Rhys Chatham: Secret Agent

Rhys Chatham: Echo Solo also relates to the heavy metal work that I’m doing now. Essentially, it’s the same idea. I was in a tour van three years ago, and I heard this amazing music that sounded like minimalist heavy metal. And it turned out to be Dopesmoker by a band called Sleep from the early 1990s. It was the first time I heard it; I had somehow missed it. But I thought, wow, this sounds like my music, or what I would dream if I was doing this. And Jeff Hunt—the person I work with at my record company, Table of the Elements—said, “Rhys, if you do something with heavy metal, I’ll put the record out and organize a tour.” So I said O.K., and that’s how it started. We have an entire record in the can.

Frank J. Oteri: I’ve been looking for it ever since I first learned about it. All I’ve been able to find is a track on your MySpace page for the band.

RC: Well, we’ll release this hopefully next year. In the meantime, I did a new version of Guitar Trio; it’s actually the original version. So for the moment, we’re touring that.

FJO: I’d like to get back to The Kitchen and what you curated there because in a way, you as a composer and you as a curator are sort of one and the same thing in terms of what you brought together. You’ve described an epiphany that you had at some point in the ’70s going to CBGBs and hearing The Ramones and that opening you up to another whole world of sound for you. I’m wondering what that meant for you as a curator. Eventually you had rock bands playing at The Kitchen; Sonic Youth and Swans were there. That’s a different audience than the audience for, say, Steve Reich.

RC: I was at The Kitchen during two periods, first from 1971 through ’73, and then later from ’77 through ’80. When I came back in 1977, the punk thing in New York had exploded, and it was really fantastic. Richard Hell and Patty Smith were in the Village Voice every week, and I was very excited about it. The music director prior to me at The Kitchen was Garrett List, and he did something that was quite radical for the time. Before we only had Downtown composers coming out of the Cage-ian tradition, as opposed to a more Uptown tradition. But Garrett invited in groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry and Leo Smith, and lots of other great composers coming out of this tradition. It caused a bit of a tension on the Downtown scene. They were saying that these guys already have places to play, and we don’t have that many places to play. But Garrett thought it was important to do a bit of a mix just to show where some of the music was coming from. When I became music director of The Kitchen again after him, I thought I would continue that tradition. But because of my own compositional focus, and also because of what was happening on the scene at that time, it shifted to punk rock and to new wave. There was really a lot of radical stuff going on, and I thought I would bring some of those groups into The Kitchen. What I mean by radical stuff is that you had groups like The Contortions with Adele Bertei on keyboard playing tone clusters. That normally wouldn’t happen in a rock context. Other groups were incorporating noise, not in a conscious way, but just because it was time for it to happen.

FJO: There were even some people coming from the rock scene who were doing things very consciously, like Robert Fripp. One of the first Frippertronics concerts was at The Kitchen when you were there. You mentioned Terry Riley’s Poppy Nogood with its two tape recorders. What Fripp was doing was very similar.

RC: It’s completely the same. Fripp got his tape delay idea for Frippertronics from Brian Eno. He had no idea that the technique came from Terry Riley, but who cares. Terry Riley developed these techniques first, but what Fripp did with it was unique to Fripp. Historically we can see where it’s coming out of, but thank God that Fripp didn’t limit himself in saying, “Oh my God, Terry did this first, so I’m not going to do it.” You know, thank God that he took this technique and didn’t worry about where it came from. He did something special with it, which was uniquely him. Fripp and I became friends. He was really cool. Fripp was the person who gave me my first electric guitar. It was an Ovation.

FJO: You’ve talked about getting interested in the guitar because it is so easy to tune. At some point you were a harpsichord tuner, and you were also La Monte Young’s tuner for The Well-Tuned Piano. Yet your use of different tunings in your own music is not at all theoretical. Guitar Trio is all about the physical properties of the harmonics; it’s a manifestation of a physical reality. And then you did this piece called The Out of Tune Guitar where people could tune guitars any way they wanted as long as they were out of tune with each other. That’s very different from tuning just intonation in order to have perfect intervals or to use an extended microtonal system like, say, 72-tone equal temperament in order to have all these additional intervallic possibilities. What you’ve done is much more assaultive. You basically just want to play out of tune. For a tuner, such an aesthetic seems somewhat out of character.

RC: When I was in my early 20s and studying with La Monte, I was enamored with just intonation. I also studied with Pandit Pran Nath, and that was just intonation. But I also discovered I like equal temperament and I like mean tone; I like all different kinds of tunings. Aaron Copland once recommended to his students that they didn’t get associated with any particular compositional scene. He recommended that they stay apart from that so that they could do whatever they wanted. I didn’t study with Aaron Copland, and I also didn’t take that advice myself. But I did take it with regard to tuning systems. I never wanted to get associated or stuck with one particular tuning system. I love just intonation; I love that minor seventh. But there are a lot of situations where I want to use equal temperament, and there are a lot of situations where I want to focus on sonority, rather than on tuning.

When I did Guitar Trio, rather than working specifically with a tuning system, what I wanted to give to people was [the opportunity] to hear overtones the way I hear overtones, the way a piano or harpsichord tuner hears overtones. So I wanted to make a piece that’s not specifically about the tuning system generating the overtones, but to make a piece that focuses on the overtones themselves. When you’re a student, of course you’re going to write music exactly like your teacher’s. And at a certain point, you really have to rebel. I wanted to do something that was me. Guitar Trio was the first piece I made that I considered to not be a student piece. Essentially what I was trying to do with that piece, and especially with The Out of Tune Guitar, was to break away from my teachers and do something different. The Out of Tune Guitar was really a punk piece. I was in full rebellion against La Monte Young at that point.

