Nearly three years ago, as a blanketing gray twilight gathered over Raleigh, I wedged my way through my own front door and pardoned my interruption. If I remember correctly, I'd cut off a saxophone in mid-phrase.
I'd walked in on band practice in the small brick ranch house I shared for several years with a few musicians. But this wasn't a normal band: The crew crammed into the living room consisted of Megafaun and the bulk of Fight the Big Bull, a radical jazz ensemble from Richmond, Va. For months, outside of their respective regular sessions and shows, both bands had worked on a massive collaborative program called Sounds of the South. In the last days of rehearsal, they needed a living room. Trombones intertwined with voices, and handclap rhythms synced to stomped feet.
Duke Performances presented those shows in 2010. An arts organization that seems hidebound on presenting unique experiments and experiences, Duke Performances specializes in such strange spectacles. On Friday, they'll again hand the collaborative keys to Megafaun, linking the Durham group with one of rock 'n' roll's most exploratory drummers, Glenn Kotche, for a largely improvised set with his band that isn't Wilco, On Fillmore.
"Essentially, that's all we do in this band is collaborate," explains Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund. He's referring not only to the quartet's highly integrated songwriting process but also to the array of special projects they've joined during the last six years. From a tour spent backing German minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblatt to early gigs in which they opened for and then joined Brooklyn psychedelic posse Akron/Family, they've often given over to the risks and possible rewards of new experiences.
"The most successful collaborative projects we've done," he continues, "have given us the opportunity to answer the questions we have, and to reach for things that seem to be just a little over our heads."
As with Megafaun, the members of On Fillmore thrive on collaboration. Drummer Kotche and bassist Darin Gray mix playful percussion, incidental field recordings and swiveling themes on occasional and always charming records. The pairing itself is even the result of a fortuitous accident: In the late '90s, when Chicago impresario Jim O'Rourke was recording his pop fantasyland Eureka, he asked Gray and Kotche to form his rhythm section. Previously strangers, the two are now best friends who, according to Gray, live in a constant state of shared ideas, musical and otherwise.
"When you're a musician," reckons Gray, "you can spend a lot of time alone in a practice room. You get closed off from the rest of the world. It's so important to collaborate."
Those pairings have immediate results, of course, either in one-time live sets or on records where bands integrate and benefit from outsider influences. Kotche, for instance, has composed for and performed with new music ensembles such as Bang on a Can and So Percussion, while Gray keeps restless with a stream of solo sets and short-lived configurations. Last year, he played one concert where, throughout the night, he worked in alternating duo, trio and quintet configurations with jazz innovators such as drummer Chris Corsano and fellow bassist Joshua Abrams.
Those experiences force musicians to work outside of their comfort zone, to try something fresh and to take something away from the effort. Until those Sounds of the South concerts, for instance, Megafaun were wildly discursive plunderers of American music, mixing harsh noise and tinny banjo trots, mangled musique concrète and doleful trio singing. But the group's third album, completed soon after those Sounds of the South gigs, showed signs of the bedrock songs they'd learned. Rather than serving as extraneous stylistic accessories, Megafaun's warped textures now clung to the cores of tunes, adding depth instead of mere flourish. The experience imposed constraints upon Megafaun that, in a way, helped them open the band to more cohesive tunes.
When On Fillmore joins Megafaun on Friday, the bands will have shared only a two-hour rehearsal. They've exchanged a loose map about what they intend to play, but how they will play it could shift radically between the rehearsal room and the stage.
"If I know about something for months, there's always a moment leading up to it of uneasiness and a little bit of trepidation: 'Oh boy, what did I get myself into?'" says Gray. "But I know that when we get in that practice room, it will be erased. It's exciting to make something with somebody that will never be made again. There's nothing that compares with that experience."
For Gray, collaboration isn't just about what's produced or learned in the moment; rather, it also forces a musician to know the new partners as people, learning of their interests and enthusiasms, and walking away with a list of new art, books and music to explore. When he collaborated with Moreno Veloso, the son of pioneering Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, in Chicago in 2005, for instance, Gray left with a crash course in Brazilian painters, bassists and filmmakers that he's still plundering.
"I'd never heard of any of that stuff. I grew so much from that, and I'm still diving into things those guys were into," remembers Gray. "I want to grow as a musician and as an artist, and for me, a significant part of that process is collaborating with other people. I love to see how they work. I love to see how they live. I like to go to dinner with them and see what they're into."
After Gray and Kotche perform in the opening set, Kotche will return to the stage for the second half of the program—the fourth performance of Ilimaq, a piece written for Kotche by Alaskan composer and naturalist John Luther Adams and commissioned through the cooperation of four universities, including Duke. During this 47-minute, three-section solo marathon (some have called it a "drum opera," a term both Kotche and Adams playfully dismiss), Kotche rotates from a large bass drum to an array of cymbals to a full drum kit, recreating the "spirit journey" suggested by the piece's Inuit title.
As with Megafaun's Sounds of the South idea or the genesis of On Fillmore, Ilimaq sprang simply from Kotche's interest in trying something fresh. He'd long been a fan of Adams' polyrhythmic compositions for percussion, so when Wilco visited Fairbanks, Alaska, on tour, Kotche invited Adams to dinner. Kotche asked Adams to write a piece for him, with the requirement that it utilize an actual drum set, not just auxiliary percussion pieces. Initially, he was surprised by what he mistook for simplicity. But he's been challenged—and revitalized, he says—by the exhausting nature of the composition.
"It's an endurance workout," Kotche explains. "The physical and mental concentration required to pull the piece off is beyond challenging for me. Every time I play it, I'm hanging on for dear life. But it's a thrill."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Extended stay."