Rhys Chatham Interview
from avant-classical to avant-rock in late 70’s NYC
Rhys Chatham Interview:
For Rhys Chatham, NYC was the center of the universe in the 1970’s. There was NYC, and there was the rest of the world, he would tell me. By the 70’s Rhys had already studied with Morton Subotnik, the modernist synth pioneer, and La Monte Young, the minimalist pioneer of the avant-garde. At this time, atonal serial music dominated the “serious” classical world of “art music”. Also by then, John Cage had become a hugely popular figure among the avant-garde for introducing the use of randomness in composition. But the drone music of La Monte Young was catching on, and it wouldn’t be long before minimalism would become a well used tool in avant-classical composition.
By the mid 70’s, Rhys was so committed to pursuing classical art music that he had never been to a rock club. He certainly had never been to CBGBs. A friend would invite him there to see The Ramones. The loudness and simplicity of the guitar sounds, not to mention the energy of the band and the crowd, got the attention of Rhys. It got him thinking too. He would say that the three chord music of the Ramones was still two more chords than he was using, and he left the show convinced that he could bring rock music into the avant-classical arena.
Guitar was not an instrument that Rhys was familiar with when he started this adventure with rock music. He witnessed many non-musicians around him taking up instruments for the first time and a month later playing in clubs. He liked what he heard. Simple, passionate, confrontational, unique, new. What more could an avant-garde composer ask for?
He formed his own band. When they played CBGBs, as they must, he feared the audience reaction might be somewhat brutal. Thrown beer cans was a mild reaction at this club. If they caught a whiff of artiness in his rock performance, physical damage to his gear and himself was on his mind. Fortunately for him that did not happen.
What did happen was a self realization that he was still performing in the mindset of a classical composer. He was counting out the time of his compositions in his head as he performed them on stage. He was stiff. He knew this was not how one did rock. He abandoned his own band in favor of joining someone else’s so that he could be less focused on being the front man and more focused on the feeling of the music he was playing. He learned to rock.
Around this time in early 1978, two guys came to NYC that would play a huge role in the trajectory of avant music. Both had arrived to explore, and perhaps exploit, the nascent art-punk-noise new music as they trolled CB’s and elsewhere. Brian Eno had already hooked up with The Talking Heads and was working on an album with them. Giorgio Gomelsky just arrived from France where he was working with avant-progessive musicians like Magma and Daevid Allen, a founder of Soft Machine and Gong.
Gomelsky and Eno both recognized what was going on in NYC in 1978 and saw it’s importance to whatever was going to happen to the next wave of rock music. Eno saw these bands as a flash-in-the-pan experimentation gone wild that would be short lived. His goal was to document it quickly before the flash died out. Gomelsky had more long term plans. His goal was to merge the avant-rock musicians he had been working with in Europe with the same he had identified in NY; chief among them, a young Bill Laswell.
Eno would quickly produce the No New York album with four of the now labeled No Wave bands. Rhys was invited by Eno to these recording sessions, but somehow forgot to attend. Some of the bands that did get recorded were not so happy with the results or Eno’s apparent indifference in the studio. The entire No New York recording sessions seemed to fracture the scene as much as it publicized it.
Gomelsky would take a bit longer to develop the Zu Manifestival by Oct of 1978. This was a 12+ hour long festival featuring music, poetry and a panel discussion on the importance, or not, of this avant-garde branch of progressive music. The music would include Daevid Allen and his new backing band put together by Bill Laswell. They were sometimes called NY Gong. The backing band was called Zu Band and later would record and perform as Material. Other bands on the bill included Fred Frith and Chris Cutler from Henry Cow, The Muffins, Arsenal with Rhys Chatham, Theoretical Girls with Glenn Branca, and many more. Gomelsky was forming the Zu Records label. After the Manifestival in NY they would take this show on the road, first in North America, then in France. Gomelsky had big plans for Zu.
For Rhys Chatham this period of time was an amazing explosion of creativity. Soon after his time in Arsenal he would begin composing works for large guitar ensembles to further explore his interest in loud, dense, overtone-driven sounds that he first began exploring in his No Wave days with the composition Guitar Trio (1977). In the 1980’s his compositions would go from an ensemble of 6 electric guitars to an orchestra of 100. In the late 1980’s he moved to France. There, he would tour these massive guitar works, occasionally bringing them to North America. Eventually he would record and perform works for 200 and 400 electric guitars.
If you’ve never heard 6 electric guitars strumming away at top volume – or 100 – let me tell you what it’s like.
Have you ever heard a bagpipe band? In most parts of the USA they’re hard to avoid during certain holidays. I love them. In fact, I love almost all marching bands; especially the drum corps. I don’t know much about the rules of a bagpipe band, other than there are a lot of them that are applied to competitions worldwide. I would attend these competitions in my area, which had the largest of its kind in North America at the time. This meant that dozens of pipe bands traveled from all over the world to compete for the judges ears, and mine. The day long competition of bands was always fun to hear, but it was the end-of-day performance of massed pipe bands that I looked forward to the most. All the bands that came would gather in front of a large grandstand. The number of bagpipe players would be in the hundreds. Conductors would be spread out on tall stands in front of the bands with a main conductor in the middle at a higher position. The name of the piece to be played would be shouted out by the main conductor. He would then make a gesture and the massive drone of bagpipes would kick in … soft at first, and then thunderous. So many bagpipes playing the same tune slightly out of sync. The dissonance washed over me like a warm tidal wave of ecstasy.
A large electric guitar ensemble performance is like that … only on steroids.
In France, Rhys would hit his stride composing works for 100 guitars and more. Arranging to perform these works is as mammoth a task as the works themselves. Because of this, the tours for these works rarely traveled outside of France and neighboring countries. Rarely did Rhys return to North America, but on occasion he did, and in 2008 he was back in NYC ready to perform a work for 200 guitars outdoors at the Lincoln Center. Before a chord could be strummed, the skies opened up and the event had to be canceled. Ouch. Fortunately, a year later they would try to do it again, this time with success.
At this point, I know your dying to listen to some of this music. Well fear not my intrepid reader, for I have scoured the corners of Youtube to find the best representations for you. Actually, there aren’t any. That is, there are plenty of videos of Rhys’ works, but they all have pretty bad sound quality. There is one, however, that did captivate me. It sounds pretty good, and better yet it gives a great feel for what it was like to be there. The camera operator did a good job of moving around just enough to give us a variety of points of view, including fellow attendees in the immediate vicinity and some of the 200 performers. With that, I give you …
August 8, 2009
'A Crimson Grail' Finale, Lincoln Center NYC
Of course any recording, even professionally done, can only hint at the impact a work like this has when you witness it live and in person. I’ve seen a few myself, done by composers other than Rhys. I’ve even participated in a few at the gracious invitation of Bay Area local composer Moe Staiano as part of his Moe!kestra!.
September 5th, 2009
Moe! Staiano's Moe!kestra! Performs “End of an Error” part 5 of 8
In 2013 Rhys came to Richmond CA to perform a 100 guitar piece and I would finally get to see one of his massive masterpieces for myself. Not only that, but I got to see my good friend Moe in the performance playing one of the 100 guitars.
November 17, 2013
The venue could not have been more perfect. A huge warehouse built on an industrial pier had been transformed into a performance space. The place could easily hold a 747.
I would encourage you to try to experience this music yourself, right now. Start by exploring the above links. Then, go to the largest room you can find, throw your headphones away and crank up the volume on a few of these pieces with the biggest speakers that you’ve got. Now, close your eyes and feel the ecstasy flowing over you.