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Interview: Rhys Chatham

by Amelia Ishmael

An interview with Rhys Chatham

Amelia Ishmael: When was the last time that you were in                                                                                                  Chicago, and what did you do?

Rhys Chatham: I’ve been in Chicago so many times, it all drifts into one beautiful story. But I love coming to Chicago—Wylie Crawford, my brother, lives in Chicago, he’s a chief carillonneur at the University of Chicago, so there is a musical connection there. The last thing I did there? It was probably when I gave a talk at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Peter Gena and Nicolas Collins had invited me to speak in 2010, and then I gave a concert at The Wire’s Adventures in Modern Music in Chicago during the summer [Rhys Chatham Trio, with guitarist David Daniell and drummer Tim Barnes, at the Museum of Contemporary Art]. 

AI: Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society is opening for you at Constellation on Friday…this isn’t the first time you’ve shared a stage, is it?

RC: I’ve worked quite a bit with Josh Abrams. The first time we ever played together was at the Empty Bottle, in 2007. I was doing the piece that I am best known for, Guitar Trio. We played it with all the folks from Tortoise helping out, and other good folks also [David Daniell, Eric Block, Robert Lowe, Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, Todd Rittman, Adam Vida, and Ben Vida], and Josh was playing bass. And since then, Josh played bass on the first performance we ever did for my piece for 100 electric guitars, An Angel Moves too Fast to See, when we performed it in Pennsylvania for the first time, a number of years back. Since then I’ve seen Josh Abrams play in various contexts, so it was with great, great pleasure when I found out that we are going to be on the same program again, because I just love what he does. 

 Empty Bottle G3 all stars! (Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2007) left to right (standing): Tim Iseler, David Daniell, Tod Rittman, John McEntire, Doug McCombs, Adam Vida; (left to right kneeling): Eric Block, Jeff Parker, Josh Abrams, Benjamin Vida; (in front): Rhys and Robert Lowe.   Courtesy of Rhys Chatham.

Empty Bottle G3 all stars! (Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2007) left to right (standing): Tim Iseler, David Daniell, Tod Rittman, John McEntire, Doug McCombs, Adam Vida; (left to right kneeling): Eric Block, Jeff Parker, Josh Abrams, Benjamin Vida; (in front): Rhys and Robert Lowe.  Courtesy of Rhys Chatham.

AI: Can you talk about your perception of the sounds that he makes?

RC: I’m not sure what he’s going to be doing, he does a lot of different kinds of things and I haven’t heard what he’ll be doing for this incarnation. In the context of my piece Guitar Trio, he gave that piece a very, very interesting interpretation, an almost kind of bluesy interpretation on bass, which I was quite surprised and delighted with. But then I’ve heard him do other things — he did the Guitar Trio set, with John McEntire, the drummer from Tortoise, and that was a real honor – but I also heard him play with Jan Dek, again with John McEntire on drums. Their set was three hours, and it was just amazing. It just went on and on, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from it, it was just wonderful. I’ve seen Josh play in many circumstances, so I’m really looking forward to what he’s going to do. 

AI: What can we look forward to hearing from you, will you be playing works from your new album? 

RC: I’ll be essentially playing selections from Pythagorean Dream, the forthcoming album from Foom, which is a UK label. It’s coming out in June, but I should have some copies of the record available there on hand, before the release. I’ll be playing some selections from that.  I had done pieces for a large number of electric guitars, I’m known for playing with multiple electric guitars, the first one I did was in 1989, a piece for 100 electric guitars, and we toured it all over the world. People liked it so much that other composers have started working with this instrumentation, and I can see why, it’s such a beautiful instrumentation. My particular approach to it these days is that of course 100 electric guitars can play loud, but what’s the sound of 100 electric guitars playing softly? That’s the question that I’m exploring at present. When I first started working with 100 electric guitars, I tried it, and I liked it! I liked it so much that I upped the number to 200. In 2011 we did a piece called A Crimson Grail with 200, plus 16 electric basses, surrounding the audience with electric guitars, and did a beautiful antiphonal piece.

So the question that I had after I wrote that piece was—What will I do now? Do I write a piece for 1,000 electric guitars? I mean, it seems a little ridiculous; already organizing 200 guitars is a nightmare. I’ve seen other composers try to do things for 1,000 musicians, and what often happens is that it looks like a lot of people but they only end up getting around 400, and I just didn’t want to take that route. So after the 200-guitar piece I thought—Why not get back to basics and play a solo? I’m a composer, yes, but I play music every day. I love to play, and I love to play concerts, and have the interaction between the public and myself that a live concert entails, that you can’t get any other way. The thing about the 200 electric guitar concerts, is how many of those can I do a year? One, two? So with the solo work, I wanted something that is portable, that I could play a lot, but in making the solo my intention was—How can I get one instrument to sound like a hundred instruments? And I posed that question to myself. Do you know of a composer named Terry Riley?

AI: Mmmm hmm.

