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death is my melting georgia sno-cone ISSUE 22 (10/96)
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DA: Would you like to offer a brief recap of your career so far (for the benefit of DEAD ANGEL readers entering the Chatham saga for the first time)?
RC: My goal is to get in touch with my audience's spirit-body by creating a series of extremely repetitious, mind-deadening sounds. I find that by deadening, possibly destroying the intellect, you can actually make people feel. [tmu: Sounds very much like the way we work at the DEAD ANGEL offices....] I attempt to make people stop thinking for as long as possible when they listen to what I do. I think that, as time goes by, I stop people from thinking more effectively, at least that's what I hope.
At the end of the sixties, I was making electronically-generated music whose vocabulary consisted entirely of overtones and pitches tuned in just intonation. I had been trained as a harpsichord tuner and had played in Tony Conrad's group TEN YEARS ALIVE ON THE INFINITE PLAIN, which made music in just intonation. I had also tuned La Monte Young's WELL-TUNED PIANO for him during my student days, so tuning the pitches by ear in my pieces was a relatively simple procedure for me. My music evolved from this starting point. I was a hard-core minimalist and was experimenting with extremely high levels of pure sound, which was of course one of the factors that contributed to my massive vitamin B deficiency, which lead to the partial loss of my short term memory and damage to my hearing, which is also why I compose things that are, basically, one chord. It would be very difficult for me to play things that consisted of more than a single chord. And I wouldn't hear ANYTHING without the volume levels I currently play at. I never created the levels of loudness that I perform with to assault people; I created them in order to hear myself play.
Anyway, sometime during the mid-seventies, I started playing with a band and advanced to a point where I was playing bar chords. With my background as a minimalist, my experience as a harpsichord tuner and with the rock music I loved, I composed a piece in 1977 that made use of everything I was as a composer and musician.
The piece was called GUITAR TRIO for three electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. Two of the guitars were in special tunings in just intonation and one of the guitars was tuned to all low E strings, kind of like a tambura in Asiatic Indian classical music. The melodic content drew upon the musical vocabulary I had worked with on the classical avant-garde scene in New York and consisted entirely of the overtone series generated by the E string of the electric guitar. The rhythmic thrust and the way the musicians played together came out of the rock tradition. To my knowledge, it was the first composition to make use of multiple electric guitars to merge the serious hard rock which emerged at the dawn of the eighties with the extended-time, overtone-based music that John Cale had initiated with certain unrecorded Velvet Underground live performances in NY during the sixties.
Although it was true (at the time) that I considered myself an art music composer working with a rock instrumentation in a rock context, the point of interest was that the signification of my pieces radically changed depending on the audience and context I was playing in, even though the music we played for each was virtually the same. For example, I had made a piece in 1980 entitled DRASTIC CLASSICISM for four electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. The guitars were in special, dissonant tunings in just intonation; dissonant both in relation to themselves and to each other. Because a good deal of the melodic movement in DRASTIC CLASSICISM rested with the higher overtones generated by the electric guitars, and because these overtones are rather soft, the musicians in my ensemble tended to turn their guitar amplifiers up to obscenely high levels of sound in order to reinforce the amplitude of the higher harmonics. This gesture was interpreted in different ways, depending on who was doing the listening.
For an art music audience, both GUITAR TRIO and DRASTIC CLASSICISM were vigorous new strains of overtone-based minimalism, lyrical in content and structurally austere, which synthesized two different musics to arrive at a striking new form. On the other hand, in a rock context, I can say with considerable pride that DRASTIC CLASSICISM was one of the pieces which inspired the noise-rock movement of that period. The sonority of DRASTIC was so complex that what the musicians in my ensemble were hearing as a kind of viscous, gelatinous sphere of shimmering overtones, the rock community heard as an ear shattering wall-of-sound. At first I wasn't sure I liked this characterization of what I was doing, but then I realized GUITAR TRIO and DRASTIC CLASSICISM were compositions which told a story to the listener, but somehow it was the listener's story. Everyone heard the pieces in a different way.
Since then, all the compositions that my various groups have performed involving electric guitars have basically been the same piece over and over again. This is not to say that we're lacking in ideas or being redundant in any way, it's just that there is a good deal of material to master within the context of one chord in order to truly "get it right." So all we've been doing is elaborating extensively on that same chord, which is already somewhat stretching the gamut for us vis-a-vis the technical limitations that my group is faced with due to my short-term memory loss. However, I'm experimenting now with two or three chord compositional structures and am hoping that, as time goes by, I'll gradually be able to work up to this.
DA: How does one end up setting out to be a composer, anyway (as opposed to seeing Elvis and saying, "i want to play rock and roll now!" or something)?
RC: People think that if you have two ears you have the same right as anybody else to make judgments about music. That is not true at all. Being musical is something very special, which is recognized even among families who have no special training, when the father and the mother can say a child is very musical because he can immediately pick up a tune and sing it, whereas the other children can't. Or whenever he gets an instrument in his hand he does something meaningful with it, so that it begins to sound, whereas others have no talent whatsoever. The idea that all music is for everybody is equally ridiculous. People can be influenced by all music, of course: that is natural. But certain people simply respond to sounds far better than most.
