Frank J. Oteri: There’s a very long essay that you have posted on your website (Composer’s Notebook 1990) in which you came up with this amazing acronym—CCCOOACMT: Contemporary Composers Coming Out Of A Classical Music Tradition. It seems as good a name as any for all this stuff.
Rhys Chatham: There’s no really good term for what we do. We’ve always called ourselves avant-garde music, this kind of music, that kind of music. We were calling it “new music” in the ’70s and then it got appropriated by urban music. [laughs]
FJO: Well, every time you put a label on something you give a hint about what it should sound like. Even CCCOOACMT might reference a very specific sound to some people. When you were growing up in the ’60s, it would have been the kind of music that would be played on a Group for Contemporary Music concert. Of course, Cage and Feldman had a somewhat different sound and electronic music was all over the place. And then there was minimalism, but that was only just starting back then. Still, all of this music was somehow apart from the other music that was happening at the same time—jazz and rock and other forms of popular music—and there was a clear distinction between things that were coming out of the so-called classical tradition and everything else. These musics lived in different places and had different audiences. For all of your subsequent breaking down of genres, you came from a classical music background, too.
RC: My father is a writer, but he’s an amateur harpsichordist. At that time he had a virginal that was made by Hugh Gough, and so at a very early age, I was introduced to the early music scene. So the kind of music I listened to as I was growing up was music by people like Giles Farnaby and John Bull. We listened to a bit of Baroque music, but that’s about as modern as we got—maybe a bit of Stravinsky.
But I started opening up as a teenager when I got to the Third Street Music School Settlement. I started studying flute there. My teacher was a wonderful flutist who’s still around in New York named Sue Ann Kahn, who happened to be a specialist in contemporary music. We started out playing Bach sonatas and things like that. And then I would go to the Lincoln Center Library every weekend to pick out records, and I heard this composer named Edgard Varèse. He actually wrote a piece for flute called Density 21.5, so I checked it out and I asked Miss Kahn if we could possibly work on it. And she said, “I happen to be playing this piece at a recital I’m doing in a couple of weeks. Why don’t you come to the recital?” On this recital, she also played pieces by Ralph Shapey—a piece that Sue Ann Kahn commissioned—and possibly the [Berio] Sequenza for flute solo. So I was with the right person. At that point I was 14 years old or something like that, and I became a fan of contemporary music. And just the way a lot of kids would go out and listen to every possible sub-genre of rock music, I was listening to—and discovering with wonder—electronic music, serial music, post-serial music, everything that Schoenberg and Webern ever did. I was a real, real fan, and that’s how I got my start.
FJO: But no rock yet.
RC: We had some rock in the house, but mostly we were classical music people. I was aware of the Beatles, and I thought they were great. In fact, when I was in sixth grade, I heard the Beatles at a friend’s house and I wanted to be just like Ringo. So I said to Mom and Dad, “Mom and Dad, I really want to play drums.” I grew up in New York City in a small apartment in the Gramercy Park area. My mother and father were very smart, and so they said, “You know it’s a great idea. Drum sets are a very nice instrument but, you know, with flute you can play in many more contexts.” I was so stupid; I listened to them. So I ended up playing flute, which I was quite happy with until I was 18.
FJO: You didn’t know about Jethro Tull at that point, I guess.
RC: I didn’t discover Jethro Tull until after I moved out of my parents’ house, after I was 18. And by that time, I was playing saxophone.
FJO: But you did mention getting into electronic music.
RC: I had met a composer named Morton Subotnick in 1968. He came down to Third Street Music School and taught us kids about electronic music, and we went over to NYU and saw his studio. We had weekly classes, and he discussed one parameter of music per week. One week it would be frequency, and then the next week it would be amplitude. And he played musical examples, like Poème Electronique by the great granddaddy of electronic music, Edgard Varèse. At the end of the course, I said to Morton, “I think I’d really like to study with you.” And he graciously took me on as a student. His watchword was counterpoint, counterpoint, and more counterpoint. In the meantime, he also let me use his studio. As a 16-year old, it excited me very much to be working with the Buchla synthesizer.
FJO: It seems like you were a pretty precocious teenager. You even wound up running the music programs at The Kitchen when you were only 19.
