Rhys Chatham: Secret Agent

Frank J. Oteri: Going from playing with a rock band at Max’s Kansas City to writing music for 100, 200, and even 400 guitars is a quantum leap. That’s no longer rock.

Rhys Chatham: Well, first of all, it owes a great debt to music coming out of a classical tradition, because everything’s notated and the form is a classic symphonic form. So I think that we can say that it is music that’s coming out of a classical tradition that also merges things in a very knowledgeable way through having experienced rock. Why 100 guitarists? Robert Longo would have said, “For any guitarist the answer’s obvious”—for the sheer visceral experience. But this is a very good question, because it is something I asked myself in ’82. I started out writing for three electric guitars and I upped the number to six, and then at that point I said, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we had 100 electric guitars? Put them all in a small room. Lock the door and call it a torture box.” This was in ’82, and it was a punk period. And so the person I was with at the time, a collaborator actually—Karole Armitage, who’s a choreographer—heard me thinking about this, and she said, “Rhys, I bet you don’t know 100 electric guitarists.” So we made a bet. I came up with 80. Carol was kind and thought of another 20, and we realized at that precise moment that we could realize the project right then and there. But I didn’t do it because I didn’t feel I was ready. If I had done 100 electric guitars right then, it would have been just for the sheer beautiful, visual impact of having all these guitarists on stage together. I didn’t want to do that. I felt I had more research to do to really know what I could do with an orchestration like that. I hadn’t even composed Die Donnergötter at that point, so my next step was to work with six electric guitars. I did that in the mid ’80s. By 1989, I felt I was ready. I felt that I could do something that would really, in a very real way, make use of that particular instrumentation. So I made a piece in 1989 called An Angel Moves Too Fast to See.

FJO: Now in all of these pieces, you don’t have 100 or 200 separate parts. You have people doubling parts.

RC: Oh, yeah. It’s in four basic voices, or six voices. Although in one section in Angel, we have 100 discrete parts. This is important because, of course, you get all the violins together and it sounds thunderous, you know, in a Beethoven symphony or in Mahler or something like that. It’s the same thing with guitars. When you have everybody tremolo-ing in unison, it really sounds tremendous, and there’s nothing like the sound of 100 or 200 or 400 electric guitars playing quietly. Initially, when we first started working with 100 electric guitars, we had them through two or four points of sound in a big PA system with thousands and thousands of watts. But what we realized is: what’s the point of having a PA system? I did a performance at BAM in 1990 with just six electric guitars. It was as loud as 100 guitars, because it was going through a PA. So what we did after that was we decided forget about the PA. Let’s just have a little bit of amplification for the drums and the bass, and then have the 100 guitars coming through 100 points of sound—in other words, their amplifiers. It’s a very special sound; it’s a unique sound, and you can’t get it any other way.

FJO: You certainly can’t get it on a recording. I have to confess, I’ve never heard Angel live, same with Crimson Grail. I’ve only heard the recordings. I imagine it’s a very, very different experience to hear this music live in a big space than it is to hear a recording at home.

RC: When you hear a Rolling Stones record, it’s not the same experience as hearing them live, obviously. A live concert is a more intense experience. But you get a taste of it; you get an idea. And it can be a quite pleasant experience; it’s a different experience.

FJO: But most rock records, including most of the Rolling Stones’ albums, are very produced in the studio, and that’s part of the craft of those recordings. They can’t always get the same effects when they play live, just like you can’t get the same effect when you hear a recording. They’re two different things. But with your recordings, it’s not like you’re taking the 100 guitarists into the studio. They’re actually live documents. So, on some levels, it seems like you’re making a conscious decision to emulate the live experience to some degree.

RC: I think what I wanted to do was to get it on tape in any way that I possibly could, just so that people who weren’t in Paris could hear it. The recording that was made at the Basilique of Sacre Coeur was made on a two-channel stereo recorder by someone in the audience, and it happened to sound good, so we thought we’d put it out.

FJO: But now you’re planning to do the piece outdoors, which is a whole different sonic environment than doing the piece indoors. And on a contextual level, playing outside is very different from playing in a church which gives Crimson Grail a sacred music aura.