I never thought of myself as exceptionally gifted. Comparing my own work with the work of my colleagues, I think that I have just worked very hard all the time and that my special talent of always trying to explore new possibilities and enlarge our consciousness seems to be more needed at the present time than being able to convince people of one's genius as a fantastic performer or composer in an established style. I do not know for sure whether or not I am the reincarnation and ultimate expression of a long line of composers beginning with Perotin and continuing through Monteverdi, Giles Farnaby, John Bull, Bach, Beethoven, Webern... All I can say with any certainly at all is that I respond to sounds. Directly. Sound is my air. Whenever I deal with sounds, they organize themselves, so to speak. I have intuitive visions of sound worlds, music. I could not receive any exceptional flash of intuition, going on beyond what I know or what might be deduced from what I know of the past if there were not a constant stream of new influences on me, coming from all of humanity and its achievements and the interferences of their vibrations, and equally, influences from outer space, from the stars and centers of energy that emit waves that are structured in a particular way. Ultimately, I would say that all music, or more specifically all the new music that takes us further, is already there in the intuitive domain. I realized early on that I was able to tap into it easily, which is how I came to be a composer and musician.
DA: What's the object behind working in France (besides, of course, the opportunity to chase French girls)?
RC: Oh, that's astrological. The reason I'm in France is because my astrologers advised me that being between the meridians here would be more favorable for me, at least for the time being... so that's why I'm here in Paris.[tmu: What, nothing about sexy girls? Oh wait, that comes LATER....]
DA: Tell me a bit about the pieces on DIE DONNERGOTTER and how those came about, if you please (and what about the new orchestra configuration for which you've written three long pieces?)....
RC: I haven't thought about these pieces in quite awhile. I'm operating now within a new cognitive sphere in the nineties that is very different from where I was previously, which I suppose is another way of saying that it would be very difficult for me to remember what I did in the eighties, much less discuss it in a coherent fashion! So in order to answer these questions with any accuracy, I dug up some old press releases and notes from program books for the readers of DEAD ANGEL, which I reproduce here along with spontaneous comments that came to mind as I was doing this:
After my non-notated period (1971-81) I returned to notated music in 1982 and began performing exclusively with my brass band. After a year or so, I found that I missed my guitar ensemble and decided to write a series of fully notated pieces for it as well. Of this group of pieces, the most important was entitled DIE DONNERGOTTER ("the thunder gods"). Scored for six electric guitars, electric bass and drums, the piece was developed over a two year period at an amazing performance space in the East Village in NY called 8 B.C. In addition to my usual concerns with sonority and the overtone series, DIE DONNERGOTTER was significant for me in that a special compositional emphasis was placed on its melodic content, which was achieved by fingering directly on the fret board of the electric guitar (as opposed to the melody being within the overtones themselves, as in GUITAR TRIO). This piece, along with WATERLOO, NO. 2 and GUITAR TRIO, was released in Europe on Dossier Records in 1987 and later in America on Homestead Records, which are no longer available, but fortunately Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth has kindly offered to help me find a label to re-release these recordings, so hopefully they'll be available again soon. [tmu: Awright! Rah! I take back all the mean things I ever said about Sonic Youth!]
In 1988, I decided to write an ultimate work for guitar ensemble entitled AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE, which I scored for 100 electric guitars, el. bass and drums. After a somewhat extended search for a sponsor, Agence Acacia of l'aronef in Lille, France bravely decided to commission the piece in 1989. To mount a performance of ANGEL, whoever is producing the concert recruits 100 guitarists, who must then learn the music in five rehearsals led by members of my regular working ensemble, which is based in Paris and New York. The 100 guitarists are divided into six groups with three separate and special tunings.
I first had the idea to work with a truly large number of electric guitars back in the early 80s. I made a list and realized that I personally knew 100 guitarists in New York at the time, so I didn't think it would be a problem to stage a performance. However, I hesitated because I didn't want the piece to rely purely on the visual and visceral impact of massing so many electric guitars in one place, I felt that I had some more compositional exploring to do. I wanted to make a piece that would truly exploit the compositional possibilities of such a gathering: a literal wall-of-electric guitars on one stage! In 1989, I gathered all the notes I had been putting together over the years and began to write the piece.
At that point, I had been composing for ensembles of multiple electric guitars for 12 years. Since this piece was obviously going to be the pinnacle of my long love affair with the electric guitar, rather than basing it entirely on a single idea or process (as I might have done in the 70s or early 80s) I drew entirely on my my musical voice and raw gut to come up with AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE, which owes as much to my roots as a NY post-minimalist as it does to serious hard rock. What I attempt to determine in these pieces is how to best use the new sounds and forms available to us in a way that isn't mere appropriation through digital sampling or analog extraction, but that directly engages their source in a way which transcends original musical meaning while at the same time imploding it, to such a degree that meaning is no longer possible or even desirable, but rather exactly the reverse: to initiate a rite of decimation of musical meaning and thought in order to partake of the fascination which results from daring such a thing. [tmu: He'p! I'm in over my head! Blub blub!]
AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE was my first evening-length piece for truly symphonic forces. As of 1994, I have composed two additional works for "les 100 guitares": WAREHOUSE OF SAINTS; SONGS FOR SPIES (1991), which was commissioned by the Musica Festival in Strasbourg, and TAUROMAQUIA (1993), commissioned by the Orbe Theater in Paris.
We'll be mounting AN ANGEL MOVES TOO FAST TO SEE in Lisbon this November, so if there are any DEAD ANGEL readers who play guitar and would like to join us, we'd need you there between 7-11 November for the rehearsals. The concert is on November 12th. Anyone interested should contact me directly at my e-mail address, which is [ email@example.com ].
DA: For the benefit of the uninitiated, can you briefly explain minimalism and your work in that context?
RC: Simply put, musical minimalism in America was started in the early sixties in NY by the composers John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus Maclise, Terry Riley and La Monte Young. They formed a collective called the "Theater of Eternal Music," with La Monte playing beautiful, endlessly evolving sopranino saxophone riffs and John Cale and Tony Conrad playing violin and viola in just intonation. Soon, La Monte realized he couldn't play in just intonation on saxophone and had to switch to voice in order to play in tune with Tony and John Cale. Working with pure intervals was a very important concept with this group. At around the same period, Terry Riley was playing concerts of A RAINBOW IN CURVED AIR, his seminal piece for electric organ, which was treated by the special tape delay techniques pioneered by Riley. These concerts would typically last from 8 p.m. to sunrise.
By the mid-sixties, Philip Glass and Steve Reich had arrived on the New York scene and embarked upon further explorations into the new tonality, Glass with his unique incorporation of Asiatic music and process art; Reich with his invention of "phase music," with which he liberally mixed the rhythmic models he had learned while studying with master drummers in Ghana, Charlemagne Palestine was basing some of his work on music from Bali. In the United States alone there were many composers working within the framework or at the edges of this new tonality, such as Maryanne Amacher, David Behrman, Philip Corner, Daniel Goode, Julius Eastman, Jon Gibson, Tom Johnson, Petr Kotik, Carmen Moore, Phill Niblock, Eliane Radique, Laurie Spiegel and James Tenney, as well as the work of composers living on the West Coast such as Robert Ashley, Harold Budd, Lou Harrison, Terry Jennings, Pauline Oliveros and "Blue" Gene Tyranny, to name only a few. An initial gesture of this group of composers and their many colleagues of the period was to break art music out of the language and characteristic atonality of the serial school, without regressing to neoclassicism or romanticism, without reverting to a dead music.
During the seventies there were several issues which became important to all art music composers coming out of a classical context, whether they were continuing to explore new vistas along established roads of musical thought or were formulating completely new styles of music. One dominating force that moved composers towards tonality and away from serialism was the very pervasive feeling during the early seventies that they wanted to reach a wider audience, not so much to increase their record sales (an eighties notion) as for the reason that, frankly, they were beginning to feel somewhat isolated. They felt that art music had become too insular, that they were making music which only other composers could appreciate.
Opening their ears to a new tonality and opening their minds to the possibility of music having greater accessibility also had the beneficial effect of legitimatizing, for art music composers, the music of other cultures and popular music. It is important to remember that, as late as the sixties, improvisation was a dirty word in the hallowed halls of the music establishment. Asiatic Indian classical music and advanced tendencies in jazz were considered to be feverish, opium-inspired gibberish dreamed up by the hopelessly confused. There was a very real perception of an hierarchical pyramid with classical music on the top, "jazz" somewhere lower down in the middle; of course, in the early sixties, rock was barely considered music. During the seventies, these notions began to crumble in the minds of art music composers, classical music musicians and the general public as they began to realize the rhythmic and harmonic complexities involved in the performance of a raga or a melodic line articulated by an improviser such as Charlie Parker. As a direct result of this, another major item on the agenda among many art music composers by the mid- seventies was the desire to do everything possible to tear down the barriers put up by our society and by academia between Western art music, African-American art music, and world music.
Composers responded to this new challenge in different ways. As mentioned earlier, various composers such as Conrad, Glass, Palestine, Riley, Reich and Young infused energy into their work by embracing the music of other cultures to combine world music with a definitively Western vision of the world, to forge a new tonality. The path Musica Electronica Viva took was to escape the tyranny of written music by embracing improvisatory techniques of various kinds and exploding previous notions of musical hierarchy. There was also as important movement of visual artists, composers, choreographers and poets called "Fluxus," the musical portion let by composers and musicians such as Charlotte Moorman, Philip Corner, Yoko Ono and Daniel Goode, who went even further in rejecting notions of musical hierarchy: In considering all sound to be beautiful, they went so far on their agenda as to organize a remarkable series of concerts where even sensitive non-musicians could take part as performers.
