Story by Andrew Bauld | Photo by Jean Lachat | Video by UChicago Creative

Glenn Kotche is used to playing for thousands of fans as drummer of the Grammy award-winning rock band Wilco. But on a recent winter morning, he waited behind his drum kit for 10 undergraduate and graduate students—some trained singers, others musical neophytes—to arrive. Class was about to begin.

The student assignment that day was taking a recorded piece of spoken voice and repeating it over and over again, digitally manipulating it to uncover the melody and rhythm latent in the words. With each strange sample, some high-pitched and mechanical, others slow and resonant, Kotche listened for an instant and then launched into an improvised groove. A clip from an academic lecture inspired a punk rock beat. Another set the drummer into a jazz waltz.

Kotche and Assoc. Prof. Steven Rings developed the course “VoiceGrooveSong” through UChicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, seeing it as a way to explore popular song structures in contemporary classical composition. As the final voice loop played in class, Kotche started drumming, and Rings rushed to a whiteboard to scribble the notation of the rhythm. Soon Kotche joined him at the board to explain the notes that corresponded to the cymbals and bass and snare drums.

Assoc. Prof. Steven Rings
Assoc. Prof. Steven Rings’ research centers around popular music and voice, and for the last several years he has studied the music of Bob Dylan. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

“The point of the course is to illuminate things we want to concentrate on in an ongoing project,” Kotche said. “For me at least, it’s about finding a way to incorporate language into my solo composition in an effective way that is hopefully arresting to people.”

Kotche and Rings embraced the experimental nature of the course—something that the Gray Center makes possible between artists and scholars. Students had the chance to talk with Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy, Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien about the creative process behind songwriting and composing during the course, which met at the Gray Center Lab, an intimate, loft-style space in UChicago’s Midway Studios.

“How I thought as we were drafting the syllabus was once you get enough points of entry, there are multiple places where sparks can happen, and then we will decide this is really where we’re going to focus,” Rings said. 

A space for experimentation

Kotche and Rings met last year and found themselves “geeking out” over music and voice, percussion and song. In a recent class, they ping ponged ideas off each other, moving from the Beach Boys to Austrian composer Anton Webern to Johnny Cash in a single exchange.

The connection between the drummer and the professor started with former Gray Center curator Leslie Danzig. Kotche, an accomplished solo composer experimenting in avant-garde percussion, met Danzig while working with the Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion. She realized the Gray Center, positioned at the intersection of artistry and scholarship, provided a unique opportunity for Kotche to explore his interests and his own desire to experiment and collaborate. 

“I got to know Glenn and gained an appreciation for the breath of his work,” said Danzig, an assistant professor of practice in the arts at UChicago. “He’s a fascinating musician and composer, and I got the sense that he is quite experimental and a curious mind. For as incredibly accomplished as he is, he is still working on questions and figuring stuff out in his own practice.” 

Glenn Kotche at white board
Glenn Kotche diagrams how percussion corresponds with the notes in a piece of music. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Rings was introduced to Kotche to help him find a collaborator at the Gray Center. Rings’ research includes popular music and voice, and for the last several years he has studied the music of Bob Dylan. Rings and Kotche quickly decided to establish their own partnership and landed on the idea of a class that would essentially seek to decompose popular songs.

“Any time you spend with some bit of expressive culture, whether it is a song or a painting, you’re trying to figure out, ‘Why does it work?  Where does its efficacy reside, and for whom?’” Rings said. “It’s an unpredictable alchemy.”

A home for unlikely partnerships

VoiceGrooveSong is part of a project through the Gray Center’s Andrew Mellon Collaborative Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship program, which seeks to foster collaborations between artists and scholars. Past participants have included cartoonist Alison Bechdel and actor Denis O’Hare. 

The course, like the project, is about exploration without expectations—something the Gray Center encourages. 

“The Gray Center seems really open-minded, and for lack of a better term, just cool about understanding that, ‘yeah, you can’t define something before it exists,’” Kotche said.

Although feeling like ‘a fish out of water’ at times in the classroom, Kotche had abundant enthusiasm for the new challenge. “These are things I’ve never read about, I’ve never thought about, I have no experience with. I’m kind of the teacher, but I’m also a student, which is great,” he said.

Back in class that winter morning, students were in for a surprise after working through the spoken word loops. As an assignment, they had been given a set of mystery lyrics and were asked to set them to music. Each of the students shared a completely unique version. One was dark and electronic; Kotche called it “demonic.” Another was compared to an Adele ballad.

Students in Gray Center Lab
The course VoiceGrooveSong at the Gray Center Lab included a mix of 10 graduate and undergraduate students. They had the chance to talk with Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy, Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien about their creative process. (Photo by Jean Lachat)

Fourth-year Corson Barnard, a Theater and Performance major, had written music for other people’s lyrics before, but never in an academic setting. “I had never thought about things like, if you delay it two beats, it has this whole new connotation. Hearing everyone’s pieces spoke a lot to interpretation,” she said.

After hearing various renditions, Kotche revealed the lyrics are from a rarely circulated track recorded by one of Kotche’s old bands, birddog, along with singer-songwriter Elliott Smith in the 1990s. Kotche hit play to reveal the country-waltz swing of the original. The class discussed the elements that resulted in such variation, sounding more like chemists than musicians in their analysis.

“In the class we don’t know where we’re going to end up,” Rings said. “Everyone is excited to just go along for the ride.”

Originally published on March 21, 2017.