RC: It was a site-specific work. I was asked by the City of Paris to compose a piece that we could loop over a period from seven in the evening to seven in the morning. We were in negotiations with the bishop of that Sacre Coeur for months. He would say, “We’ll never have guitars in there. This has never been done.” I played him the quietest tremolo that I possibly could of the 100 electric guitars, and he said, “Oh, it’s too loud.” I finally said, “Don’t worry. I’m gonna make music to pray to.” That sort of won him over. The deal that we finally cut was that I’d write the piece in two sections of a half an hour each, and we’d play for a half an hour and then we’d pray for a half an hour, because the mission of the church is to have prayer going on all the time. So we did half an hour of playing and half an hour of praying, and then the second part, another half an hour of playing, and then more praying. We signed the contract and the monsignor said to me, “Rhys, I’ll see how much praying I can get done at this concert.” I’m not sure how much praying got done during those sections. I think there was more beer drinking that got done, but we had a good time in any case.

The church was a very different sonic environment. Normally I work with Ernie Brooks on bass and Jonathan Kane on drums, but there was a 15-second delay inside the church and because of that it was just impossible to have them in there, so I had to make something unique to that space. Now normally we composers have sequencers that we can work with—we can hear the sound ahead of time, and it really saves us a lot of rehearsal time. But in this case, I had to go back to the way I composed in the ’80s and just do everything in my head. So I was real scared when we first did it, but it ended up sounding good. Now for the performance at Lincoln Center, it’s an outdoor space which is very different acoustically. I had to completely re-write the piece so it would work outdoors. Will it work? Will it not work? We’ll just have to wait and see. Tonight, we’re going to rehearse it in an undisclosed location that has a lot of reverb time; we won’t really know if it works or not until the performance. So we’re on edge. So far the rehearsals are going well, but we’re just going to have to wait and see to know what happens.

FJO: Now in order to corral 400 or even 200 guitarists together in one place, you’re going to have to have volunteers for the most part, even if you had a bottomless budget. Ultimately you’re going to be dealing with people who never played with each other before; how could they have? And you’re going to have people with varying abilities. How important is precision for you?

RC: We ask that all the players be good guitarists, competent guitarists, no beginners for example, and that they play in groups. They don’t have to be professional, but they have to be experienced. The music is all notated, but it’s notated in such a way that even if a person is working with folk music or certain kinds of rock music, where you don’t usually have to read music but you’re used to playing rock, it wouldn’t be a problem to decode the score. Precision is really important. If people come in in the wrong place, I’m going to totally freak out, but they’re not going to because we have a thing called rehearsals. We divide the 200 guitarists into four groups of 50 guitarists each. Each of these groups is led by what we call a section leader. David Daniell is one of them, and Seth Olinsky, Ned Sublette, and John King—another composer—are leading groups and teaching the parts. I heard what they did yesterday. Things seem to be going well. Tonight will be the first rehearsal where we put everything together and as we speak I’m working on the cues that I’m going to give, so it’s quite an adventure.

FJO: And this is the first of these pieces with no drummer.

RC: Yeah, Crimson was really a step in a different direction. With all the other 100-guitar pieces since 1989, it was really coming out of a rock tradition in the sense of have a backbeat going through most things, whereas I would say this is the furthest away with my guitar pieces that I’ve ever been from rock.

FJO: What I find so interesting about this is that the 100 guitarists in the other pieces and one drummer is sort of unbalanced. You amplify the drummer, so you can still hear the drums, but you’ve never thought, “O.K., I’m going to have 100 guitarists, maybe I’ll have 25 drummers”?

RC: The problem with having 25 drummers is that I’d have to notate the parts so they all played in unison. When I collaborate with a drummer, it’s because I like the way the drummer plays. John Coltrane liked to work with Elvin Jones, because Elvin Jones was a powerhouse and Coltrane liked to hear that behind him. I’m not saying I’m John Coltrane, but we share this in common. I’ve worked with Jonathan Kane since the early ’80s. He’s a really powerful drummer. So I decided to do it with just one drummer so that we could have the kind of soloistic things that he did which would be impossible to notate.

There’s a time and place for everything. There’s certain music that you can only arrive at if it’s notated. For example, if you’re doing brass and battery music, or if you’re doing drum music with very precise notation with many drummers in unison, it has to be notated. At one point in my compositional life, I was very interested in marching band music. It came out of a solo that a drummer named Anton Fier did in a piece of mine called For Brass. I asked Anton to play 120 bars solo, and it sounded like marching band music. I thought it sounded really cool. So in another piece, I asked a drummer named James Lo to improvise this music, and it didn’t work at all. Because of that, I realized I had to notate this music completely, because it was the only way to arrive at it.

