kotche, composer, percussionist, and drummer for the rock band Wilco, sees the drum set as more than just an instrument at which to bang away:

If you look back in the 'teens and the 20s, drum sets had xylophones and chimes and noisemakers and all sorts of instruments from all over the world -- percussion instruments, you know, and it wasn't just drumming. They were playing melody on percussion, they were playing sound textures, colors, everything. And since that time, [the drum set's] kinda gotten more codified to basically be more of a time-keeping instrument in groove-based music, in jazz and rock, and I just feel that the instrument has a lot yet to give, you know?

Glenn Kotche performing his "Monkey Chant"

On Thursday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m., Kotche's conception of drums as music-makers will be on full display -- along with the world premiere of fellow Chicago-based composer Marcos Balter's Æsopica -- when the new music organization Meet the Composer presents the final concert in its Three-City Dash series at The Morgan Library & Museum. The concerts are in conjunction with the launch of the new Meet the Composer Studio, a "virtual residency" designed to bring audiences in closer proximity to composers and their creative processes -- not only through the live performances, but through videoblogging and a more interactive web presence overall.

"The notion of a 'fully integrated community of artists and patrons' is indeed a singularly important goal that we've been working on for at least a decade," says Ed Harsh, president of Meet the Composer. "We believe that a big part of getting there depends on our ability as a new music community to engage music-lovers (including those who don't yet know they love new music) personally and humanly in our work as composers and creative musicians."

The genesis of Drumkit Quartets -- which in addition to the conventional drum set also feature marimbas, bell instruments, and "animal boxes," -- occurred while Kotche was on tour with Wilco, writing down musical material and concepts each day in the various cities in which the band played. By the time contemporary percussion quartet So Percussion contacted the composer about performing the commissioned work, Kotche had 54 different quartets with which to work. At the time of my interview with the composer, Tuesday's setlist had been whittled down to six quartets (Nos. 3, 51, 54, 50, 6, and 1), with several cities cited as inspiration--Austin, Berlin, Auckland, Chicago, Brisbane, and Tokyo, among others. "I'd be going for a walk and pass by a carousel or something, or hear just a great confluence of, you know, a train passing by, and then construction sounds there -- and something about the rhythm might make me think about a drum set beat or make me think about a social interaction."

For Kotche, the fascination with percussion-as-compositional-choice seems to come from its versatile palate and untapped potential. "The really cool thing about percussion is it kind of encompasses everything that's not a string or woodwind or brass instrument," says Kotche. "Any kind of wild sound is technically percussion in my mind. I embrace anything that can make a percussive effect is fair game."

Paired with Drumkit Quartets on the April 14 concert is Æsopica, Marcos Balter's narrator-driven work based on Aesop's fables. "Usually the first thing that comes to my mind is a very specific sonic gesture from which all other structural parts of the music gradually emerge," explains Balter. "So, in a way, timbre is actually the true primary generator of most of my musical ideas." According to the composer, the result here is musically capricious, yet linear: "The structure of Æsopica is a stylized and forward-looking take on ancient Greek theater." The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) -- a group partly based in Chicago and well acquainted with Balter's music -- will perform the premiere of this Pierrot lunaire-esque work.

Marcos Balter's "Edgewater"

"There is an excitement to show New Yorkers what is going on in Chicago's unique new music scene, which is really rich and often much more daring, forward-pushing, and individualistically-focused than in other large American cities," says Balter. "In a way, I see Chicago as one of the very few places in the country where eclecticism is honestly welcomed and postmodernism does not secretly equal anti-modernism, and I love this inclusive rather than restrictive or selective artistic mentality."

While music's communicative abilities are self-evident, hearing a composer further illuminate his or her creative prerogative in such a way is in large part what the organization Meet the Composer is about. "We also believe that there's always a big reward to learning and engaging more: to know about how an artist works, how she lives, what he values most and feels is important, etc." says Harsh. "This kind of connection not only deepens the experience of hearing a composer's music, but it helps all of us understand and unlock our own human creativity, in whatever field that might be."

For more information on the final Three-City Dash concert on April 14, featuring world premieres by Glenn Kotche and Marcos Balter, visit here.