RC: Well, I’ve always been interested in dance. As a teenager I thought that I wanted to be a contemporary dancer. So I took a couple of dance classes. I think it was with Limon. I discovered it was much too hard, and I had a lot more talent as a musician. But I always had a love of contemporary dance, so I was working as a musician with a choreographer named Daniel Nagrin. I would play conga at his dance class, and maybe a little bit of flute. Then afterwards with his company he would have a three-hour jam session. One day, he had these two interesting, vaguely Slavic people come and play: a woman named Steina Vasulka on violin and Woody Vasulka—they were married—was playing the Putney synthesizer. We got to talking and became friends. They were very interested in the Buchla synthesizer that I was working with. So I invited the Vasulkas down to NYU to Morton’s studio to show them how the Buchla synthesizer worked, because by that time, I was 19 and an expert. And they said, “You know, we’re starting this place called The Kitchen, and maybe you’d like to program some music things there.” And so I said that’d be a really great idea.
I had seen a series that was programmed by a producer named Thais Lathem in the late ’60s at a place called the Electric Circus in Manhattan. On this series, every Monday night she had a composer like Salvatore Martirano or John Cage. There was an incredible event—John Cage versus Marcel Duchamp on chess; every time they moved a piece, it would open a gate and you’d hear this sound—Gordon Mumma, or Nam June Paik, or David Berman, or David Tudor in different configurations. It was this wonderful amorphous thing. It was a marvelous series, and I thought maybe I could do something a bit like that at Woody and Steina’s place. So we started a Monday night series there.
At first, I invited my friends from NYU. Composers like Laurie Spiegel and Serge Tcherepnin came down, Michael Tchaikovsky, people like that. Then I called Milton Babbitt to play because he was a big hero of mine and lived on the same street as me—19th Street, where I grew up. I was really scared to call him, but I called him and I said, “Would you like to play at The Kitchen?” We got to talking, and he said, “How old are you?” I said, “I’m 19,” and he said, “Nobody 19 can do a series like that.” I got very paranoid about my age at that point. But then I talked to Philip Glass and he was so sweet. We were just paying the door, and he had asked his musicians to do many, many free gigs, so he couldn’t do it. But he said, “I do know a composer who might be interested in it for the exposure,” and he recommended Jon Gibson. That’s how I met Jon Gibson, and he was one of the first people who ever played at The Kitchen. I played sine-wave oscillator on his piece, and we’ve been friends ever since.
FJO: I find that so interesting to hear you talk about inviting both Babbitt and Glass to participate in concert series back in 1971. So many people say that at that time these were really two separate camps; the whole Uptown/Downtown schism completely divided the new music community. But it seems that even back then you were able to think past all of these opposing aesthetics.
RC: Well, the divide was very much back then. And when I [first heard] Terry Riley, I did not like the music at all. At that point I was either into a [John Cage] Variations V kind of noise piece or something that was highly atonal. But I had seen a book called An Anthology, which was put out by Jackson Mac Low and La Monte Young, and I saw this score by a composer named Terry Riley with all kinds of squiggly marks that looked very much like Variations V. So I went to his concert at the Electric Music Circus thinking it would be very, very noisy, and dissonant. And I saw this guy with long red hair playing circus organ. I was totally shocked and disgusted. It was just like tonal music with lots of major thirds, minor thirds, and fifths—not my thing at all. So I asked for my money back, and they wouldn’t give it to me. It was five dollars, which was a lot of money back then, so I stayed for the concert. And after about an hour of listening to A Rainbow in Curved Air, the long extended version, I thought, “This isn’t bad.” Then he did his Poppy Nogood piece, which is with two Revox tape recorders and tape delay. I never heard anything like that in my life. I’d walked into that Electric Circus concert as a post-serialist, but I walked out as a minimalist composer.
FJO: The name you use for your publishing company is Post-Minimalist Music. Clearly something happened which made you transition from being a minimalist to a post-minimalist. Post-minimalism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and there’s little consensus. To some people, John Adams is a post-minimalist. Others say he isn’t. Some say that the Bang on a Can people are post-minimalists.
RC: You had the first wave of minimalist composers, who for me are La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Tony Conrad. Everyone had their own contribution. Tony Conrad was the theoretician of the group. He was the person that defined just intonation. Then there was a second wave of minimalists just a little bit after; Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Philip Glass all came up around the same time. It worked much the way the rock community works. They don’t like the term; they don’t want to be called minimalists. Philip, at the time, was process music. With Steve, it was phase music, and with Charlemagne, strumming music. I would consider these composers to be the original American minimalist composers along, of course, with Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman in Great Britain. Then the people of my generation who came afterwards I would call post-minimalists. Early minimalism I would consider to be music that was composed in 1963 through ’68, the second wave—just “minimalism”—late ’60s to early ’70s, and after that post-minimalism.
FJO: So for you the term post-minimalism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sound of the music or what is going on organizationally in its composition.
RC: There are different sounds with each.
FJO: So what would you say is the sound of post-minimalist music?
