The modern composer and electric guitar-music maestro talks about his imposing new album, his impressive legacy—and his deep appreciation for the creativity of others.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Rhys Chatham looks like a badass. Staring into a webcam from his Paris study, the composer answers our Skype call with a cigarette clenched tightly in his mouth. Squinting meanly, he appears poised and alert, prepared to quash each and every question thrown his way. But this intimidating air diffuses as soon as he speaks. His tone is light, and his chuckles are frequent. He grins like a schoolboy when explaining complex theory and drums on his desk to demonstrate intricate polyrhythms. He can muster a mean gaze, but Chatham is really just a nice guy with a deep love for booming overtones.
At 61, he’s the most famous proponent of music for massed guitars. His compositions utilize many guitarists — sometimes six, sometimes 100 — to create sounds that undulate and expand, filling the air and twisting the mind. His most famous piece, 1977’s deceptively named Guitar Trio, builds and bends simple E-chord riffs into a hypnotic assault. Witnessed live, its mutating recesses seem to distort both time and space.
That piece, like many of his early works, was composed for six electric guitars, accompanied by a bassist and a drummer. It’s his most successful medium, but he abandoned it in 1986, choosing to move in new directions. He began to play trumpet, creating both elegant swells and gleeful abrasions. And he expanded his guitar vision, composing and performing pieces that include at least 100 six-strings.
With the recently released Harmonie du soir, Chatham returns to writing for his “small lineup.” The title track amasses triumphant reverberations and agitates them with restless rhythms, like Guitar Trio if it made you want to get up and shake it. But the record also emphasizes the diversity of his long career. The second half, entitled Harmonie de Pontarlier: The Dream of Rhonabwy, lulls listeners with the fog from a 70-piece brass band. The digital and CD versions include a fierce revision of 1981’s “Drastic Classicism,” where snarling riffs (courtesy of David Daniell) grapple with Chatham’s shrieking trumpet.
Blurt caught up with the vibrant pioneer to get his thoughts on his legacy and the new ideas he’s still thrilled to explore.
BLURT: The new album is named after one of the poems from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Why did you choose it?
RHYS CHATHAM: I wanted to give it a French title because the piece was first performed in this wonderful, wonderful place called Palais de Tokyo, which is a museum of contemporary art here in Paris. It was just for the people who were in the museum. I was looking through my Baudelaire poetry book, and I came across it. In the original poem, it talks about a violin. I think I committed sacrilege by changing violin to guitar. In the liner notes, the poem is included, and I changed it from violin to guitar to keep it in character.
When did you write the piece?
The piece was written in 2012. When I heard that we were going to do it, I was thinking about doing an older piece of mine called Die Donnergötter. It’s for six electric guitars, bass and drums. I said, ‘I can’t do Die Donnergötter for this. That’s an older piece. I have to do something new.’ I had been writing these pieces for 100 electric guitars or 200 electric guitars, and I thought it would be nice to go back to working with the quote-unquote ‘small’ number of guitars.
Two summers ago, in the summer of 2011, I had tried writing a piece for it, and it really messed my head up because I found myself trying to do Die Donnergötter No. 2. It was putting me back into this ‘80s head. There’s nothing wrong with being in an ‘80s head, but usually when I do things, I want to do something new. So I put it down for a while, and I said, ‘OK, this time, I’m going to try to do something that’s for the year 2012.’ I was writing it under pressure because the performance was in a month, and I eventually got the job done. I had a really good time writing it.
The rhythms feel a lot more dynamic than they were with your previous works for the six-guitar lineup. What pushed you in that direction?
I work quite a bit with polyrhythms, [like if] one section is playing in 5/4, and the other is in 6/4, and the other is in 7/4. They make these patterns that are relatively simple to play but sound complex. The cues are murder going from one to the next, but the fingering itself isn’t too hard. I wanted to try to do something like that with the smaller ensemble.
You hear the sections quite plainly. You get this kind of stereo effect that we tried to simulate in the recording, but that certainly comes across in the live context. Just doing that, just having them pass this note around is so confusing for musicians. The first rehearsal for this kind of thing is so amusing.
You’ve been utilizing large groups of guitars and other instruments for most of your career. What continues to intrigue you about that idea? Do you think you could ever exhaust the possibilities?
I think I’ll be working with that instrumentation the rest of my life.
