Rhys Chatham was born in Manhattan in 1952. He came under the musical influence of his father, Price, a harpsichordist, and became a devotee of the work of early music composers such as Giles Farnaby and John Bull, playing their music on a virginal. Switching to baroque and Boehm flute, he soon became interested in contemporary music and began playing the work of Edgard Varèse, Luciano Berio, Stefan Wolpe, Mario Davidovsky, and Pierre Boulez.
His immersion in the contemporary literature for flute led to his desire to compose. He began studying counterpoint and harmony at the age of 13 with Donald Stratton and Tom Manoff, who sparked his interest in serialism. While at NYU, Chatham met Morton Subotnick, who encouraged him to compose electronic music. Working under Subotnick's guidance at the NYU Studio for Electronic Music, he met Maryanne Amacher, Charlemagne Palestine, Serge Tcherepnin, Ingram Marshall, and Eliane Radigue. These composers, more than anyone else, kindled Chatham's interest in music of long duration, which ultimately led him to study and work with La Monte Young, tuning his piano in just intonation in exchange for lessons.
Rhys Chatham studied tuning under Hugh Gough in New York and William Dowd in Cambridge and supported himself during the early seventies by tuning the instruments of such artists as Gustav Leonhardt, Albert Fuller, Paul Jacobs, and Glenn Gould, to name only a few. His ability to tune and hear harmonics lead to his interest in making compositions incorporating the overtone series. This interest stayed with him long after the digital tuner rendered his harpsichord tuning skill useless.
Founder of the music program at the Kitchen Center in downtown Manhattan in 1971, Chatham was its music director between 1971-73 and later from 1977-80. He was responsible for programming more than 250 concerts of living composers during this period including the NEW MUSIC / NEW YORK Festival, which was held between 8-16 June 1979, the prototype upon which the NEW MUSIC AMERICA Festival was later based.
The NEW MUSIC / NEW YORK Festival included the following composers (listed in order of appearance): Robert Ashley, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich Ensemble, A. Spencer Barefield, Karl Berger, Marc Grafe, Garrett List, Leo Smith, Peter Zummo, Charles Amirkhanian, Connie Beckley, Jon Deak, Scott Johnson, Jill Kroesen, David Van Tieghem, Michael Byron, Philip Corner, Malcom Goldstein, William Hellermann, Petr Kotik, Charlie Morrow, Barbara Benary, Joe Celli, Don Cherry, Tom Johnson, Jeanne Lee, Phill Niblock, Larry Austin, Joel Chadabe, Charles Dodge, George Lewis, Alvin Lucier, Laurie Spiegel, David Behrman, Tony Conrad, Jon Gibson, Annea Lockwood, Charlemagne Palestine, Ivan Tcherepnin, Jon Hassell, David Mahler, Gordon Mumma, Michael Nyman, Richard Teitelbaum, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Laurie Anderson, Rhys Chatham, Peter Gordon, Jeffrey Lohn, Frankie Mann, Ned Sublette.
Chatham wrote his first composition in just intonation in 1971. Following the lead of musicians such as Young, Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Cornelius Cardew, and Frederic Rzewski, he then began working as a composer-performer with non-notated music of various sorts, which culminated in 1976 when he first started working with hard rock. Rather than simply appropriating rock music, he worked as a kind of "secret agent" in the field, becoming an active figure on the late-night rock scene in New York City. With his composition, GUITAR TRIO (1977), Rhys Chatham became the first composer to make use of multiple electric guitars in just intonation to merge the extended-time music of the sixties and seventies with serious hard rock.
By 1982, Chatham was going deaf from playing too much loud music. He decided to make a series of fully notated pieces for the slightly quieter brass family of instruments. After awhile, this renewed interest in notation (and an improvement in his hearing) led him to return to writing for electric guitar ensemble; DIE DONNERGOTTER (1984-86) was his first effort in this direction. After a series of interim pieces he concluded this period with an ultimate work, AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE (1989) for a symphony of 100 electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. A version of ANGEL for a musical grouping of one thousand (1000 ) electric guitars is planned for the summer of 1997 in France.