It was against this background that the next generation of composers was taking careful note of the trails being blazed away from serialism into the exciting unknown of the new tonality. The musical climate of the time had facilitated the smashing of hierarchical barriers separating art music and what was then generally called "jazz." It hadn't occurred to many composers of art music that this decimation of barriers could happen with rock music as well. But then, starting around 1975 or '76, there was an explosion and regeneration on the rock scene. This explosion happened globally, with particular focus in the U.K., the USA, Canada, and what was then known as West Germany.
During the seventies, I was in the thick of presenting my work on the avant-garde music scene in lower Manhattan, having in 1971 founded the music program at the Kitchen when I was 17, which was then a large loft on Mercer Street in the Soho district of New York presenting video, music, visual art, and dance. After observing what was happening on the art music scene around 1975 and 76, a number of composers decided that it would be possible to embrace rock music and make it their own. Instead of basing their work upon the music and rhythms of India, Bali or Ghana, as some of the early minimalists had done, and instead of working in an improvisatory context, as Cardew and Rzewski had done, this new group of composers decided to do something roughly equivalent in the area of rock. In New York during the late seventies, there were composers such as Laurie Anderson, Peter Gordon, Scott Johnson, Arthur Russell and myself working in this fashion, with "Blue" Gene Tyranny and Paul Dresher working during the same period in San Francisco, soon to be joined by many others.
Anyway, that was what was going on in the late seventies. But now we're in the nineties, right? These days, it has become standard practice for composers coming out of a classical context to use rock elements in their music, they're all doing it now and it's getting rather boring. There is a new crop that comes to mind coming out of the States and the UK whose press goes on and on about their "daring" relationship to Jimi Hendrix and rock as if no one had ever thought of mixing these genres before. Their music is OK, I guess, but let's face it, mixing elements of rock and/or jazz with contemporary classical music is an idea that's at least 20 years old now, there's nothing new about it anymore. I'm certainly not excited about it, in fact, just about the only music I find interesting these days generally falls into the techno music category, particularly its hardcore and gabba genres. It's the only stuff I can listen to... of course, that might have to do with the fact that it's just about the only commercially available music that I can hear! We have a great radio station in Paris called Radio FG, so I can listen to it all day long, awright!!!
DA: You're known primarily for work involving overtones and just intonation; can you elaborate on what you've been doing there? [fnord: achtung: WARNING: the answer is gibberish if you don't understand guitars or music theory... you have been warned....]
RC: Basically, my overtone-based work of the late seventies and eighties involved playing the low E string of the electric guitar in periodic rhythms for hours on end at high volume levels so that my followers and I could hear the resultant upper partials generated in all their glory. I've found that the ear focuses on different overtone levels at a time: 3, 4, 5 is one bandwidth of sound; 5, 6, 7 is another; or the upper partials 9, 10, 11, 12, 13; after this the overtones start getting very faint and theoretical, although it's possible to transpose them back down to the hearing range through a tuning process first developed in the West by Harry Partch. That's how one tunes the smaller intervals such as the comma of Pythagoras, which is 80:81 and is an interval of about 5 cents. 63:64 is also very nice and is one that I have frequently used in the past, particularly in DRASTIC CLASSICISM. [tmu: See, i told you.] On the electric guitar, one tends to play very hard, which causes the instrument to go almost imperceptibly out of tune, generating beat frequencies that create interesting rhythms within the context of one overtone level or bandwidth relating to another. Playing in a rock and roll club (a good one at least) where the audience would usually want to demonstrate their good nature and approval by throwing beer cans at you (with the beer still in them!) tends to make the players strum their guitars harder, so I've built this phenomenon into all my rock influenced pieces from that period. After about 5 minutes into a typical performance at a place like Max's Kansas City or CBGB's, the enthusiasm of both the audience and the players would be such that the overtones on the electric guitars we were using would be vibrating madly all over the place, which is what gave the compositions their melodic content. However, I've found that the first-order beat phenomenon generated by the overtones of the electric guitars in these situations tended to resonate in varying rhythms and on different hierarchical levels: discriminating ears tended to focus on them separately, thereby adding to the formal interest of the compositions. The overtone series in the key of E would be E1, E2, B2, E3, G#3, B3, D4 (very flat), E4, F#4, and so on.
DA: Where's a good place to begin for the neophyte interested in exploring minimalism/just intonation?
RC: The definitive book on composing in just intonation was written by the American composer Harry Partch (1901-1974), called GENESIS OF A MUSIC (Da Capo Press). There's a new book out on American Minimalist music that I haven't read yet by Edward Strickland called MINIMALISM: ORIGINS (Indiana University Press) that's supposed to be good. Otherwise, listen to Charlemagne Palestine's STRUMMING MUSIC (available on the Barooni label); Tony Conrad's OUTSIDE THE DREAM SYNDICATE (Table of Elements Records); or any of my music for electric guitar.