I started with three electric guitars. I had worked with Tony Conrad and Lamont Young and was this minimalist student and composer working in both of their groups. I was also a harpsichord tuner. So I was hearing overtones, and I wanted to do a piece with overtones. I found that with three electric guitars, then I upped the number to six, and I found out what that was like to deal with in terms of orchestration and sonority, especially with these newer tunings that I was working with.
In the mid ‘80s, I had this idea that was a completely punk gesture: ‘Let’s put everyone in a small black room with a hundred guitars and call it Torture Box.’ I was going out with this choreographer named Carol Armitage at the time, and I told her about the idea. And she was like, ‘Ah Rhys, I bet you don’t even know 100 guitarists.’ I said, ‘I bet you I do!’ I made a list, and I came up with 80 that I knew personally. Carol gave me a break and came up with 20. She won the bet.
I realized at that point that it was doable. But I didn’t feel ready in the mid-‘80s to write a piece for that number of guitars because I hadn’t finished my explorations with six electric guitars, bass and drums. I didn’t want to write a bullshit piece. I mean, let’s face it, if you get 100 electric guitars and play “Louie Louie,” it’s going to sound great.
By 1989, I felt I was ready. I’d moved to France by that point, and I found this place in Leol called Larin. They commissioned the piece, and got all the guitarists together. One of the questions I asked, even in that first piece: ‘What is the sound of 100 guitars playing softly?’ There’s a beautiful sonority that happens with that. Of course, in that piece and the ones after it, there are moments that are thunderous. It would defeat the purpose to not have those moments. But you don’t want it all to be like that. You want to do a real exploration of what’s possible with this beautiful instrument.
The new version of “Drastic Classicism” seems to reconnect with the punk aggression that inspired some of your early work. How did you end up reworking it?
There was a kind of violent energy happening back then. In New York in the punk scene, we had a terrible, terrible problem with crack during those years. The feeling of violence was visceral. At any moment, some crazed person could come behind you with a baseball bat, so there was this constant fear that I think got reflected in the music of the time.
I couldn’t resist putting “Drastic Classicism” on this album. For contrast, if nothing else. My friend Carol Armitage, I wrote “Drastic Classicism” for her dance company. And just a couple of years ago, she did a revival of it. I had never seen her dance before because I was always playing, and they would put us onstage with the dancers. And the dancers were jumping all over us. I asked them, ‘Please don’t jump on my right arm. That’s the only thing you can do to mess me up. You can get on my shoulders, but leave my arms alone.’
At first, I thought she was going to ask me to play it. She didn’t come out and say, ‘I don’t want old guys like you playing it.’ What she said was, ‘I’m not going to dance in it, and I’m hiring people that were the same age we were when we did it.’ So we got some wonderful musicians: Sarah Lipstate from Noveller played, and Steve Gunn was in it. Matt Mottel from Talibam! was playing one of the guitars. It was great, and I thought they did a really good job. [It made me want] to see what would happen if I did a new version.
Three months ago in Durham, N.C., local musicians celebrated the third year of Triangle Rhysing, a massed-guitar project inspired by your work. Other groups, such as England’s Ex-Easter Island Head, are pursuing similar ends. How do you feel when you hear about things like that, knowing that your work set it in motion?
That just makes me so happy. It’s exactly what I hoped would happen. When whoever it was that wrote for the first conventional orchestral, if they said, ‘Well, I have a copyright on that instrumentation, so nobody else can do it,’ that would be pretty dumb. The same thing goes for anyone who likes the idea of working with these massed guitars.
After I did it, the first person I heard do it was someone in my band, Glenn Branca. I heard his piece, and at first, I was shocked because I felt like I was getting ripped off. But then I listened to it, and as the set went on, I realized Glenn had his own voice. It’s actually a good thing. And it’s remained a good thing because now we both have the reputations we have, and we share audiences who either hate one of us and love the other or love us both or hate us both.
For me, the more people who are doing it, the better. I just want to be amazed. With this Ex-Easter Island Head group, I found myself going, ‘Aw heck, why didn’t I think of doing that? That’s a great idea.’ That’s the whole point, that people use this instrument and make new music with it and do things that I would never think of doing.
Top Photo Credit: Matthieu Lemaire Courapied. Chatham performs in Israel this week, Dec. 19 and 20. Dates and info: www.rhyschatham.net