Threaded from the fingerprints of Stockhausen, Subotnick, La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath, Rhys Chatham has for over 40 years been a leading renegade in the forward thinking canals of avant-garde music. Blending minimalism, atonality, expanded performances whittled between the 100+ musicians on stage, stripped down solo pieces for trumpet/guitar and commissioned pieces performed in museums, venues, factories and even the Sacre Coeur. He has continuously released music that challenges the way we understand it, that provokes thought, reactions. Having played with such avant-garde royalty as Tony Conrad, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass his contribution to the Minimalist scene and the list of bands inspired by his particular corridor of expression is as long as the catalogue of projects he has been involved in.
Bad Sounds asked Rhys if he was interested in answering some questions for us from his home in Paris.
How did you start acquiring an interest for music, and especially the avant-garde arm of it?
My father was a harpsichordist. I grew up with early music always being played in the house. I started playing clarinet when I was 8 years old, then switched to French horn, then I finally settled on flute, which was how I got into contemporary music. My teacher was a specialist in this music, and pretty soon I was playing pieces by Boulez, Varèse, Berio, etc. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was in my twenties, and I started playing trumpet at age 30. And I just started studying violin recently. THAT has certainly been an adventure!
Was that your earliest memory of a musical piece, or was there a song that affected you in some way?
The earliest memory I have of hearing music was at my parents’ apartment in Greenwich Village in New York when I was about 5 years old. It was Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat. It still brings tears to my eyes when I hear it, especially the main trumpet solo in one of the sections. The first pop song I remember hearing — this was much later, when I was 11 — was Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walking. While I must say that it doesn’t bring tears to my eyes, I still kinda like it! Although whilst listening to it that first time, I felt a bit like a secret agent, spying on the other camp, as it were.
What part did the music of the early avant-garde artists and composers have on your style? Did you listen to Edgard Varese, Ligeti, Messiaen, Scelsi, etc or were you more influenced by other movements?
When I was around 13 years old I got into playing, Density 21.5 by Varèse. My father was friends with Paul Jacobs, the pianist of the New York Philharmonic, who generously offered to read through Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano with me. It is a very difficult piece, so I was lucky to have someone of Paul’s caliber to play it with. Also Messian’s Le Merle Noir for flute and piano and Berio’s Sequenza for flute. I played the entire contemporary flute literature as it existed in the mid-sixties. Of course, I also listened to everything that John Cage, Morton Subotnick, and Stockhausen ever did. All of these composers, more than anyone, are the ones who inspired me to begin composing. Fortunately, the music conservatory where I went to had a great composition class. My professors, Donald Stratton and Tom Manoff of Manhattan School of Music, made us write pieces for the other students in the room, and this is how I got into composing.
So up until I was about 17, I was writing post-serialist pieces in the style of Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen. Then, in 1969, I heard that a composer named Terry Riley was playing at a space in the East Village in Manhattan on St. Mark’s place called The Electric Circus. It was a psychedelic disco with state of the art light shows and a fantastic sound system. There was no bar at this space, but that was okay because it was the late 60s and people had other means of extending their consciousness. Every Monday night they did contemporary music featuring composers like Morton Subotnick, Salvatore Martirano and the Sonic Arts Union (Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and others). There was a show with John Cage playing chess against Marcel Duchamp. Every time they moved a chess piece, it would open or close a gate, thus turning on or off the electronic music of David Behrman, Gordon Mumma or David Tudor. Nam June Paik was doing mad things with an oscilloscope and turning it into video art, as I remember things. As it happened, on the next Monday, Terry Riley was playing. So I thought I would check it out.
You have to realize that in 1969 I was completely into serialist music, musique concète and early electronic music that used either individual modules or the Buchla synthesizer. I had seen a score of Terry Riley’s that looked like it would be pretty noisy; a kind of a John Cage Variation V type of graphic score, so that’s why I decided to check his playing out.
I got to the concert, and what I found was this long-haired hippie guy playing what sounded to me like circus organ music. I hated it! It was tonal, which I had no interest in. For me, for music to be interesting, it had to be dissonant, or at least it had to have some kind of electronic noise in it, like Cage. So I went downstairs to get my money back, but the people at the door wouldn’t give it to me. It had cost $5 to get in, which was a lot of money for a 17-year old kid in 1969, so I decided I might as well go back and hear the rest of the concert.