DA: You were witness to the NYC no-wave scene in the late 70s/early 80s; what were your impressions of what was happening then and its aftermath?
RC: Actually, Brian Eno had asked me to be on that No-Wave album he did, but I forgot about the recording session he had organized for the different groups over on Greene Street, so I didn't get to be on it, which was too bad, never mind. God, I had so much fun in NY during that period. There was this great club called Hurrah's that Jim Fouratt used to run. It was really slick and all the bands loved to play there 'cause Jim made sure everybody got paid decently: a nice, big, fat flat-fee rather than a crummy split-the-gate thing. One night there was this double bill with the Contortions and the Screamers that I particularly remember because I was helping out with the sound. James Chance was doing his usual thing of going out and beating up the audience, it was great. But the real highlight of the evening for me was meeting Mike Gira's ex-girlfriend, Anne-Marie. Mike was in Swans with an amazing drummer named Jonathan Kane (who I later ended up working with) and Anne-Marie was doing publicity for Jim Fouratt at the club. And she had just split up with Mike. It turned out that she was the same sign as me, Gemini, and that we knew all the same people: Lydia Lunch, Scott and Beth B, Vivian Dick, Pat Place, Arto, John Lurie, James Nares, Adele Bertei... the whole gang! Anne-Marie was from a small city in France called St. Brieuc and was studying modern dance when she wasn't working for Jim. She had this wild, spiky blond hair that went all over the place, along with fine features over delicate bones. I really had a good time talking with her and gradually became sexually attracted as I was doing so, especially in retrospect. During the Contortions setup, we had many opportunities to speak together. As we were talking, I couldn't help but notice that she kept folding her arms over her breasts. At first I thought this was because they were cold (her breasts), but after she repeated the gesture a number of times over the course of the sound check I gradually began to suspect that it was because she wanted to hide them. Anne-Marie had large breasts for a dancer; I think they might have been a B cup, which isn't after all THAT big, but dancers are weird about that kind of thing, they think that breasts aren't aerodynamic, or some weird shit like that.
Hiding her breasts had the effect of making me want to covertly study Anne-Marie's body at every available opportunity, which I'm happy to report that I managed to do as the evening wore on. I was only hoping that I wasn't being too obvious about it. Her clothes, though torn in all the usual and correct places, were completely black making it difficult to see what she really looked like, so I had to use my imagination at first. Anyway, after the Contortion's set, Anne-Marie invited me to a private area at Hurrah's which was the nice, airy space they had on the third floor; it was quite comfortable. Sitting together on the couch over glasses of chilled vodka and certain other controlled substances, I told Anne-Marie what an amazing person I thought she was. I confided that I was sexually attracted to her and asked if I might rest my head for a time upon her breast as a kind of prelude to an evening of tenderness, passion and emotions. [tmu: Oddly enough, this gambit has never worked for me.] After a bit of circumspection and reflection, she decided to be kind to me, so I dived right in, I mean, it was the end of the seventies for god's sakes! I could have stayed there forever, kissing and engulfing her tender extremities with my trumpet player's lips. Naturally, after a while, I felt inspired to explore other parts of her body. [tmu: I'm not quite sure what all of this has to do with minimalism or no-wave, but you've gotta admit, it's getting pretty damned interesting, eh?] Accordingly, I removed her jeans and buried my face deep within the crevice of her buttocks, which was protected by a thin white cotton material. I kissed her fragrant orifice through the white cotton over and over again, invading it with my busy tongue through the fabric of her underwear. I wet-kissed all around her unmentionable entrance and gateway-to-heaven area, fondling repeatedly and using my tongue in order to push and explore, while at the same time gently cupping her breasts with my long, pianist's fingers.
Eventually, I asked Anne-Marie if it would be all right if I removed her panties. After the consent, I allowed my tongue to dart lightly over the slightly darker skin of her back passage, gradually pressing deeper and deeper, inhaling a slightly musky scent as I did so. Finally, I couldn't control myself any longer, so after first turning Anne-Marie about, I whipped the pride of my manhood out of my jeans which by this time was rigid with aching desire and drove the old ramrod home again and again! Anne-Marie used her shapely dancer's thighs to grab me from behind in order to bring me closer still, milking every available drop of my manly essence deep within her. Thus spent, I tenderly caressed her face and I merged her lips with mine in a final loving embrace before we returned to our respective duties to help with the load-out of our musician friends. The early eighties on the no- wave scene in NY were really great, man. I mean, there was open sex happening in most the clubs, at least the better ones... Tier 3, the Mudd Club, in the ladies room at CBGB's, it's no wonder I forgot all about Brian's fucking recording session! It's not that we were sex-crazed or anything like that, it's just that it was there and available. This was during the pre-AIDS period... you know?
[... and on THAT note, we break off. HA! Tune in next issue for more bold statements, discussion of the new album NEON (with Martin Wheeler, reviewed in this issue), blah blah blah....]
For more info on Rhys and his work check out: http://www.goddard.edu/wgdr/kalvos/chatham.html.
