We had a long conversation with Rhys Chatham, just after the announcement of the release of his last workout, titled “A Pythagorean Dream” (out on June 3rd by Foom). An excursus of Rhys’ past, present, and future that we advise you to observe, below you’ll find the links to stream and purchase the album.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Rhys! How are you?
Rhys Chatham: I’m well, thank you.
Chain D.L.K.: Even though I think you don’t need any introduction, let’s begin by removing some dust on old surfaces… first of all, how did you get close to music? Do you remember the exact moment when that spark got ignited?
Rhys Chatham: The first piece I remember hearing was when I was about three years old. My parents lived in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. It was where all the “beatniks” of the fifties lived. The first piece I remember hearing was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It still brings tears to my eye when I hear it after a long time of not hearing it. I got close to music largely through my father, Price. He was a serious amateur on the harpsichord, so my first exposure to music was early music: music of the Renaissance, particularly the Queen Elizabethan period.
Chain D.L.K.: As a past member of the so-called Theatre of Eternal Music, during your very first contact with La Monte Young, how would you describe what’s behind the idea of eternal music? Do you believe in the eternity of musicians beyond the music itself?
Rhys Chatham: When La Monte speaks of eternal music, he is simply speaking of music of long duration, music that goes on for a long time and seems timeless. For example, when we hear the sound of a tamboura, which is a large four-stringed lute used in Indian music as a drone accompaniment, we hear this kind of sound.
Chain D.L.K.: The triumvirate of the forerunners of minimalist music are notably La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Tony Conrad. What’s the main lesson you’ve learned from any of them?
Rhys Chatham: The first time I heard Terry Riley was in 1968 at a nightclub in New York called the Electric Circus. I was a teenager back then, studying with the composer Morton Subotnick. The kind of music that I listened to and composed was in the post-serial style. You know, composers like Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, or Mario Davidovsky, people like that. So when I heard Terry play for the first time, I hated it. The music that I liked was serial and atonal. Here was this guy playing a circus organ! It wasn’t serious!
I asked for my money back, but the people at the door wouldn’t give it to me. So I went back and listened to the rest of the concert. It was Terry’s seminal piece for the Yamaha club organ, A Rainbow in Curved Air. What I heard turned out to be a kind of musical epiphany for me! I walked into the concert as a confirmed post-serialist composer. And by the time Terry was done playing, I had transformed into a minimalist composer! So the way I compose music today is all Terry’s fault!
In 1971, I founded a program series for experimental music at a place called the Kitchen, in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. I had heard of Tony Conrad, having seen his film The Flicker, and having heard recordings of him and John Cale playing with La Monte Young in the Theater of Eternal Music. Tony not only agreed to play at the Kitchen, but he also asked me to play in his group. I played a monochord in just intonation that Tony had built. This group ended up being the forerunner of Outside the Dream Syndicate, Tony’s release on Virgin with Faust.
After playing with Tony, I hooked up with La Monte. At the time, I was a harpsichord and piano tuner. I offered to tune La Monte’s piano for him in exchange for lessons. This is the piano that he used for his piece The Well Tuned Piano. La Monte agreed, which was how I learned La Monte’s system of tuning in just intonation. After I while, I ended up playing in La Monte’s group, the Theater of Eternal Music. In addition to La Monte and Marian Zazeela, Jon Hassell was in the band playing trumpet. Terry, who had moved back to California, would sit in whenever he happened to be visiting New York.
Chain D.L.K.: You also had many relevant experiences and contacts within the NY punk movement…any unedited story of some of its top characters you want to share with our readers?
Rhys Chatham: So after working with Tony and La Monte, I was more or less a hardcore early minimalist in the music I was doing. In 1975, a group of composers my age arrived on the NY downtown scene from California. A number of them had studied at Mills College with Robert Ashley. One of them, a guy named Peter Gordon, was doing something rather odd. He was combining the avant-garde techniques he had learned with Ashley, but using rock instruments and working with a rock sound. I thought this was really weird, but I kind of liked it. Eventually Peter asked me to play flute in his band, which was called the Love of Life Orchestra. I was amazed being in this band. I had never played with a rock drummer before, or with an electric bass player. The bass player in Peter’s band was Ernie Brooks, from the Modern Lovers, and the drummer was David Van Tieghem.
Anyway, one day Peter and I were walking back from rehearsal to the East Village, where we both lived. Peter asked me a personal question. He said, “Rhys, have you ever, in your entire life, been to a rock concert?” I confided to Peter that I had never been to one. Sure, I had plenty of LPs of rock, but during my life I went mostly to concerts of classical music, for example, Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Bach or hearing Stockhausen play Stimmung, or concerts of John Cage at the Kitchen. Things like that.
Peter laughed and said, “You know, Rhys, there is this very nice rock club near where we live. It is called CBGBs. There’s an excellent rock group playing there tonight. Why don’t we go together?”
