“Wild Sound” at the MCA Review – Entropy with a Beat

Third Coast Percussion. Photo: Saverio Truglia


If you’ve seen Third Coast Percussion perform before you arrive at their concerts poised to be dazzled.  They didn’t disappoint.  



Add Glenn Kotche, both as performer and composer, and the creativity oozing from the stage conjured memories of the first time you were thrilled by the sizzle of dry ice meeting water. 



The main show of the evening came after intermission with the Chicago debut of Kotche’s “Wild Sound”. 


We were already jazzed and energized by what had come before.  Both Kotche and Third Coast Percussion performed works by Kotche, Steve Reich and a percussion deconstruction of bossa nova syncopation.  The first half was wrapped up by a very muscular performance of Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood (for Drums) that reaped up the energy so much that its reverberations firmly held us in that perky place through the intermission pause.  



And then came “Wild Sound”, so appropriately named, and so engaging as spectacle just as much as music. 



“Wild Sound” is a composition by Kotche and collaboration with Third Coast Percussion that was seven years in the making.  It was well worth the wait. 



It embraces John Cage’s maxims that all the world’s sounds are music—seeming to extend that notion by underlining how every physical object is a percussion instrument in waiting.  Four environments – wilderness, rural, industrial and urban—were evoked not only by the score but also by Video artist XuanLeslie Buxbaum Danzig, whose work with Lucky Plush is admired by many of us, created the stage direction that made it a visual spectacle to match the music.  With her help, we not only heard many new-to-the-world instruments but we could focus on many of them being created before our eyes and before they were played.  


It was the instruments that disappeared as soon as their musical heart was bared that were particularly engaging.  Karate chops on blocks let them sing.  Wood of various sizes was rhythmically sawed.  Beans would dance from a jar to add scatter sounds.  A dowel rod held at different lengths hit the table for a scale of sound. 


Flower pots filled with water had various pitches as well.  Two pieces of ceramic tile rubbing against each other made scratches. 



We will never look at bicycles the same, now hearing the various pitches of spokes tuned to different tensions with the ring of microphoned tires. Woodblocks on a string were rattled as though they were taken from a giant’s crib.  That and more, it was like Third Coast Percussion members were all in the sandbox together having just as much fun making castles as kicking them into dust.  We too got into the action with our two rigged sticks (zipsticks) we had received with our programs as we had entered the theater that we rubbed rhythmically when prompted to do so.


 When the performance ended the stage was in chaotic ruins.  So much so, that an audience member speaking for many of us asked if and how they were able to recycle the “instruments” for the next performance. 


It was entropy with a beat.  Who knew that the march to disarray could be so joyful?



Talking with Jay Brockman, Professor of Engineering at Notre Dame University where the Third Coast Percussion members are musicians-in-residence, it was apparent that the fun for everyone involved in this performance had started long before.  Brockman, an electrical engineer and veteran of Intel, was enlisted to commandeer students in the various engineering disciplines to design many of the instruments for “Wild Sound”. 


Brockman’s students were the ones who had designed and create our zipsticks with a laser cutter, as shown in this video.



The 6-octave keyboards on plexiglass that Third Coast Percussion played, each wearing conductive gloves, were engineered by the students with open source Arduino microcontrollers. 



It was also one student’s idea to house microphones in meat thermometers to create some of the score’s sounds. 



Brockman recounts, “People think that science and engineering is all about analysis and experiments while art is about creativity and design.  Actually, both approaches involve all those aspects.  Glenn (Kotche) had a narrative idea and tried different experiments.  It was a big iterative process.



“… this has completely refreshed my approach to engineering and teaching.  Music has been a passion of mine and seeing that music can be part of what we do has been great.  There are lots of technical challenges in designing these instruments.  For example they have to be durable to go on the road.  The ergonomics of keyboards had to be considered.  “Wild Sound” was written with notions of sounds before the instruments that made them even existed.  Altogether there were about 30 instruments created for the piece and maybe a half dozen were electronic instruments.”



You can hear more experimental music programs at the MCA during the summer and into the fall, starting with “The Freedom Principle” concerts beginning July 11.  For information and tickets visit the MCA website or call the box office at 312 280 2660.

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