April/May 1998

Why Rhys switched from electric guitar to fuzz trumpet:

(academic discussion)

By 1993 I had written three evening-length works for 100 electric guitars. By that time, it had become almost standard practice for composers coming out of a classical context to use rock and other vernacular elements in their music.

I found that it was getting a bit boring hearing composers coming out of this context droning on in interviews talking about their "daring" relationships to Jimi Hendrix and rock, as if no one had ever thought of mixing these genres before. Mixing elements of rock and contemporary classical music was an idea that was at least 20 years in 1990, so by now, in 1998, there's absolutely nothing new about it anymore. The only reason I continued to be involved with it (mixing rock and classical genres) was simply because I wanted to bring to a close the work I had begun with electric guitars in 1976.

Writing three evening-length compositions for 100 electric guitars represented the pinnacle of my rock-influenced work for guitar bands and by 1993 I felt that it was time to move on to something different.

After I had composed For Brass in 1982 I fell in love with the trumpet and decided to play it. I played my first gig on trumpet the day I bought it, it was at CBGBs. In spite of this auspicious beginning, it soon became apparent that acquiring even a minimum degree of proficiency on the instrument was going to take a bit more time than it took me to learn to play bar chords on guitar, so I kept my trumpet activities in the closet for the most part for 10 years, until 1993, studying and playing it on the sly, as it were.

I have always felt more of a physical affinity for instruments requiring respiration. I started on clarinet at age 8, switching later to French horn, finally settling on flute for many years as well as a bit of tenor saxophone. I gave up wind instruments in 1976 to play electric guitar, but I was never able to truly get the hang of it; I've never been able to develop the same level of technical expertise on stringed instruments that I have on the wind or brass families, which is, I suppose, why I wanted to switch to trumpet back in 1982.

Anyway, it took ten years to learn to play the damn thing. By 1992 I decided to put down the manuscript paper I had been using as a composer and get back to the basics of being a musician. I had attained a sufficient level of technical proficiency on trumpet by then and decided it was high time to develop my voice on it, to figure out what I wanted to say.

Everyone has to start somewhere with this kind of thing and I was no different in this. The bane of any trumpet player's existence is that as soon as anyone hears you playing anything other than classical music, everyone, musicians and non-musicians alike, automatically thinks it sounds like Miles Davis. "Ohhh, it sounds like Miles", they'll say! This is due to the man's predominance in the field from the 1950s until his death.

Now I love Miles' playing as much as the next trumpet player. I've read his autobiography at least three times and I am familiar with all his records and all his tapes. And I've studied the compositions and tunes of Davis in much the same way I studied or played the music of Stockhausen or Boulez when I was a classical flute player. And even though I may like some of the music of Stockhausen and Boulez...and even though I may like most of the music that I've heard from Miles, I have to say that in 1998 I don't really feel very much in common with any of these guys, however much I may like their music. In the case of Miles' trumpet playing I've never felt that his sound was close to the musical statement that I wanted to make, even on his last album which used rap rhythms. I think this might be because our backgrounds are too different. Miles was coming out of bebop and hard bop. I am coming out of a combination of early New York Minimalism and the free improvisation scene in New York of the early to mid seventies (c.f. my work with Frederic Rzewski and Musica Electronnica Viva. )

This being the case, when it was time to start thinking about which trumpet players I felt the closest to (in terms of their musical voice) I decided that I wanted to play something along the lines of Don Cherry (when he was playing with Ornette in the early 60s), and like Jon Hassell.

I had known both of these trumpet players on a personal basis for years. Jon and I had both played with La Monte Young in the early seventies and we had studied North Indian vocal music with Pandit Pran Nath during the same period. Jon is a bit older than I am, so he kind of took me under his wing at one point, I had a kid brother relationship with him. Anyway, when I started playing trumpet in the eighties, you can be sure I was listening very carefully to the stuff Jon was putting out since we were both coming out of the same musical scene.

On the other hand, I also admired the freshness and energy of Don Cherry's playing, especially from the the late fifties to early seventies. Of all the trumpet players who came out of the jazz scene, I identified strongly with Don's free sound and did my best to emulate it. During the period I was doing this, there was a great radio station in NY in 1984 that was playing the new rap music that was just becoming popular. I loved the rhythms of this music and started jamming on trumpet over it. I played in my "early Don Cherry" type style along with the radio, or I'd make tapes and jam along with them. I got to the point where I badly wanted to play out in this style of playing trumpet with rap type rhythms, but I had only been playing for two years when I first had the idea to do this, so I wasn't technically ready.

