Why New Music and Rock Make a Perfect Match

Artists like Glenn Kotche, best known as the drummer in Wilco, have helped bridge a gap to a popular, palatable new sound.

Photo: Michael Wilson

Glenn Kotche

New music can seem to outsiders like a cul-de-sac in the gated community of classical music. But within the past few years, this view has been belied by the mass of collaborations between new music and other genres, especially indie rock. Just in the past season, the indie musicians Bryce Dessner, Carla Kihlstedt, and Deerhoof performed with Chicago new-music ensembles. If that street is a dead end, it’s attracting a lot of cool visitors. Here’s how it happened.

Take the example of Glenn Kotche, best known as the drummer in Wilco. He has two upcoming local performances with new-music cred. First, on August 28th, he appears with Eighth Blackbird on the city’s new- and electronic-music series Loops and Variations. Three of Kotche’s compositions appear on the program, including the world premiere of The Haunted. Second, for the Beethoven Festival in September, Kotche premieres two new pieces, one of which is a part of the Rockatelle Project, a commissioning endeavor he spearheaded. Even with Wilco’s stratospheric success, Kotche kept a foot in the classical world.

“I kinda always have,” he says. “I’ve played in a rock band since I was 10 years old, and I’ve been playing classical percussion since the same age. After graduation, I started playing with [the experimental musician and improviser] Jim O’Rourke. I realized I don’t have to necessarily choose.”

Kotche’s stance is typical. This era is ripe for new music branching, for a few reasons:

The new generation of classical musicians grew up listening to everything, and still do. “I think we just grew up listening to indie music, folk, jazz, everything,” Kotche says. When I interviewed the operatic tenor Matthew Polenzani last winter, he came in listening to Led Zeppelin. The composer David Lang told me that 20 out of 30 times, if you asked him what he’d just listened to, the answer would be Bob Dylan.

Young people are allergic to exclusion. After self-esteem, anti-bullying, tolerance curricula in elementary school, the musicians leading the vanguard now don’t want to say something or someone doesn’t belong in their club. It’s a far cry from the near-exclusion of the audience—a party that would seem vital to the musical experience—during the era of the composer Milton Babbitt’s essay “Who Cares If You Listen?” In fact, one of the leading new-music websites today is called I Care If You Listen.

Developments in new music have brought it closer to other genres. When new music abandoned tonality and took up mathematics in the middle of the 20th century, it was nothing like popular forms. Kotche points to the rise of minimalists such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich as forging the new links. Repetition and rhythms finding a groove connected with crossover listeners that couldn’t find a foothold with 12-tone serialism.

Then there’s advertising. New music may be a lot more popular today than it was 30 years ago, but it still faces an image problem with people who think it’s all “bleep-blop-bloop music,” as Maverick Ensemble’s William Jason Raynovich puts it. Putting Glenn Kotche’s name on a project immediately gets the attention of the anti-bloppers.

Plus, people like it. Despite Arnold Schoenberg’s prediction that in the future milkmen would whistle his music (he was also wrong about the continued existence of milkmen), the general public has never taken to atonality. When new music joins forces with other genres, the result is usually tonal, rhythmic, and considerate of listeners.

Maybe casual atonal whistling still lies in the future, but if we get there, it’s going to be more gradually than Schoenberg’s predicted revolution. And the trip is going to be a lot more fun.

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