Glancing at the stage before a performance of Glenn Kotche’s Wild Sound, we got a good idea what to expect. All the detritus, tools, stray wood pieces — a suburban garage exploded — suggested a Cageian experience in sound and improvisation.
Turns out, Wild Sound is a lot more than that. It’s structured and partially composed, including melodies. And gets the audience involved, both literally (we got to make noise) and figuratively, in the sense that the piece involves the sounds and sights of instruments being built.
It’s a piece by Glenn Kotche, who’s best known as the drummer from Wilco but is also a classical composer with a respectable discography on labels such as Nonesuch and Canteloupe. Wild Sound was the last in a short series of hip, modern-classical evenings called Pivot, which on this evening was hosting Third Coast Percussion, a creative quartet that’s also the ensemble-in-residence at Notre Dame University. The performance, in early April, was also my first visit to the SFJazz complex in San Francisco’s Fillmore district.
Wild Sound progresses through the four elements of water, air, fire, and earth, with a coda that transcends all four and could be called just “civilization.” At the same time, the “settings” of the piece start out primitive — Water draws inspiration from jungle rainfall, Air from the swirling winds of deserts and chapparel — and eventually shift into urban society. After a surprisingly quiet Fire segment, Earth went all-in with steel girders and concrete.
The whole piece was backed by abstract video projections, occasionally overlaid with real-time video of the performers, and a backing soundtrack of field recordings Kotche made on tour. I don’t think we were meant to think of the nature-to-civilization progression as a bad thing. It felt more celebratory, and the Earth and Civilization sections included some of the most engaging segments of the piece.
The best part, and the most pleasant surprise, was the realization that the players were assembling instruments as they went. Wild Sounds does include a lot of Cageian randomness, as expected — one segment has a guy rattling large marbles in a bowl, and he eventually dumps them on top of two other musicians who are busy performing the actual composed melody. But along the way, you start to realize that some of the “randomness” is productive work.
It’s sneaky, and it adds to the fun. One guy loudly slapping wood blocks onto a table turned out to be building an honest-to-goodness marimba, finely tuned. A more subtle bit of work is the guy who was cutting wire at another table. That became a kind of slide violin: one hand (or person) plays the string, the other sets the tuning.
The sounds of construction also factor into the piece. Early on, one player was slapping packing tape onto the end of a tube, unrolling the tape as loudly as possible. Obviously, this was going to be used as a tribal drum later on — but during the construction, the unraveling of the tape contributed to the surrounding noise.
By the time the Earth section came around, it wasn’t any surprise to see the power tools come out, complete with safety shields. Drills, power screwdrivers, and even a welding torch, I think, got applied in small amounts — because one power tool makes enough noise to make the point. The piece was created with help from Notre Dame’s engineering department, by the way.
We got to participate, too. During Water, one Third Coaster pantomimed instructions for us to rub our hands and slap our thighs, emulating rainfall. Everyone was also handed small, ribbed balsa-wood sticks when we entered the theater. These became percussion instruments during Earth, when we got instructed to scrape out certain rhythms.
This concert was co-sponsored by The Exploratorium, which was so fitting — it all felt like the kind of “performance” exhibit they might host. In a post-concert talk, one of the Third Coasters (was it David Skidmore?) pointed out how inviting the instruments were. Anybody in the audience could wander on stage, pick something up, and make music. The group takes particular glee in that aspect of the piece, he said.
The first four movements of Wild Sound are quite a feast, but there’s still a major surprise in store for the dessert course. (This is a SPOILER. If you’re reading this in advance of going to see Wild Sound, you should probably stop here.)
The four large brackets at the back of the stage were, predictably enough, used for hanging sheet metal and other implements, which got bashed around for the raucuous parts of Earth. Turns out they have another purpose in Civilization — they hold synthesizers built inside transparent plexiglass. These are essentially keyboards that get played vertically, and the conclusion of Civilization is a long, through-composed melody for a quartet of these instruments. (You can see them for a moment in this promo video.) The sci-fi sound of the synths, and the fact that you can see the circuitry inside, create a futuristic air. The melody itself is pleasant and relaxing, suggesting that yes, this is our home today. Spotlights indicate who’s playing at any given time — and there have to be a lot of rest breaks for each musician, considering this segment is rather long and the blood is running out of their arms whenever they’re playing. It’s a peaceful ending and a chance to digest everything that’s happened in the preceding hour.
Wild Sound was written specifically for Third Coast. They performed it only about 10 times in the past year, Skidmore said — because it’s such a production. In addition to all the equipment, tools, and materials required, the performance needs a videographer, a lighting technician, and a soundboard engineer (some of the instruments’ sounds get enhanced with a computer) who are familiar with the piece.
That makes Wild Sound all the more rare. I don’t think it’s an experience that can be captured well enough on DVD. If it’s coming to your town, go see it.