In other music, for example, in Guitar Trio, if I notated those rhythms precisely, it would sound stiff. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t have the freedom and exuberance the piece has. The only way to approach the piece as a rock musician is to say, “I’m playing this line; work something out that works well that’s your own voice and that works in counterpoint with it.” So the same was true in my compositional decision to have just Jonathan and Ernie on bass. And yes, it’s an imbalance, but I have to say Jonathan and Ernie had a wonderful time working with those 100 electric guitarists. And it really sounded great, with Jonathan ending up being the wind that powered the fire of the electric guitars.

FJO: Your talking about precision with this guitar orchestra you created makes me wonder what you’d do with a symphony orchestra. On your site, you list a Symphony No. 4 which I’d love to hear and which also makes me wonder what happened to one, two, and three.

RC: It was called Symphony No. 4 because I was working, with cut-up technique, from a piece by Bruckner.

FJO: Oh, so it was Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.

RC: Yeah, just completely cut up. I also did a piece called Merci Chopin, which was one of the preludes. I took various measures out of it and subjected it to minimalist techniques. Unfortunately there’s no recording of it. There was a recording for piano which is what I wrote it for originally. And another one that was a version for electric guitar. Someone asked me to do something for orchestra, and they asked me to take this symphony and fuck it up for a dance company, and that’s what I did. It ended up being quite nice.

But God, it was so much work. And I didn’t have a good experience. I had an orchestra of musicians whose attitude was, “Why can’t we just play the Stravinsky? Why do we have to play this piece?” They were lazy in the sense that they would have actually had to practice the music. With a lot of musicians who are not specialized in contemporary music, they know the repertory already, and they just want to go in there and play. They also didn’t like that I was desecrating this music in a certain way. If I had been working with L’Ensemble Intercontemporain, I would have had a wonderful experience, because those musicians are used to working with crazy ideas. Those guys are really open-minded. But that was a one-time thing.

The reason I haven’t written for regular orchestra is because no one has asked me to. Whenever someone asks me to do something, I’ll write for it. So I was asked to write for orchestra using a certain technique, and I was really happy to do it. Unfortunately, the musicians weren’t hip. But I had a great time writing the piece and would do it again. I write for electric guitar orchestras because it’s available to me. But it’s very different writing for regular orchestra than an orchestra of many guitarists because with guitarists, it’s one timbre. When you have an orchestra, you have many different colors you can do things with, woodwinds and brass, etc. The problem for composers is having access to this instrument, because it’s a very, very expensive instrument. I myself haven’t had access to it. It’s just worked out that way, so I haven’t written that much for it. It’s the only reason I haven’t. It’s a beautiful, beautiful instrument. I have nothing against the classical orchestra.

FJO: You grew up in New York, but you’ve lived in Paris for decades now. I’m curious about what you perceive the differences to be in these two societies for composers and establishing a livelihood making music.

RC: The reason I moved to Europe wasn’t because I didn’t like it in New York. I’m a New Yorker. The reason I moved to Europe was because I married a French person, and she decided she wanted to move back to France. I thought I’d be a little bit lonely without my wife, and so I decided to follow her thinking it would be a great adventure. And it was, because I didn’t speak a word of French. And you know, I went over there and I decided I liked it.

But in terms of being open, in France in particular, we divide things into categories; we’re the country of Descartes. Everything is very logical there. You’re either a contemporary music composer, or you do African music, or you do rock music, or you do electro. Everything’s in categories. So during the ’90s, for example, I was primarily playing fuzz trumpet over electronica beats. I had been doing that for ten years and I had my tapes out and I took them to the different record companies in France. They all knew me. And they said, “Rhys, we love it, but we don’t know what to call it.” And then I went to London, and they didn’t know what it was either. But they said, “Bloody Aye, man, it sounds great.” They rolled out the red carpet and put the record out. This was Ninja Tune, a company that did electronic music at the time.

So why do I like living in France? My family’s there. My daughter’s French, my wife is French, and so my life is there. For music, I really have to say that in America things are a lot more open. This is true in Great Britain also. There’s all kinds of fantastic subgenres of things, underground things that I see happening. I’m complaining about France right now, in terms of the way they categorize everything. But on the other hand, they’ve been very good about mounting projects. It was France that mounted the first 100 electric guitar project. I don’t think it would have happened here, because there wouldn’t have been the funding for it.

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