Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rhys Chatham at the Soy Festival (Nantes): “Nothing but a party… and nothing but rock!”

In 2004, Rhys Chatham was at le lieu unique, Nantes, with An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Last October 29th, the New York composer was back in Nantes to headline the Soy Festival with his very first electric guitar piece, Guitar Trio. After the majesty of a 100-guitar symphony, the fury of six punk guitars.

Rhys Chatham’s music has two origins. On the one hand, it comes from the minimalist avant-garde, the composer being a part of a hallowed tradition which goes from La Monte Young to Tony Conrad and from Terry Riley to Charlemagne Palestine, and also including the better known Philip Glass and Steve Reich. On the other hand, it comes from the rock of the Ramones: it was a Ramones concert at CBGB’s that allowed Rhys Chatham, who was 25 at the time and more familiar with French composer Pierre Boulez than the effervescent rock scene of his hometown, to “find his own voice”, the voice of a pionneer now known as the initiator of the noise rock movement, and a major influence of many experimental rock groups, such as Band of Susans or Sonic Youth.

“I was composing minimalist music in the vein of La Monte Young at that time. And then, I went to a concert of the Ramones at CBGB’s, and it changed my life. I felt a link with the music. At that precise moment, I borrowed a friend’s Fender electric guitar, and this is how I went into rock. Essentially I thought that if Steve [Reich] could work with african music, and Phil [Glass] could work with jazz, I could work with rock. Why not?”

The result of that research was Guitar Trio, the very first piece to combine the principles of minimalism with those of rock. At first, Rhys Chatham experimented with various configurations– one of them, Tone Death, including a saxophone. After 1977, the piece was standardized as a trio for three eletric guitars, electric bass and drums. Its current instrumentation consists of two to ten electric guitars, electric bass and drums – Rhys Chatham being rather undecided as far as his definition of a “trio” is concerned.

Guitar Trio is based on a very simple principle, whose effects are extremely rich: repetition. Guitarists exert themselves at persistently repeating the same note, and then the same basic chord, for close to 20 minutes. Their aim: to extract all their harmonic substance. As Rhys Chatham reminds us, a note is never “pure” but contains, besides its fundamental frequency, an infinite number of other frequencies, some of them being more audible than others, depending on the instrument and the way it is being played.

From unity may thus arise diversity. From unison, melody. Recalling one of the first performances of Guitar Trio at Max’s Kansas City, Rhys Chatham remembers: “People would come back to the sound board to ask our engineer where we were hiding the singers. The overtones and harmonics we were playing rang out with such clarity that the audiences actually thought they were hearing vocalists.” (1)

Harmonic deployment is the main effect of the use of repetition. It’s not the only one. For Rhys Chatham, repeating the same chord ceaselessly at an obscenely loud volume, with the support of a single drummer who penetrates and structures the general waveform of the sound from the inside, is also a means of creating among his audience – and incidentally, among his musicians – a kind of shamanic state of trance.

The originality of Guitar Trio rests upon the transposition of strictly minimalist principles – repetition, playing with the overtones – into the field of rock, and their subordination to its instrumentation, playing techniques and gesture. Guitar Trio isn’t therefore one of those pieces that only hardened fans of contemporary music can appreciate. It does not rest so much upon a theoretical interrest as it does upon the visceral impact produced by a group of genuine rockers playing very, very loud and very, very fast – the performance ends up with an orgy of tremolos, as well as a certain amount of broken guitar strings…

The impact is all the stronger as Rhys Chatham always works with luminaries of the local rock scene: three quarters of Sonic Youth in Brooklyn, members of Tortoise in Chicago, of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Montreal. The composer could in no way content himself with a musical joke such as the ventures into rock of Tod Machover when he was at IRCAM (Vatican City of contemporary music in France), or even those of Pierre Henry – the model of the genre being the incredible Messe pour le temps présent of 1967. For it is a matter of respect for the genre.

“When I composed Guitar Trio, it was very important for me not to be an “infiltrator” on the rock scene. It’s very easy for a classical composer – Tod Machover, for example – to write a piece for quote and quote rock and to play in in a classical context. It was very important for me that I play this music – that I gave everything to, my background as a classical composer as well as my background as a rock musician – for a rock audiece, in a rock context, with rock musicians.”

Since 1977, Rhys Chatham cheerfully jumped from three guitars to six (Die Donnergötter, 1984-85), and then to 100 (An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, 1989). His work for electric guitars culminated in Paris' butte Montmartre district with the 400 guitars of Crimson Grail, a monumental yet delicate piece commissioned by the City of Paris for the Nuit Blanche 2005 festival, and – almost – performed last August in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors series.

Last year, the composer had a new epiphany. This time, it wasn’t about the punk of The Ramones, but the drone doom metal of Sleep: “Quite recently, I was touring in a bus, and I heard this group called Sleep in an album called Dopesmoker, and it absolutely blew my mind. I said to myself: ‘Why, this is my music!’” As a result, Rhys Chatham went back to essentials – three guitars, bass and drums – and hit the road again with his new group, Essentialist. His project: to break down metal to its basics elements; to reconstruct it; to transcend its primitive signification. To be heard again soon in Europe and America.

Words: Sophie Pécaud, 2007.
Photo: Renaud Certin.

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

Note :
(1) Rhys Chatham, Composer’s Notebook 1990. Toward A Musical Agenda For The 1990s, Table of the Elements, Atlanta, 1990.

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