Rhys Chatham: Secret Agent
A conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Hotel Newton, New York City
August 14, 2008—2:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Recorded by Randy Nordschow and Trevor Hunter
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow
Paris-based composer Rhys Chatham was back in his hometown of New York City last month for what was being touted as one of the most significant musical events of the year—the American premiere of his Crimson Grail for 200 electric guitars. (It had been on my must-check-it-out calendar for almost a year.) Originally composed for 400 guitars performing in a cathedral, Rhys sized down the piece for its U.S. debut, which was to occur as part of an outdoor concert at Lincoln Center on a triple bill along with a set of music by French medieval polyphonist Perotin and a multimedia realization of E2-E4, a 1981 composition by krautrock pioneer Manuel Göttsching of Ash Ra Tempel which presaged techno.
Contrapuntal chants and trippy psychedelia are actually great counterbalances to the music of Rhys Chatham which lies somewhere between the realms of American postclassical music and punk. A protégé of Morton Subotnick, La Monte Young, and Tony Conrad, Rhys found himself in charge of music at The Kitchen, a Downtown music mecca, at the age of 19. While he beams about how hearing Terry Riley for the first time converted him from a post-serialist to a minimalist, a bigger epiphany occurred when he first heard The Ramones at CBGBs. Rhys soon got himself a guitar (from Robert Fripp, no less) and traded performances in small Downtown music venues for gigs in clubs like Max’s Kansas City. Fans there reacted to his overtone-saturated noise by throwing beer bottles at him—because they liked it! He also returned to his gig at The Kitchen and invited in bands like Sonic Youth and Swans.
Since then, Rhys has forged a unique musical path that is part rock, part contemporary classical music, yet somehow neither. Despite being based in France for nearly 20 years, he remains an American original. Unfortunately due to a severe rainstorm, Crimson Grail never happened, but luckily on the day before the concert was to have taken place we got to chat about his music and his life over glasses of “delightful white wine.” Life in France has changed his outlook but not his music.