I’m glad I did…
I’m glad I did because I gradually got into the subtle changes of the music, and by the time Terry was done playing, I had become a true convert to minimalist music. Mind you, at that point, I didn’t even know what minimalist music was. I think the term might not even have been invented yet! The piece Terry was playing, of course, was a long version of A Rainbow in Curved Air, his seminal piece for electric keyboard. I began to start making pieces of long duration after I heard that concert. I was no longer a post-serialist after that. Terry totally corrupted me!
Shortly thereafter, the electronic music composer Morton Subotnick, with whom I was studying, had kindly offered to let me use his electronic music studio at New York University, which had a brand new Buchla 100 series in it. This is where I started to make my long duration pieces, that is to say, pieces with gradual and subtle changes that went on for quite a while. While at NYU, I met Charlemagne Palestine and Maryanne Amacher, and discovered they were working in this style also. They were older than me, so I kind of looked up to them and followed their cue on a lot of things. So I’d have to say that they were both influential on the music that I subsequently made.
Tell us a little bit about how you met and came to work with La Monte Young. How did that affect you personally as an artist?
I met La Monte in the early 70s and started taking lessons from him in exchange for tuning his piano in just intonation. Just intonation is a system of tuning invented by the pre-Socratic Pythagorean school where all the intervals are perfectly tuned. I made my living as a harpsichord tuner at the time, and I also tuned pianos, using the conventional equal-tempered system, of course. La Monte was the one who showed me how to tune in just intonation. Pretty soon I was playing in his group, The Theater of Eternal Music. Terry Riley would sit in with us from time to time. Jon Hassell, the composer and trumpet player, was in the band, too.
One time, I had been kicked out of my Soho loft and urgently needed a place to live. So La Monte and his wife Marian let me stay at their loft for a while. We’d get up every morning at the crack of dawn and sing low tones and then do morning ragas. It was great! La Monte and I were both studying with the North Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath, who was very influential on La Monte’s work, as well as Jon Hassell’s and my own. Charlemagne took a few lesson with him also, I believe.
During this period I met Tony Conrad and started playing in his group, The Dream Syndicate. Tony was also influential on my work and I learned a lot from playing with him as well.
Many people consider Massacre on MacDougal Street to be your ‘masterpiece’. Do you have a special connection with that work?
It’s the piece that got me into playing trumpet!
I had been wanting to write a brass octet for a while, and finally had the opportunity when a commission came my way from the Karole Armitage Dance Company. This was in 1982, I think. I had written an earlier piece called The Out of Tune Guitar, which was a sly tip-of-the-hat to La Monte, who already had a piece called The Well Tuned Piano. I made a transcription of TOOTG and set it for brass. At the time, I was against using pre-recorded tapes at dance concerts: I felt that dance companies should be using live music.
Karole really, really needed a tape, so I decided to make the piece that I made for her so extraordinarily difficult to play that the only way to realize it would be by recording it to a tape. That’s how I justified working this way.
Trumpet players’ lips get tired quite easily, so I wrote a lot of extremely high notes, which are tiring. Brass players cannot sustain high notes above high C for more than a few measures, so I wrote some the parts where high C was the lowest note, for the entire piece practically! There is no way on earth that piece can be played live, all in one go. Fortunately, I had the trombonist George Lewis contract the musicians, and I got brass players from the Broadway musical Cats (a brass player has to be REALLY good to play in Cats). In short, all of these guys were monsters on their instruments, and man, did they nail it! We recorded only 16 to 32 bars at a time in order to give their lips a rest. Then we’d stop, and then punch in where we left off on the tape.
I’m still pleased with the result, even after all this time.
I clearly remember watching you play at SXSW back in 2006. The show was immense, and somehow made even more so because it was in a church, it had a severe but also reverent atmosphere. Did you specifically plan to play it in a church for the aesthetic value or was this just a coincidence? How much emphasis do you put on locations for concerts as being an extra element of the show?