It was a strange position to be in for someone of my age. I was a fully developed musician and composer, but because I had switched instruments at age 30, I was effectively barred from putting my idea into practice. I'll never forget when I first starting playing the trombonist Jim Staley telling me, "deciding to play trumpet at age 30 is like deciding to be an athlete at age 30!". I didn't let it discourage me, though. I knew that I still had things to say with my guitar ensemble and that I could finish up my trumpet studies while I was bringing my ideas for guitar to their culmination. In the meantime, I had gotten heavily into MIDI and sampling by the mid-eighties and was using it in my composing work. I was delighted when Detroit style house music emerged in the late eighties because it was instrumental electronic music using the rhythms I loved without a voice over it. As an instrumental composer, I felt very close to this music, particularly acid house: here was a music that had the kind of electronic rhythms that I liked without a black urban voice chanting over the top of it.

The Europeans picked up on this music in a big way because instrumental music breaks through the language barrier. Then the DJ thing happened in the early nineties along with non-commercial rave parties in abandoned buildings or woodland environments. I started hearing Electronica on the radio in France and was constantly amazed and very moved by what I was hearing. Here were all of these great new composers coming out of a popular electronic music context who were for the most part in their early twenties and making music with relatively inexpensive Atari computers and Akai samplers. The result was simply fantastic. They were pouring their hearts out! Popular electronic music of all kinds developed much faster in Europe than in the States. I hadn't seen such an explosion in music making since the punk days in the mid to late seventies.

Prior and up to 1990, I always thought of myself as a composer coming out of an avant-garde classical music context. My lineage was Young, Riley, Glass, Reich, Stockhausen, Boulez, Cage, Harrison, Ives, Varèse, Wolpe, Webern, Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Monteverdi, Farnaby, Bull... all the way back to Perotin. I was always insisting throughout the 70s and 80s that I was a composer coming out of a classical tradition working in a rock context with a rock instrumentation. However, by 1990, a number of things were happening that contributed to a radical change in the way I viewed myself and my work.

I started out in the late sixties as a classical player. In 1976 I switched to rock and made my reputation as an electric guitarist working in a rock context, which is to say that, despite any notions I might have entertained about being a composer coming out of a classical context, as far as the actual playing went I was basically a rock musician. In 1983, when I started playing trumpet, I started my training in jazz in earnest. So my roots as a trumpet player are almost completely coming out of the jazz tradition and to this day, when I'm working on technique, I'm playing standard-era jazz and bebop. And I expect to be doing this for the rest of my trumpet playing life.

By 1995, aside from a number of major dance commissions I took on for the purpose of making money (Lyon Opera Ballet, Royal Ballet of London, Grand Theatre de Geneve), almost all my purely creative music making activities were related to improvising on trumpet and developing a personal voice. All this is to say that I've only recently realized and acknowledged that, as in instrumentalist, I've spent much more time, the majority of my life really, playing in the rock and jazz traditions than I have in the classical music one. Accordingly, I have begun to think that a realignment of my musical allegiances might be in order.

In 1993, I decided that I was ready to devote my full attention to making a public switch from guitar to trumpet. I had already said everything that I wanted to say for the moment on guitar and felt ready to move on to a completely different sonic area and I knew exactly what kind of music I wanted to play with. I had already been doing it in private throughout the eighties, now I was finally ready to go public with it!

In coming up with my own voice, however, I knew from my years as a composer that it wouldn't do to simply appropriate other trumpet players' styles and hope for the best. After all, I've always felt more comfortable making up my own rules rather than following ones made by other people, which is to say I'm not particularly interested in being bound by strict stylistic rules when expressing my individuality. I had played guitar for 15 years and I still loved the instrument, so I decided the path that made the most sense for me would be to develop a voice on trumpet that would sound as much as possible like a distorted electric guitar.

