Composer John Luther Adams and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche collaborate on a recording of Luther Adams’ roiling percussion work Ilimaq. Luther Adams won a Pulitzer last year for Become Ocean, while Kotche has made some serious inroads into modern classical, and the two outsiders find a lot in common here.
Until recently, composer John Luther Adams and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche would both have been regarded as unlikely draws in the world of classical music programming. During his years in Alaska—far away from the postgraduate-composition academy—Adams specialized in minimalist-influenced works that tended to avoid the driving pulse that made minimalism popular with a wide audience. For his part, Kotche spent a lot of time touring with Jeff Tweedy.
But things can change quickly (especially for a genre with such a long tradition). For Adams, the reversal of fortune came with the mania surrounding his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece Become Ocean: a symphony-length orchestral approximation of maritime ebb and flow. Though Ocean didn’t represent an overhaul of Adams’s aesthetic, it brought his environmentalist’s appreciation for the natural world to a new conceptual height. (The title also gave uninitiated listeners a hint regarding what to expect from his serene-then-raging compositions.) Meantime, Kotche’s 2014 classical album Adventureland felt distinguished—even in an active time for indie artists looking to prove their conservatory chops. (The drummer also performed brilliantly on composer Missy Mazzoli’s album Vespers for a New Dark Age.)
In the aftermath of his Pulitzer win, Adams has been easier to spot. He’s since moved to New York, where his pieces are programmed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Next year, Adams will be the “composer in residence” at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival—the all-genres-welcome avant-bash that also presents Wolf Eyes and Yo La Tengo. Given this, it’s hardly surprising to find Kotche participating in a recording of Adams’s percussion-driven work, Ilimaq.
That title, which is Inuit for “spirit journey,” isn’t kidding around. Scored for three different “stations” of percussion instruments that the drummer moves between, during a performance, this recorded version also tosses in field recordings of nature, ambient accompaniment, and some live-electronic processing of Kotche’s playing. If that sounds like a busy experience, it can be—but only when experienced as a whole. There’s a superficial stasis that masks much of the development here; if you dive into the 48-minute work expecting an instant hit of obvious Pulitzer-genius, you might find yourself initially underwhelmed.
The twelve-minute opening movement “Descent” sounds at first like one long bass drum roll—hurtling forward for a bit, decelerating, then pushing ahead once more. But its closing section presents odd groupings of notes for Kotche to navigate as Adams’s electronic environment undergoes subtle variations. The following movement, “Under the Ice”, delights in a teasing ambiguity created by the blend of field recordings, electronics, and Kotche’s gentle cymbal work. The cumulative effect is so hypnotic and meditative that when clear, descending pairs of notes appear in “The Sunken Gamelan”, they hit with the force of power chords.
“Untune the Sky” brings everything from the composition’s first half hour together for a rite that finds Kotche wailing on an expanded kit, and it’s here where the drummer’s technique is the most impressive. After that apex of clamor, “Ascension” provides a calming coda of high-pitch drones. As a suggestive mirror-image of the piece’s opening “Descent,” it’s satisfying and logical—though the chief virtue of this piece is Adams’s slow-motion way of arriving at grander, less predictable change.