It was a coincidence. The show was organized by Jeff Hunt of the Table of the Elements Records, and it was Jeff who chose the space to present the artists on the label. The pieces we played were Die Donnergötter and Guitar Trio (G3); we did a version of both of these pieces for 6 electric guitars, electric bass, with Jonathan Kane, one of the founders of Swans and current leader of the minimalist blues-based group February, on drums.
I’ve played my smaller guitar pieces like G3 in just about every situation imaginable: rock clubs, concert halls, lofts, former factories, you name it! However, to be perfectly frank, I find that I have the most fun playing these pieces in rock clubs. The sound system and acoustics of a rock club are usually perfect for this music. Plus, one has the audience standing, yelling things, and jumping up and down, which gives us performers a lot of energy — more energy than we get if everyone is sitting down in a concert hall. Mind you, we enjoy paying G3 in concert halls, but the experience is different, it’s more contemplative. In a rock club, the experience is more Dionysian.
One of my larger guitar pieces, A Crimson Grail, was composed specifically for a cathedral. It was commissioned as a site-specific work. The first performance was in the basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris, which has a 15-second delay time. This is why I didn’t use a drum kit in this piece; the sound in the cathedral would have become too confused if I had.
We did the piece a second time outdoors at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago. I re-worked the piece so it would work without the delay time, but looking back, I wish I had included a full drum kit with it. I think I’ll add one the next time we do it in a non-cathedral environment.
Another show I managed to see was when you played at Blå in Oslo with a couple of local musicians which you guided through the set. How difficult is it using a plethora of musicians in various countries? Do you feel the realization of your music if ever truly reached live? Or, alternatively, is it exactly this angle that makes it interesting for you?
The piece that you heard in Oslo was Guitar Trio. We did a version for 6 electric guitars, bass and drums, and it was a blast. I think there is a cool video of a portion of it floating around on Youtube somewhere. Let me see if I can find it…
Yes! Here it is:
So, to answer your question, when we first played G3 back in 1977, I worked with a set band. The first band consisted of Nina Canal (Ut) and Glenn Branca, then of Theoretical Girls, and Wharton Tiers, also of Theoretical Girls. After playing with us a few times, Glenn wasted no time in deciding to form his own band of electric guitars that use special tunings, so I asked the visual artist Robert Longo — who also happened to be a wicked guitar player — to replace him. I continued to develop G3 with this band.
When Robert and Nina left to pursue their own projects, I worked with Karen Haglof, Robert Poss and Susan Stenger of Band of Susans to further refine the piece. By the mid 80s, we had distilled G3 to a compact, intense version of about 8 minutes. We usually played it as the finale of our sets, it became a kind of signature piece, the way Louie Louie was for Iggy Pop.
In the summer of 2006, Jeff Hunt of the Table of the Elements Records (now Radium Records) asked me to revive the original long version of G3, the one we did back in the 70s with Nina, Glenn and Wharton. We first did this at the Eyedrum in Atlanta, Georgia. As things turned out, there were a lot more than three guitarists who wanted to play, so I thought, “What the heck? Let’s go for it!” And it sounded great with more than three guitarists, so I decided to keep things like that…
Since 1989, I’ve been doing pieces for 100 electric guitars, and we always use local musicians. Cutting the expense of transporting 100 musicians from one city to another was an initial reason for recruiting locally, of course. But when we did that first 100G piece back in 1989, An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, we noticed that beautiful things were happening on a social level between the guitarists. Usually, in a rock context, one would have at the most two electric guitarists in the band. When you put 100 of them together, they all start networking, and by the time we’re done rehearsing with our 100G pieces, new groups have been formed. We had become a community, with everybody sharing ideas with each other. In one case, back in the 90s, a marriage resulted from two people meeting in the band, and today they are still together and have a kid!
So here’s my point: It’s a bit expensive to put one of these 100G babies together. So we thought, after the experience at the Eyedrum in Atlanta, that maybe we could do a kind of smaller scale version of G100 with the G3 piece, which is not at all expensive to produce.