RC: So I thought of a piece that I had seen. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I had seen this piece back in 1969. I was a teenager, mind you. It was called Poppy No Good’s Phantom Band, and in it Terry played soprano saxophone, and it went into a Revox tape recorder, which went into yet another Revox tape recorders, twenty feet apart, so he’d record into one, and you’d hear that sound, but then you’d hear the sound coming back as the delay, 20 seconds later, which fed back into the original one, creating a sound like 100 or 1,000 soprano saxophones. Just beautiful! So I thinking back to that, but the thing about Revox tape recorders is, I have to tell you, they’re heavy. They weigh something like 23 kilos, which is about 50 lbs. Ouch, not exactly something you can tour with. Fortunately by the 1990s, guitar pedal manufacturers were starting to make pedals that recreated digitally the same effect that Terry got back in the 60s.  A company called Line 6 came out with a wonderful pedal that had a Terry Riley effect. They didn’t call it the Terry Riley effect, but that’s what it was. Other people would know this effect as Frippertronics, because Robert Fripp had exactly the same idea as Terry. Actually, he didn’t get the idea directly from Terry, he got it from Brian Eno, who got it from Terry, but who cares where the idea came from?!?! Because what Fripp did with it was completely different from what Terry did with it.

So with the solo I do in A Pythagorean Dream, I’m coming back to this idea of Frippertronics and Terry Riley’s Poppy No Good’s Phantom Band, except with pedals. Originally I was using three Line 6 pedals, and I articulated a riff on one of the pedals, perhaps for 8 seconds, and it would go through the left channel. Then I articulated exactly the same riff again, for the second channel, except it would be for 9 seconds. And, a third time on the third channel, on the right, for 10 seconds. So you would have this phase going on of the same riff at in a phase relationship of 8, 9, and 10. And the effect was that it didn’t sound like a loop. It sounded like a melody that was continuous and ever changing. Plus you got this feedback effect that sounded like a hundred instruments slowly changing from one thing to the next. So, the impetuous of the idea came out of wanting to do a solo, but not have it sound like one instrument, but having it sound like many instruments, the way that Terry or Robert Fripp used to do. But just the way that Fripp took Terry’s idea with the two Revox tape recorders, he turned it into his own personal voice—so it wasn’t an imitation of Terry, it was something completely different. In doing this music, which is inspired by these two composers, I put it through a personal filter, coming out of the early minimalist musical places that I’m coming from particularly. We’ll hear a little bit of Terry and a little bit of Robert Fripp at the show at Constellation in Chicago, but I think we’ll probably hear mostly Rhys Chatham. And I hope that people will enjoy it.

AI: Duration is a quality that you’ve worked with before, will it be something that you work with at this performance also?

RC: Definitely, in terms of the form of the piece. Having studied and worked with musicians and composers like Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, and having played in Tony’s pre-Faust group Outside the Dream Syndicate, and having been in La Monte Young’s group, the Theater of Eternal Music, I’m coming from an early Minimalist place as a musician and composer, and my approach to form is that of an early Minimalist. Which is to say that the form tends to move slowly, the changes tend to happen gradually…working with very, very beautiful and pure tuning systems, which comes to the name of the album, Pythagorean Dream.

Pythagoras was a pre-Socratic philosopher, to whom is attributed a tuning system of perfect intervals, intervals that are perfectly in tune. To put myself through university and conservatory I was a harpsichord and piano tuner, and I made pretty good money at it until the digital tuner put me out of business in 1973, at which point I took up the honorable profession of bartending! But I was a tuner for a number of years, and that training in tuning stood me well. Using the tuning systems that I’d learned from Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, I was using a system called just intonation, and applying it to my own music, so we’ll be hearing that tuning system.

When I first started playing these solos I did evening-length works solely on trumpet, but I thought—I should put a little bit of guitar in there too. So I got my electric guitar and tuned it in a wicked just intonation tuning, and started doing concerts with trumpet and guitar. And then I thought—Wait a minute, when I was in conservatory, I used to play flute

AI: Are you going to be playing flute here?

RC: Yeah! I wasn’t sure that I could still play flute because the embouchure with the trumpet—it’s not the same thing at all, so I wasn’t sure I could get any sound out of a flute. I hadn’t played flute in a long time, but I was pleasantly surprised that I remembered all the fingerings, and that I could still get sound out of it! So I started using it. I played a concert in Israel, the conductor Ilan Volkov brought me there and said—You know, my wife has an alto flute, you can play that in the concert too. So I did, and I liked it. An alto flute is an instrument larger than a normal flute, it’s got a darker sound. And before I left Ilan said—You should really get a bass flute, you would really like that. A bass flute is big, it’s really big, and it’s an octave lower than a normal flute! So, in Chicago, I’m going to have a bass flute, I’m going to have an alto flute, and I’m going to have a C flute—which is a normal flute. So the concert will start out with me on trumpet, for about 20 minutes, and then I’ll switch to guitar, and everyone gets into some seriously intense guitar playing, and then we’ll have some nice flute to chill things out. I find that, for an evening-length concert, if I play the concert on one instrument it’s nice, but it’s an even nicer experience to have all these different instruments involved, because it gives the ear a break, with all the different timbres and different sonorities to play with and listen to. The piece that I’ll be playing at the Constellation will run about 53 minutes, at least, that’s what it’s been running in the rehearsals I’ve been doing.

And then I have a surprise for the ending: the Cadenza! I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise!

via Skype, May 12, 2016

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