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How Glenn Kotche Used Pi and Radiolab to Compose His CYSO Piece

The Wilco percussionist premieres Infinite Tree with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras on Sunday.

Photo: Zoran Orlic

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, who premieres a commission for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras on Sunday.

You’re a composer in residence for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras. How did that come about?

My friend Bryce Dessner of The National performed a piece on guitar with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras in 2015. He invited me to the show, and I met Joshua Simonds, the previous executive director. After I saw them perform a few times, Simonds eventually asked if I would write a piece for the orchestra. I jumped at the opportunity. They’re incredibly talented younger players.

What can you tell me about the piece, Infinite Tree?

It’s a concerto for drum set. I’m the soloist, so I’ll play a multiple percussion drum set. I’m playing some pitched percussion and some amplified percussion, but a lot of the piece is groove-based, too. There are a lot of shakers; every member of the orchestra plays a shaker at some point. I tried to keep it as melodically simple as possible, to force creativity out of that.

How did the piece come together?

I came up with a melody on the kalimba, which is a plucked, African percussion instrument. I actually used the first 20 digits of pi and applied them to the scale on the kalimba—so I wrote the main melody on the kalimba by taking the digits of pi and applying them to scale note degrees on the instrument.

At the time I was writing, I was touring a lot with Wilco. We were out in California, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, which is where maybe eighty percent of the piece was written. I was surrounded by trees and vegetation. And I listened to a Radiolab podcast about how trees communicate and send resources to each other and about how forests are single organisms with a number of facets. So I used the architecture of a tree as the structure for this piece. These melodies go through disparate sections, and it gets more and more dense and tangled. It goes through all these metamorphoses.

How are rehearsals going?

With a full orchestra, I was worried about how the piece is going to stay together. 99.9 percent of the stuff I do is without a conductor. But it’s worked really well, because Allen [Tinkham] has a very similar rhythmic sense to me. I always write my part to be a little bit harder than I can currently play, so I have to practice. I’m still waking up early and practicing a lot on this thing.

Have you ever performed with an orchestra like this before?

Never on a drum set. I’ve played in orchestras before, and I’ve done a concerto with a string orchestra. But this is my first time with a band this big. My instrument, the drum set, is not one you see in front of an orchestra. You see big percussion set-ups for some concertos, but not a drum set. My experience has been that of being a drummer in a rock band while always having a foot in classical music. I’m writing hybrid music between those two worlds.

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