RC: I can’t say with John Adams’s music, but for me the post-minimalist sound is the incorporation of other elements into the music—for example, rock. But I have to confess the way I’m thinking of it is purely generational. My music is post-minimal in the sense that it’s after Tony, Terry, La Monte, Charlemagne, Philip, and Steve.
FJO: Someone randomly listening to some of your brass pieces or your really early Two Gongs would think of the music as minimalism, but someone listening to a 30-second snippet of something like Die Donnergötter—hearing the drums and electric guitars—might actually walk away thinking that it is rock music. And then there’s a rather startling piece of yours called Echo Solo that combines serialism and chance music and uses an insane scale, which clearly has an unmistakably hardcore CCCOOACMT sound.
RC: Yeah, like Boulez’s Sonata One or Two.
FJO: So, since you’ve put all these things out there, I wonder how much any of these distinctions matter to you.
RC: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, these distinctions were hugely important for me and for my colleagues. Composers coming out of a classical tradition had this idea that there was a pyramid where we have classical music at the top of things, then there’s jazz, which is not as sophisticated as classical music, and rock is barely considered music. I still find an attitude in Europe among composers of contemporary music that there’s some kind of hierarchy between these different musics. Many of the composers that I was working with wanted to break down these barriers between different genres of music, blur them and obliterate them to the greatest extent possible.
Composers like Frederic Rzewski and Garrett List had tried to blur the boundaries between improvisation and pieces like Stockhausen’s Piano Piece 11. Groups like AMM and MEV were improvising coming out of a classical tradition only to discover that you had this other group of composers like Ornette and Don Cherry who were also working in this area, so perhaps they could all get together and do some interesting things. And that’s exactly what they did. I was very, very inspired by the work that Garrett and Frederic and people like Karl Berger did in this direction. And, along with composers like Peter Gordon, I thought if it could happen between classical music and jazz and generate all this exciting stuff, maybe it could happen with rock, too.
In the ’90s, I felt that we were in a golden age of composition, in the sense that before we really had to define what camp we were in. We were in a serialist or post-serialist camp. Or we were in a minimalist camp. Everything was very, very precise. We were dealing with very precise sets of issues. But in the ’80s, everything got mixed up. Now I notice younger composers coming out of a classical context drawing something out of the rock tradition. No problem.
In 1963, to make a composition in just intonation and to subject it to Cage-ian random techniques would be a contradiction in terms. Because if you’re in just intonation, you’re in a key and you have this set tuning. You have to be careful, especially if you’re working with a limited normal piano. If you randomize [the intervals] it doesn’t make any sense. But today it does make sense. Why not? Why can’t we combine these things? And that was the idea behind Echo Solo. It’s an idea that La Monte couldn’t have had, though obviously the idea was based on The Well-Tuned Piano. It was a kind of reaction to The Well-Tuned Piano, making use of all these amazing techniques that we found in the ’50s and putting them together with other techniques coming out of other traditions, be it rock or jazz, etc.
But now I’m very much for building the walls back up again. Back in the ’80s we were at a point of intersection where the formal concerns common to rock, jazz, and classical music seemed to intersect. They did intersect, in New York at least. I’m not sure about Europe. And we had an absolutely amazing time back then. All the composers coming out of these traditions have grown stronger from the experience. We’ve shared, and we’ve learned, and we’ve gone back to whatever tradition that we’ve come out of. Maybe we’ve switched traditions to do something different.
If you’re coming out of a jazz tradition, you’re working with a certain set of issues. I’m a trumpet player. I started with flute, but at age 30, I decided to play trumpet. A composer named Jim Staley, who’s a trombonist, told me that deciding to become a trumpet player at age 30 is like deciding to become an athlete at age 30. I didn’t listen to him. I just went ahead and did it, but actually, he was right. It’s the craziest thing I ever did. But my training on trumpet is completely out of the jazz tradition. When I play trumpet, I’m playing over chord changes. I can improvise in all 12 major and minor scales, every single blues scale, at any tempo. It’s a certain way of approaching things, and it’s very different from the way classical music composers and musicians work. And it’s different from the way rock musicians work. We have an expression in France, “Vive la différence.”
FJO: So would you then say that you’re still part of the classical tradition?
RC: It’s strange. I’m glad you asked me that. Emotionally I consider myself part of the classical tradition, but for the greater part of my life, I’ve played in rock and jazz clubs. In terms of orientation, I’m coming out of a classical tradition even though I’m a jazz trumpet player, and on guitar I play rock. When I approach classical composition, I’m completely formed by the work I did with Tony, Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, La Monte Young, and Morton Subotnick.
FJO: And Sue Ann Kahn.
RC: And Sue Ann Kahn.