For those just arriving at the party, we're talking to Rhys Chatham, the NYC composer most known for creating deafening guitar ensemble compositions such as "Guitar Trio," "Die Donnergotter," and "An Angel Moves Too Fast To See." An influence and/or contemporary of other NYC loudness/noise gods Swans, Branca, Sonic Youth, and Band of Susans -- all of whom have members who've passed through Chatham's Ensemble at one point or another -- he is current working with Martin Wheeler on the newly-released NEON CD, and staging loud displays of guitar excess in Europe. Now we return you to our program, live in the DEAD ANGEL studio far beneath the ice caps....
DA: You collaborated recently with Martin Wheeler on NEON; how was that?
RC: I wanted to effect a continuity between what I was doing on electric guitar and what I wanted the trumpet to sound like, so I attempted to create a trumpet sound that would be something along the lines of "Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath meets the jazz guitarist Pete Cosey (at his most far out) meeting early Don Cherry." I also wanted to hear what trumpet would sound like through an incredible amount of distortion. So I dug up my old distortion boxes, wah-wah pedals and pre-amps, put the trumpet through it and WENT FOR IT!!! The result is the NEON album on the NTone label. I play trumpet on the album and Martin was responsible for all the bass and beats and rhythms and programming, which is to say virtually all the elements on the tracks that weren't trumpet! I just got off the phone with Martin, having asked him to comment on his part of the CD, here's what he said: "What I've always been hopelessly addicted to, ever since the first computer-based sequencers came out, is the sculptural quality, the malleability that you can achieve. You can take a piece of music, you can keep stretching it and screwing around with it, almost like an extension of dub. That's the strong point of a lot of new electronic music. But then something that I like, that I miss a lot in the music, is the particular energy you get off a real-time less programmed piece of actual playing. If you hear Coltrane or Hendrix or whoever, there's something in the way the sound can move in an organic fashion; that to me is interesting. And we're trying, both with the trumpet and the electronics, to get a real-time effect, so it's not just the same thing going 'round and 'round, so I guess the tension and oddness apparent in what we're doing comes from our interest in combining mechanical structures with organic inputs."
Aside from this, it would be difficult to comment any further on the music at this point because we're still both so close to it. The best thing would be simply to listen to it; it really is one of those cases where the music "speaks for itself." [tmu: And it is well worth hearing; see the review in the last issue for details.] To visit the NEON web site and for ordering information: [ http://www.southern.com/PIPE/neon.html ].
DA: And what's happening with the trumpet on your debut album for NTone?
RC: I starting writing brass pieces in the eighties primarily because I had a problem with impotence at the time and found that playing brass forced my breath down. [tmu: (!) Creative solutions....] Since then, it's been fine. [tmu: * whew *] So I basically started working with brass so that I could fuck. [tmu: Sounds like why i started playing guitar... only it's not working, especially since my wife hates everything i play, and now i'm stuck with the habit....] The CD with NTone represents the climax of my efforts in working with a brass sound and was released on NTone primarily because they are paying me and my collaborator on the CD (British composer and MIDI-wiz Martin Wheeler) an enormous amount of money to do it, more money than we ever dreamed. NTone, along with its parent label Ninja Tune (based in London) are often putting out vinyl albums called "DJ food," which are used by DJ's in dance contexts to sample from. Martin and I have been invited to put out one hundred 45 rpm maxi-singles on this label, the first of which should be released in the coming months in London. [tmu: Oooo, i want one!] We hope the music will get to as many people as possible. Martin and I will be selling them on the street, my girlfriend in NY (Brigitte) will have a couple, so they should be readily available to everyone... soon.
DA: Will there be more forthcoming from this musical union? (The CD was short! I want more! Ha ha....)
RC: Oh, we're going to be on a compilation album that Kevin Martin is putting out for Virgin called MACRO DUB INFECTION 2. Bill Laswell is on it, Bennie Maupin with Patrick Gleason are doing an acid dub piece, one of the guys from De la Soul is on it, Mouse on Mars, Alex Empire, there're some post-rock people, too, Martin and I gave them one of our dub tunes... it should be pretty good. I think it's supposed to be released in October sometime. [tmu: In other words, it's out now. Duh.] And of course the one hundred 45 rpm singles will be coming out, so Martin and I are managing to keep fairly busy.
DA: I understand you have a project in the works with Robert Poss -- can you tell me a bit more about that?
RC: Robert and I have been looking to work together on a collaborative album for a long time; I like his distorted guitar sound a whole lot. We hope to get started on it one of these days, we're just waiting for the right deal to come along. Essentially, all we need is a record company who is willing to pay for my trip to NY as well as the recording expenses. Since this really doesn't amount to very much, we're hoping to realize the project sooner rather than later.
DA: What do you think of comparisons that are sometimes made between your work and that of Glenn Branca?