We tried the idea out by doing a 13-city tour in the States, organized by my present manager and booking agent, Regina Greene of Front Porch Productions. My team consisted of me, my long-time collaborators David Daniell on guitar, and Eric Block, who was the sound engineer. We went from city to city, working with the local guitar luminaries of the region that we were playing in. I’d send the musicians lead sheets and mp3s of the piece ahead of time so they could have an idea of what they were getting into, and to give the bass player and drummer ideas of what they could play.
I had a wonderful experience on this tour. There is a score to the piece, with a formal structure. The score outlines in prose certain things that must be played at certain times and in certain ways. But there is still a lot of wiggle room, that is to say there is a lot of room for the musicians to express their creativity, to interpret the music in their own unique way. And this is exactly what happened. I met many, many fine musicians through doing things like this, and the performances were great. In Brooklyn, we had the entire Sonic Youth guitar section in the band, not to mention Alan Licht and Colin Langenus of USAISAMONSTER. In Canada, we had Godspeed You! Black Emperor, among others. In Chicago, the entire band of Tortoise was playing, including its fabulous drummer, John McEntire; along with Robert Lowe (of Lichens, and also one of the current guitarists in OM), and Ben Vida of Bird Show. We also had the bass player from Hüsker Du when we played in Minneapolis. It was fantastic.
So when we played in Oslo, I asked the promoters to simply find the local guitar luminaries of Oslo to play, and emphasized that in order for things to work, the drummer had to be a fabulous kick-ass drummer who hits the drums HARD, yet poetically, somehow. And this is what they did. We had a blast at the concert.
When we mount G3 in Europe, I usually show up to the city by myself and direct the performance, which I also play in. What I have experienced in the many times we have mounted these G3 performances in Europe is exactly what I experienced in the USA. Even though it’s always the same basic piece that we are playing in each city, each performance is different in its rendering and interpretation, thanks to the individuality and talent of the participating musicians.
And finally, what are you currently working on and can we hope to see you return to Norway any time soon?
I have three pieces for 100 or 200 guitars that we currently have on offer. And we continue to offer the G3 program, which is currently the most popular. From time to time, we also do Die Donnergötter on the program, but that requires a number of rehearsals that I teach in a workshop form. G3 can be learned in one or two rehearsals, so it is more popular since it is the easiest to produce.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been focusing on trumpet in addition to guitar, and have two recent releases, Outdoor Spell, released last year on Northern-Spy records, a new label based in Brooklyn, and Rêve Parisien on Primary Information Records — this record came out a few months ago.
In addition to the guitar pieces, I’m touring a solo program with me on trumpet and guitar. Sometimes we add a drummer and other musicians to this program; the additional musicians are usually people I know who are based in the city where I’m playing. Which is not a problem as I know a lot of cool musicians in a lot of cities, at this point! So far, with the trumpet program, I’ve worked with Kevin Shea of Talibam!, Mostly Others do the Killing, and Peter Evans Quartet, as well as Christian Pahud (Suisse), Ryan Sawyer (Brooklyn), Will Guthrie (NZ, FR), and Paul Bouchers (Netherlands). I’ve also been collaborating with other composers and groups. I did a recent recording collaboration with Charlemagne Palestine in Bruxelles with him on keyboards and me on trumpet and guitar. I’ve also been working with the Brooklyn group Oneida, we have a performance in New York coming up at the Ecstatic Music Festival in March. I’m playing mostly electric guitar in that one. And in April I’m doing a duo performance with the Icelandic composer/performer Valgeir Sigurðsson in Austria at the Donau Festival.
Unfortunately, I have nothing coming up in Norway. The last time I played there was in 2007 at the Kosmische Club in Oslo, so naturally I am itching to get back! If anyone is interested, they can contact my manager, Regina Greene at: <frontporchproductionsrg(@)gmail.com>
Links to soundtracks:
MySpace – G3 & Die Donnergötter: http://www.myspace.com/rhyschatham
Northern Spy – Outdoor Spell: http://northern-spy.com/products-page/rhys-chatham-outdoor-spell/
Primary Information – Rêve Parisien: http://primaryinformation.org/index.php?/upcoming/rhys-chathamreve-parisien/
Terry Riley – A Rainbow in Curved Air: http://youtu.be/apxuRKWmEJs
Cover illustrations and artwork by Kjetil Tangen