FJO: Did La Monte or Tony or any of those people ever hear these pieces? How did they react to them?

RC: La Monte heard Guitar Trio and approved of it. Tony thought it was really funny. Tony is the great iconoclast and is interested in always doing something new.

FJO: Tony has also played with rock bands. He played with Faust early on.

RC: I was actually in the group before that. The original group consisted of Laurie Spiegel, myself, and Tony. We played a few concerts. But then he was in Germany and had a chance to put a record out and so he couldn’t use Laurie and me, and he had to use these musicians from Faust. I was so disappointed when the record came out because I wasn’t on it. But now I think it’s a brilliant record.

FJO: As long as we’re on this path, there have been a lot of collaborations with rock musicians among the original minimalists. La Monte worked with rock musicians. And there’s also Church of Anthrax, the record that Terry Riley did with John Cale, who had classical training but was better known at that point for being a member of The Velvet Underground. So doing rock pieces was not completely unprecedented by the time you did Guitar Trio.

RC: The nice thing about music coming out of a classical tradition is that really you can do anything you want within a context. Whereas with rock you can bend the borders, but there’s a certain point where you break it and it’s no longer rock.

FJO: I don’t know. Robert Fripp has said that he got involved with rock because it was the most malleable musical form. You could do anything and call it rock. Certainly the Frippertronics stuff doesn’t sound like rock. There’s no backbeat. But he considers it rock. I don’t know if anyone else does. If you say something’s classical music, that sets up expectations, too. If it doesn’t sound like Tchaikovsky, there are many people who won’t think that it’s classical music, the standard repertoire fans who reject contemporary music.

RC: I thought contemporary music was Ice T.

FJO: But still I think it would be fair to say that many of the pieces you were writing in the ’70s and ’80s are part of rock music.

RC: I was using a rock instrumentation and minimalist techniques. La Monte Young wrote a piece [in which you] feed a piano a bale of hay; that was a piece. Or let a butterfly out of a jar. If you can do that in a concert hall, you can do anything in a concert hall. So of course, I could do a piece that is influenced by Jimmy Page, or Jimi Hendrix, and play it in a classical context and be very daring. But it’s not daring at all, because you can do anything you want in an avant-garde context after composers like John Cage and Nam June Paik. So for me in ’77, the trick was could I play it at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, because that was another whole thing.

Back then, there was a real issue of authenticity. Are you posing or are you not posing? Are you a real rocker? And there’s a question about whether I was a rocker or not. I don’t have any tattoos and no needles sticking out of my arm. If you played at Max’s and they liked you, you would get beer bottles thrown at you with the beer still in them. That’s if they liked you. It was really violent back then. If they didn’t like you, you can imagine what would have happened. So the first time we played Guitar Trio at Max’s, all the people involved were coming out of a rock context. The instrumentation was a rock context, and the approach was rock. The only thing that was classical about it was that the primary harmonic and melodic vocabularies were the overtones. So it was coming out of minimalism and my background as a harpsichord tuner. But was that going to work in a rock context or not? I didn’t know.

At that point, I wasn’t calling myself a rock musician because I have too much respect for the field. I don’t want to appropriate it. I’m playing in a rock context because I’m doing field work. I’m acting as a secret agent from another field. And please don’t throw too many beer bottles at me. But they liked it. So for a person coming out of classical music, contemporary music, they might hear it as a new strain of minimalism; whereas, the people in the rock context were hearing it as a different flavor of a wall of noise.

FJO: The volume must have been cataclysmic.

RC: When we played, people were coming back to the sound man and saying, “We’re hearing these choirs; where are you hiding the singers?”

FJO: You weren’t all sitting there with music stands?

RC: Are you kidding?! No! I think the original band was Glenn Branca, Nina Canal, David Rosenblum, and Wharton Tiers; none of those people read music at that point.

FJO: Now it’s interesting that people were wondering where you hid the singers, because you’ve done all this rock stuff, but nothing with vocals. And yet rock is predominantly a song-based genre. The Ramones were an epiphany for you, but what The Ramones are about is singing songs.

RC: It was an epiphany for me because the music they were doing was much more sophisticated than the music I was doing. I was working with one chord; they were working with three. So the music they were doing was highly complex. After all these years I’ve worked up to three chords, so I’ve finally, you know, worked up to the level of The Ramones. It’s hard to remember more than one chord for me as a minimalist composer. So what interested me most about The Ramones wasn’t so much Joey, although I loved what Joey was doing, but it was just the chord progressions that were so simple and so logical. I’m an instrumental composer. I always have been. I don’t know why it is. If I’m working with singers, I just want to work with an early music group. I’ve just never wanted to do songs. I don’t know why that is.

FJO: So what you got from The Ramones is similar to what Steve Reich got from Ghanaian music; he was really excited and influenced by the rhythmic polyphony of the drumming, but not interested in the vocals.

RC: Exactly. Yeah.

FJO: Now, singers frequently define what a genre of music is in terms of the way they sing. When a classical singer is singing rock music, it usually comes across as posing; you can immediately hear that. And the same is true when rock stars try to do classical music. Maybe you can bend genres more with instrumental music than you can with vocal music. Is that fair?

RC: I hadn’t thought of that way, simply because it never occurred to me to work with a vocalist in all the time that I’ve been working with rock until this year. Yeah, I think it’s fair, but I didn’t approach it that way. I didn’t say, well, if I put a singer in it, it’s going to sound artificial unless it’s a rock singer. The reason I didn’t have a singer is I just wasn’t interested in it. If I’d wanted a singer, I would have asked somebody who came out of a rock context to work with me.

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