RC: I have explicit sovereignty over a certain musical form that I have created and am responsible for which involves a kind of carnal sharing, a rite involving people's minds being annihilated by listening to the various pre-determined frequencies that I generate from the single-coil pickups of the literal battalion of massed electric guitars that I have here at my disposal, one hundred of them to be precise. Many people have tried to imitate or emulate my work, but I don't think anyone does it so successfully as I have. Glenn was one of the original players in my GUITAR TRIO configuration. He fell in love with the justly tuned guitar I gave him and went on to form his own band of overtone-based electric guitars. Because of this, we've been compared a lot, but this is only natural, given the similar instrumentation. On the other hand I have been doing this music over many, many incarnations and I'm fairly sure that it has been Glenn's spirit-essence who has been sitting at my right hand as a kind of dead archangel for at least the past few of them (my incarnations), so my thought is that it's only fair that he's beginning to get a bit of recognition for his part in it all, I'm very happy for him. He worked hard for it.
DA: Tell me a little bit about your involvement with the Kitchen... is it still open even now?
RC: It's still open now, despite funding cuts in America... for more information on it, check out my web page:
[ http://sun.goddard.edu/students/wgdr/kalvos/chatham.html ] where I've written about it extensively.
DA: Your essay mentions yourself, Brian Eno, and Oliver Lake acting as "secret agents" for new music in the 80s; who do see in that category now?
RC: No one, because it isn't relevant anymore; for more info on this check out my web site.
DA: Do you think avant/"difficult" music is becoming more accepted?
RC: Absolutely. At the start of the seventies, a composer playing at an alternative performance space in America would be lucky if 15 people showed up to the concert. By the middle eighties, these venues were consistently packed. After all the records sold by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jon Hassell, Laurie Anderson and Harold Budd, there was no longer any doubt that art music could reach a wider audience, when and if it had the inclination to do so. The composer Maryanne Amacher once composed a forty-five minute piece of music for choreographer Merce Cunningham scored as a duet between the high tones generated by our nervous systems, which we hear inside our heads, and an external sine wave frequency of between 15,000 and 17,000 cycles per second. Amacher would bring the external sine wave in and out of the edge of consciousness to create a breathtaking new kind of harmony. Unfortunately, most of the audience heard the piece as 45 minutes of silence! She performed the same piece in New York during the 70s to an audience of about one hundred hardened new music fans. I would guess that about 15 out the 100 people in attendance were able to fully appreciate what she was doing in the mid seventies... in the nineties, I would guess that this number has significantly increased, perhaps to 30 or even more, so you see what I mean when I say that things are looking up!
DA: Where are you headed musically from here?
RC: I'm currently working on a new composition that I'm calling "Dionysus in '96" which is scored for seventy female dancer/acolytes between the ages of 19-23 who will be clothed in diaphanous robes and garlands of flowers and leaves, moving after the fashion of Isadora Duncan in a completely natural and earthy manner in synch with the music that I will be generating. I haven't performed in New York for a while and probably should soon since that's where I'm from and I still have a lot of friends there, at least some of whom are still talking to me, so we'll premiere the piece in an intimate setting such as Roulette or the Dia Art Foundation, both of which are in lower Manhattan. The composition itself is based on an ancient Bacchic rite involving the dancers joining in with my core group of musicians, who I will lead in singing a canticle-like chant, the text of which will be loosely based on my various out-of-body encounters at the start of the seventies. I'll be playing trumpet from time to time, which will go through heavy distortion on top of a bass and beat rhythm that I've been working on for the past few months. I've been having a lot of fun doing it, the frequencies are at least one octave lower than those found on the low E string of an electric bass, so the music coming out of the sub- woofers of the PA system will be an important parameter of the composition. I mean, this is definitely NOT music for a home stereo system! In fact, the frequencies are all so low and so powerful that it would be impossible to hear ANYTHING without those huge sub-woofers turned up just about as loud as they will go before literally melting down. In working with a sound like this one doesn't really hear or differentiate the discrete frequencies one is working with such much as FEEL them writhing and squirming around deep within one's body. So in addition to the records that I'll be doing with Martin, I'll be working on this project as well. When it's a little further along, we'll probably start looking for a record company to release the musical element, so if any DEAD ANGEL readers have any ideas of who would be interested, do let us know at our Internet address.
DA: Earlier you mentioned a return to notated music; how, then, were the earlier pieces "scored"?
RC: GUITAR TRIO, DRASTIC CLASSICISM, THE OUT OF TUNE GUITAR NO. 1-3 were all scored using verbal notation or teaching the pieces by rote. Virtually all the musicians I was working with during the late seventies and early eighties were coming out of a hard rock background and didn't feel comfortable with fully notated scores.
In interviews, I've often been asked questions such as, "What is the difference in the way you think, if you are working with notated or non- notated music? Are you working more with structure when you write it out?" It's not a question of structure; to say a piece of music is non-notated isn't to say that its form is aimless. Most composers I know who work with non-notated or otherwise "open" forms of music do so within very elaborate structural frameworks; some of the work of the composer Earl Brown, and a good deal of the work of Elliott Sharp and John Zorn come to mind with regard to this.