Rhys Chatham's compositional concern has been to bring together seemingly incompatible elements and put them through a personal filter so as to vertically align them. During the seventies and much of the eighties, he devoted himself to combining the pounding, throbbing rhythms of rock with the aesthetic concerns of post-minimalism. At the end of the eighties, his compositional interest turned to making full use of the enormous freedom composers now have available to them by launching an investigation into the nature of this freedom itself.
In the early nineties, Chatham began to focus his energy on playing trumpet and developing a personal "voice" on the instrument in the context of techno and trip-hop music. The result is a bit like a trumpet which sounds like an extremely distorted electric guitar. This music can be heard on his collaborative compositions with Martin Wheeler, NEON (NTone, released in May 1996) as well as ALTESSE (Virgin Records, released in October 1996) on the Marcro Dub Infection 2 compilation put together by Kevin Martin.
Two releases are due out on Table of Elements Records in the fall of 1999. The first will be a collection of Rhys' works for electric guitar ensembles from the late seventies up to 1988. The second release will be the complete version of AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE, Rhys' evening-length work for 100 electric guitars.
More new trumpet music from Rhys can be heard on the London-based Ninja Tune subsidiary, the NTone label. The latest CD is entitled SEPTILE (released in February 1998), made in collaboration with Jonathan Kane and DJ Elated System. A sample track can be heard on Real Audio by clicking on SEPTILE, which will take you to Ntone's Septile web site.
A new Rhys Chatham trumpet CD was released in April of 1999 on the revitalized Wire Editions Label. The Wire hooked Rhys up with some of London's most fiery and dynamic improvisors: "stereo guitarist" Gary Smith, keyboardist/sampler Pat Thomas, bassist Gary Jeff, and drummer Lou Ciccotelli (of God/Ice fame). To listen to Real Audio samples of some of the tracks, click on The Wire Editions.
Major commissions include:
Grand Théâtre du Geneve: Symphony No. 4 (1994) for full orchestra.
Orbe Théâtre: TAUROMAQUIA (1993) for 100 electric guitars, bs, and drms. Evening length theater piece by Jean-Philippe Guerlais.
Lyon Opéra Ballet: Les Vespres de la Vierge (1992) for 8 singers, 2 trpts, 2 sax, trombone, tuba, and percussion. For a dance by Ralph Lemon.
Musica Festival à Strasbourg: Warehouse of Saints: Songs for Spies, (1991) for 100 el guitars, bs, drms.
Brooklyn Academy of Music: The Heart Cries with Many Voices (1990) for 9 early music singers, 6 el.gtrs, el. bs. and drums.
l'Aéronef à Lille: An Angel Moves too Fast to See (1989) for 100 el.gtrs, el bs, drms.
Serious Fun! at Lincoln Center: Minerva (1988) for 2 trumpets, battery, and el. gtr. ensemble.
Massachusetts State Council on the Arts: Die Dönnergötter (1984-86) for 6 el. guitars, el. bass, and drums.
S.E.M. Ensemble: Waterloo, No.2 (1986) brass and battery.
Groupe de Recherche Chorégraphique de l'Opéra de Paris: For Brass(1982) for brass octet and drums. For a dance by Karole Armitage.
Karole Armitage Dance Co: Drastic Classicism (1981) for 4 el. gtrs. el. bs, drums.
He has been a recipient of CAPS, National Endowment on the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, Massachusetts Council on the Arts, Meet the Composer, and Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts Fellowships.
His discography includes Factor X (Moers Music) and Die Donnergötter(Dossier, re-release in America on Homestead), NEON (NTone) with Martin Wheeler, Macro Dub Infection 2 (Virgin Records) compilation SEPTILE (Ntone), as well as three new releases: Rhys' trumpet on The Wire Edtions label in January of 1999, a collection of works for electic guitar ensemble from the 70-s & 80s as well as the complete AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE on Table of Elements Records, due for release in the spring of 1999.
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