I agreed to go! It was May 1976. The group playing was The Ramones. Their first album had just been released that month, and what I heard changed my life. When I heard The Ramones, I was awed by the raw power of the music, of course. But I also felt surprisingly close to it. They were working with three chords. I was only working with one! But as a minimalist, I felt we had a lot in common.
It was at this point that I decided to pick up the electric guitar. Fortunately, the guitarist of Peter’s band, Scott Johnson, had a Telecaster guitar that he wasn’t using. He showed me how to play bar chords and a simple blues scale, and that’s how I got my start!
Chain D.L.K.: Any word about your friendship/artistic partnership with Charlemagne Palestine?
Rhys Chatham: I’ve known Charlemagne since I was a teenager. He actually knew my father before he knew me! I met Charlemagne at Morton Subotnick’s electronic music studio. At the time, I was making electronic music that sounded like Morton’s Silver Apples of the Moon. Which is to say that there was a lot of analog sequencer in the music that I was doing.
Charlemagne, who is five years older than I am, was always a kind of big brother figure in my life. I always wanted to be just like him. We were at the electronic music studio together in 1969. At the time, Charlemagne was doing music of long duration. I had already heard of Terry Riley at that point, but I hadn’t met or heard Tony or La Monte’s music. So Charlemagne was the first person I heard who worked with long, sustained tones in their music. He was a big influence on me, and pretty soon after that, I was doing music using long, sustained tones also.
Charlemagne and I eventually played in a trio with Tony Conrad at the start of the 70s; there is even a release out of this music on the Italian New Tone record label. Soon after this, Charlemagne became a very important figure on the New York downtown scene. At one point in New York, all the excitement was centering around the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Charlemagne Palestine, Charlemagne with his seminal work for Bösendorfer piano, Strumming Music.
So my big brother Charlemagne had gotten so big that he was out of my league! For one reason or another outside of our control, we didn’t play together again for many years. But finally, a few years ago, we started playing together again, with me on trumpet and electric guitar going through my looping setup, and Charlemagne on piano, synthesizers and voice. We released a 3-CD set in 2014 on the Belgium Sub Rosa label.
Chain D.L.K.: Any teddy bear in his vast collection you’d like to sleep with or have assist you during a live performance? 🙂
Rhys Chatham: The big elephant. Definitely the big elephant! That being said, after playing with Charlemagne, he inspired me to start my own collection of teddy bears. So you see?!?! Charlemagne has influenced me, once again!
Chain D.L.K.: 400 electric guitars for “A Crimson Grail”…are you planning a bigger orchestra, by chance?
Rhys Chatham: Not at present, no.
Chain D.L.K.: Some reviewers considered it a sort of megalomaniacal output. Any reply to this opinion?
Rhys Chatham: The performance you were speaking of, A Crimson Grail, was made in 2005 for a performance at the Sacre Couer cathedral in Paris. The idea was to surround the public with guitars. I thought it would take 400 electric guitars to do this, but in fact, “only” 126 guitarists showed up! It turned out to be enough.
When we did the show at Lincoln Center in 2010, it was a much larger space, and also it was outdoors. So we needed 200 guitarists and 16 bass players to surround the audience.
The reason I began writing for 100 electric guitars back in 1989 was because I was curious to know what the sound of it would be, not for any megalomaniac motivations. What would be the sonority, I wondered? The first piece I did for 100 electric guitars was called An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. The premiere was in Lille, France in 1989, and since then we’ve mounted the piece all over the world. Ten years later, starting in about the year 2000, other composers had by then heard this sound of my orchestra of guitars and had fallen in love with its sound as well, so now there are a number of us working with this beautiful instrumentation. My view is, this is an instrumentation that is for everybody. No one has a copyright on it!
I plan to continue writing new pieces for this instrument; in fact, I have already started on a new one! For my next G100 piece, I am writing for 100 electric guitars with no electric bass, no drums, and no amplification other than the amplifiers of the guitarists. It will be a celebration of the sound of the electric guitar uniquely. Starting with An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, and continuing with all the other subsequent music for this instrumentation by other composers, we have answered the question, “What is the sound of 100 electric guitars playing very loud?” For my new piece, I am posing the question: “What is the sound of 100 electric guitars playing quietly?!?!”
Chain D.L.K.: How’s your iPod?
Rhys Chatham: I don’t own an iPod. I listen to vinyl records mostly, or I like to go to live concerts.
Chain D.L.K.: You’ve often reprised Guitar Trio over the years…what’s the reason for this constant recurrence? Is there any mostly-ignored cause of such a frequent return to that great release?
Rhys Chatham: Guitar Trio is my life… I love this piece. It’s my song, and I love to sing it. I never get tired of playing it. I always hear something new in it, every time I play it. That’s because I wrote it in such a way that it tells a story, but it is the story of the person who hears it. Everybody hears it in a different way. This is because the primary melodic vocabulary of the piece is found in the overtones generated by the open strings of the guitars we are playing, and everyone hears those overtones in a different way, and they come out differently every time we play it.
That’s why I never get tired of playing or listening to Guitar Trio.