The difference between notated and non-notated music centers on the different approach each has to working with musical content. For example, GUITAR TRIO could be fully notated, but it would lose something in the process. The piece had been made in such a way that it could only be played by musicians with extensive rock experience. GUITAR TRIO has a formal structure, but the method of musicians working together parallels rock. I played my melodic line on guitar the same way every time, inviting the other guitarists to invent their own lines to go with what I was playing within the framework of the piece's use of the overtones as a melodic line. Once we arrived at something which satisfied everyone, the piece was set. Of course, the parts could be fully notated, but then the piece would sound stiff. While many guitarists from New York have played GUITAR TRIO at one time or another, Karen Haglof and Robert Poss of the Band of Susans are the guitarists who I had been working with for much of the eighties who play this piece. If the parts were notated, it would lose the creative edge that Karen and Robert give it.
On the other hand, there is music which absolutely must be notated. After I had made the recording of For Brass, I asked the drummer on the piece, Anton Fier, and another drummer friend, James Lo of Live Skull, to get together with me in a rehearsal studio. We tried to "improvise" martial music. The result was a total flop. The precision involved when playing the intricate unison parts of martial music necessitates its notation. What I learned from this experience was that while most improvised music would sound ridiculously stiff if it was sight-read off a score, the reverse is also true: there are many musical ideas whose birth into the world can come only by means of strict notational procedures.
So I guess this is all to say that I've had extensive experience working with both notated and non-notated music and feel equally comfortable working with either, when called upon to do so. However, I ended up spending almost all of 1995 writing a fully notated 1/2 hour piece for a full orchestra (of 57 musicians), which is the equivalent in terms of effort of writing a 500 page novel.
Writing the music on my sequencer only took a couple of months, scoring it in a way that was playable for the various human instrumentalists took almost all of the rest of the year, working 8 hours a day on it. So now I'm sick of notation and hope that I never have to look at a score for the rest of my life! On top of that, when the piece was finally premiered at the Grand Theatre de Geneve by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, I had occasion to be reminded what pea-brained people many classical musicians are and why I decided way back in the early eighties that I preferred working with rock or jazz musicians. At the rehearsals, the classical musicians in Geneva did nothing but complain about how they weren't playing Stravinsky or Debussy. Since they were being paid, I just told them to shut up and play what was in front of them or get the fuck out, which did the trick in terms of giving me a little peace and quiet during the rehearsals, but it didn't make for good vibes. They did a bad job on the music I wrote as well, they were terrible musicians. All I can say is that (with the important exception of groups like Ensemble Intercontemporaine, who played Frank Zappa's music) I think most classical musicians are Luddites and should be put in museums, where they belong.
All the pieces on the NEON album as well as the release of ALTESSE dub version) on Virgin's Macro Dub Infection 2 compilation are non-notated compositions, it was such a relief to get away from classical musicians!
DA: So have ANGEL... and WAREHOUSE.... been recorded and released anywhere?
RC: Yes to the first part of your question, no to the second. We've played ANGEL in 16 cities now, the latest version in Lisbon earlier this month for the Monumental '96 Festival. I've recorded ANGEL on a multi-track in a number of cities and have some nice recordings of it, but somehow it just doesn't seem fair to release a version on CD representing only 100 musicians of the 1600 electric guitarists who have played the piece so far. In order to solve this problem, we are going to do a final version of ANGEL next year in France for at least 1000 electric guitarists. What we plan to do is bring everyone who played the piece from all over the world to do a final version, so possibly we will be able to hear the sound of 1600 or more electric guitarists on one stage. What a blast (literally!). If anyone who reads DEAD ANGEL is interested in participating, feel free to contact me. We will record this version of course and release it on CD.
DA: Since your music is what I'd consider "uplifting," at least in sound, what do you make of this current fashion of abject nihilism in rock?
RC: I would say that it isn't a current fashion at all, it's a very old fashion trend which has been a sub-text within a rock context for at least the last 20 years.
Most people entering the rock field today are coming out of a consumer-based society that is so over-saturated that it is difficult for them to make any kind of comparative justification regarding what their music reflects or doesn't reflect and who live in a time where people's sense of history generally doesn't extend back more than five years. I think it would be difficult for them to suggest that in the relative scheme of things that their point of view is nihilism because that would imply that they had some sense of the foundations they were attacking and I find that largely the people who do that...don't! For the most part they're just uninformed buffoons who are so saturated by popular culture that they are incapable of making comparisons in their own lives between their position in popular culture and the rest of the world. At this point, people are so benighted that they generally feel that popular culture IS the world, so... to suggest that they are nihilist or to suggest that they are ANYTHING...is kind of naive.
Rhys' web page at Kalvos & Damian's New Music
NEW RC/MW RELEASE on VIRGIN RECORDS:
MACRO DUB INFECTION 2
Release date; 15 October - Compilation album by Kevin Martin
Rhys Chatham & Martin Wheeler's NEON, on the NTone Label
If you are entering through an external hyperlink, click on Rhys Chatham Homepage for more info on Rhys.