Although I knew in a general way what I wanted my sound to be like, I still did not have a developed voice on trumpet in 1993, it was something I was about to embark upon. Since I wanted to devote all my energies to finding my sound, I thought that it would be a good idea to collaborate with someone. I had worked extensively with MIDI in making my pieces for guitar orchestra and had made electronic grooves to go with my pieces to use as a reference track for the live drummer, Jonathan Kane. Thanks to this, I knew from experience that making electronic grooves is an art in itself that requires all of one's attention. In terms of the amount of time I had available to me, I knew it wasn't going to be possible for me to develop my voice on trumpet as well as make kickin' grooves, nor was I particularly interested in doing so. So I decided it made sense to collaborate with someone who was.

My first collaborator was Martin Wheeler and the Neon CD single on Ntone was the result. We spent three years on it. It was Martin's first CD ever and it was my first CD as a trumpet player, so it was a new experience for both of us. It took us a while to find a working method, we tried many. Over a period of three years and after working in many ways and generating hours of recorded material, I finally arrived at a voice on trumpet that I felt I could call my own. I had succeeded in putting my influences on the instrument through enough of a personal filter to arrive at a sound uniquely my own. To our gratification, the CD was a success and to this day (two years later), I stand behind the trumpet playing on that album as the genesis of a new way of playing the instrument. No one had done anything remotely similar before. I'm still thrilled every time I hear Hornithology and Ramatek. My playing is impeccable.

I had wanted to do a tour to support the CD, but unfortunately Martin wasn't really interested in touring, so I had to begin looking for other people to collaborate with.

Martin and I started our work in 1993 and the CD came out in 1996. It is now five years later in 1998... since then, I've tried playing trumpet with a wide gamut of pre-recorded music by composers coming out of a variety of contexts in an effort to find out exactly what kind of grooves work best with my playing. There is a lot of music out there which I love very much; I've found through hard experience that not all of it works with trumpet, so after much experimentation, I found a set of "sound-foundations" that worked for me. Simply put, it's groove-oriented music, usually down-tempo (but not always), that is interesting as a thing-in-itself yet leaves me enough space to add my musical statement...

It's important to remember that I do not approach playing trumpet the way someone might do who has been playing since age of eight years old. My case is unusual in that I was already a mature musician when I began playing. Here is why this is important:

When I was working with bits of other people's pieces that I put in digital loops or with appropriated grooves, I discovered that the act of adding my trumpet lines to someone else's composition completely changed the character of the composition. This is because I do not add melodic lines the way a trumpet player normally would. Most trumpet players are interpreters of various styles of music and simply play in whatever style they happen to be conversant in. I do not work in this manner when I am playing with grooves for the simple reason that I do not interpret styles very much, I prefer to dictate them.

Because I lay my tracks on the original sound material in a compositional way, it utterly changes the original composition's significance, thus making the end result greater than the intent of either the original composer who made the track or myself. After a period of time of sampling and appropriating other people's work, I realized it would be better to do this with consent from the start. Rather than digitally pinching another composers' music for my own twisted objectives, I felt it better to have the consensual participation of the composer involved rather than be guilty of compositional rape, always remembering, of course, that safe sex might not be good sex, but it is less dangerous to one's health! I was interested in collaborating on an equal basis with other musicians whose work I respected and liked to play with.

There is another issue I should begin to address before closing, which is that of musical style.

While my roots as a trumpet player are coming out of jazz and big band music, my roots as a composer are coming out of post-minimalist and contemporary music and many of these influences find their way into my trumpet playing making it very hard to pin down what style I am playing in! Making an effort to have my trumpet sound like an electric guitar only adds to the dissolution of musical definition regarding my playing.

Another point to remember is that the minute I add my trumpet to say, a drum 'n 'bass piece, it changes the signification of the piece so that it is no longer drum 'n' bass! This principle holds true no matter what music I am playing with, so utterly do the trumpet lines I articulate change its significance.

Another reason I thought of for why this is so is because most trumpet players play along with or over the electronic groove they are accompanying. That's why I was never overly thrilled with the group Us3. The instrumentalists were simply playing the jazz riffs that they would usually play along with chord changes over sampled Blue Note Record riffs.

I do not do things like this. What I like to do is to integrate and amalgamate my playing and my lines into the groove of the music I work with, changing its signification on a vertical plane so that only the tiniest pair of critical scissors could pull the tapestry apart: all to arrive at a new sound greater than what the composer I am working with or I would normally make by ourselves.

So this is where I am with trumpet playing today. My definitions are still in a state of flux, so I will consider this a living document, one which is subject to change (and extensive editing) at a moment's notice.

Thank you and Good Night!

Rhys Chatham
Paris, May 1998

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