Chain D.L.K.: Can you introduce your forthcoming album “Pythagorean Dream” in your own words?
Rhys Chatham: So the question that I had after I made my last G100 piece was—What will I do now? Do I write a piece for 1,000 electric guitars? I mean, it seems a little ridiculous; organizing 200 guitarists is already a nightmare. I’ve seen other composers try to do things for 1,000 musicians, and what often happens is that it looks like a lot of people are performing, but they only end up getting around 400! I just didn’t want to take that route.
So after the 200-guitar piece I thought—Why not get back to basics and play a solo?
I’m a composer, yes, but I play music every day. I love to play, and I love to play concerts, and have the interaction between the public and myself that a live concert entails that you can’t get any other way. The thing about the 200 electric guitar concerts is: how many of those can I do a year? One, two? So with the solo work, I wanted something that was portable, that I could play a lot, but in making the solo my intention was—How can I get one instruments to sound like a hundred instruments? And I posed that question to myself. And I thought of Terry Riley…
I thought of a piece of Terry Riley’s that I had seen. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had seen this piece back in 1969. I was a teenager, mind you. It was called Poppy No Good’s Phantom Band, and in it Terry played soprano saxophone, and it went into a Revox tape recorder, which went into yet another Revox tape recorder, twenty feet apart, so he’d record into one, and you’d hear that sound, but then you’d hear the sound coming back as the delay, 20 seconds later, which fed back into the original one, creating a sound like 100 or 1,000 soprano saxophones. Just beautiful! So I was thinking back to that, but the thing about Revox tape recorders is, I have to tell you, they’re heavy. They weigh something like 25 kilos. Ouch! It is not exactly something one can do extensive touring with.
Fortunately, by the 1990s, guitar pedal manufacturers were starting to make pedals that recreated digitally the same effect that Terry got back in the 60s. A company called Line 6 came out with a wonderful pedal that had a Terry Riley effect. They didn’t call it the Terry Riley effect, but that’s what it was. Other people would know this effect as Frippertronics, because Robert Fripp had exactly the same idea as Terry. Actually, he didn’t get the idea directly from Terry, he got it from Brian Eno, who got it from Terry, but who cares where the idea came from?!?! Because what Fripp did with it was completely different from what Terry did with it.
So with the solo I do in A Pythagorean Dream, I’m coming back to this idea of Frippertronics and Terry Riley’s Poppy No Good’s Phantom Band, except with pedals. Originally I was using three Line 6 pedals, and I articulated a riff on one of the pedals, perhaps for 8 seconds, and it would go through the left channel. Then I articulated exactly the same riff again, for the second channel, except it would be for 9 seconds. And, a third time on the third channel, on the right, for 10 seconds. So you would have this phase going on of the same riff in a phase relationship of 8, 9, and 10. And the effect was that it didn’t sound like a loop. It sounded like a melody that was continuous and ever changing. Plus you got this feedback effect that sounded like a hundred instruments slowly changing from one thing to the next. So, the impetus of the idea came out of wanting to do a solo, but not have it sound like one instrument, having it sound like many instruments, the way that Terry or Robert Fripp used to do. But just the way that Fripp took Terry’s idea with the two Revox tape recorders, he turned it into his own personal voice—so it wasn’t an imitation of Terry, it was something completely different. In doing this music, which is inspired by these two composers, I put it through my own personal filter, coming out of the early minimalist musical places that I originally came from.
Chain D.L.K.: You sometimes say you are going to get back to more classical musical languages. Does “Pythagorean Dream” adhere to your intent?
Rhys Chatham: Pythagorean Dream is a response to my 100 electric guitar pieces. It is not going back to classical themes, for example, if I were writing string quartets or something like that.
Chain D.L.K.: Any other works in progress?
Rhys Chatham: Well, this is a secret, and you have to promise not to tell anybody, except for your friends who read Chain D.L.K., of course! But I’m starting to write pieces (when no one is looking) for combinations of instruments that classical musicians can play! For example, flute duets or string trios, and the like. It is too early to talk about these pieces, but they are something that I might be releasing as sheet music in the coming years for other musicians to play.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there anything you’re unsure about accomplishing in the field of music?
Rhys Chatham: I am not sure what this question means. Do you mean is there anything that I want to do in music that I haven’t done yet? If that’s what you mean, I’ve always wanted to write music, especially for film. I’ve already done a bit of this, but I’d like to do more.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides Pythagorean ones, are there any recurring dreams you have that you want to share with us?
Rhys Chatham: I dream often of elephants.
Usually they are flying and are playing electric guitars. The girl elephants have a pink ribbon tied on their head. The boy elephants have a blue one. In my dreams, there are usually an equal number of elephants with pink and blue ribbons.
I do not know what this dream means. I asked my wife. She doesn’t know either. Anyway, it’s nothing to worry about. Almost all of my dreams involve me on tour, playing a concert or being in a rehearsal. They are very literal. And there are the elephants, of course. Everywhere. So the dream probably means I was a guitar-playing elephant in a previous life!
19 May 2016