From Faucet-Playing To Prepared Drumsets: On The Musicking Of Glenn Kotche

I recently watched an entertaining commercial for, of all things, Delta Faucet, that features percussionist Glenn Kotche playing faucets in a musical way. As he turns on the taps one by one, water streams out of them and strikes inverted pots, pans, and colanders to produce sustained pitches. With the help of a few overdubs, Kotche works up a liquid version of Four Tops’s classic Motown song, “Reach Out: I’ll Be There.” What is interesting to me is how every once in a while percussion and percussionists come to the attention of the rest of the world–through TV commercials or what have you. There’s always a bit of surprise embedded in this attention–a surprise that making percussive music on all kinds of things (even faucets!) is even possible in the first place. Which reminds me of a time I went to see the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie perform a solo concert. At intermission I overheard a lady say: “I didn’t know percussion could play melody.”

Here’s the Delta Faucet commercial:

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Kotche is an engaging percussionist no matter what he’s hitting. He is best known as the drummer for the alt-rock band Wilco, but he has also collaborated with numerous other musicians across the pop-classical spectrum and released solo recordings that showcase the breadth of his musical imagination. As I searched for the Delta Faucet commercial online I found an older video of Kotche playing a fourteen-minute drum solo. But this isn’t your regular, drum-bastic kind of thing where the drummer connects a string of free-floating displays of technique. The title of the solo, “Monkey Chant”, references the famous Balinese dance and vocal performance piece known by the same name–or as kecak–in which a large group of male singers render a battle scene from the Ramayana Hindu epic. Why did Kochte chose a piece of Balinese vocal music as his model? I don’t know. But kecak/”Monkey Chant” is a staple example in world music classes that demonstrates intricate vocal hocketting (interlocking patterns using the syllable “cak”) and singers rendering the sounds of characters from the Hindu story. It’s an amazing piece on its own. To start then, here is a video of the Balinese kecak:

Next, here is Kotche explaining how he specially prepared his drumset to make the unusual sounds used in his rendition of the Balinese piece. This is quite interesting in that it gives some sense of how percussionists seek out and create new timbres:

Finally, here is Kotche playing his kecak rendition. Notice a few things: how he sets up a nature soundscape of chirping cricket toys (!) as a background texture for his solo; how he uses kalimba (thumb piano) and crotales to simulate, I’m guessing, the melodies of Balinese gamelan (an orchestra of metallophone instruments); how his snare drum functions as a resonator for all kinds of metallic sound effects; how he keeps the dynamics of his playing constantly in check and mostly at a moderate volume; and how he keeps a rolling triplet-feel with his hands to mimic the hocketting “ceks” of the Balinese singers while his feet play an unwavering steady pulse. All in all, it’s an elegant, thoughtful and subtle rendition of a famous musical tradition from a compelling and curious percussionist listening in.

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