Rhys Chatham - Biography

Rhys Chatham defines loud, raw, New York minimalism. That sound has its source in the work of Tony Conrad and John Cale in the early 1960s. However, the original 1977 premiere of Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” is the point at which that river of sound jumped its banks and began to make its way to the mainstream. At the time, the piece had an immediate impact: It placed Chatham at the forefront of the burgeoning No Wave scene, which blossomed in the fetid, fertile streets of the Lower East Side during the late 1970s. Its influence spread further, as protégés and members of Chatham’s ensembles — including Glenn Branca and members of Sonic Youth — folded the sound into their own. It continues to seep outward.

Since then, Chatham has presented his work beneath the enormous dome of Sacre Coeur (one of the most prominent landmarks in Paris), conducting a choir of 400 electric guitars; in the same year he performed, with a slightly more manageable ensemble of nine, in an abandoned storefront in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was equally at home in both locales. In 2008, he premiered a new version of “Guitar Trio.” The “Trio” part of the title was vestigial at best, as the performance required 100 guitarists, mostly high-school students. A few months later he presented another new work, this time for 200 guitars, at Lincoln Center. It’s this pan-cultural agility that makes for much of Chatham’s charm.

Rhys Chatham was born in 1952 in Manhattan. A prodigy, he began playing the harpsichord at age 6; by his teens he was studying composition, first with electronic composer Morton Subotnic; then with minimalist La Monte Young. He was also to come into the elliptical orbit of Tony Conrad. The latter’s highly precise performance idiom, love of mind-crushingly high volume, and arch sense of humor were especially influential.

During this period, Chatham’s greatest influence may have been his day job — and vice versa. In 1971, at the age of 19, he became the first music director at The Kitchen, in Greenwich Village. Originally intended as a space for the installation of video art, its curatorial mission soon expanded to include various other media, including live music. Under Chatham’s direction, The Kitchen became the great sound incubator in 1970s New York, and the list of musicians, artists and performance artists who got their start there is vast. Laurie Anderson, Cindy Sherman, Eric Bogosian, Philip Glass, Peter Greenaway and Brian Eno all passed through its doors; many of them at Rhys’s invite; all of them under the influence of his tenure. Ironically (or shrewdly), he was largely responsible for creating the scene that would soon be embracing his own work.

The earliest available recording of Chatham’s music dates from this period, in 1971. Two Gongs (2007 Table of the Elements) is exactly that, two gongs, being bowed by Chatham and the artist Yoshi Wada. Both had studied with the Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath, and were interested in the use of extended duration as a compositional tool. They were also interested in very high volume. Two Gongs has plenty. It has been described by Pitchfork as “not so much an idealized Music of the Spheres as it is a Music of Two Enormous Fucking Ball Bearing the Size of Jupiter Grinding Together Like Electric Teenagers.”

As Chatham recalls, “Prior to 1975 I was a minimalist composer. I did concerts lasting three hours, sometimes playing one single pitch or chord on voice or through electronic means.” But he had never been to a rock concert, ever. So, on a breezy May evening in 1976, his buddy Peter Gordon, also a composer, decided it was high time that his pal lose his aural virginity. He grabbed Rhys, and together they went to the most notorious sonic brothel that ever has been, or ever will be. Chatham walked beneath the awning and through the door at 315 Bowery towards his date with destiny, and what a hot date it was. He was at CBGB, and he was about to see the Ramones.

Tommy, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee. It was the original line-up, the first record was about to come out, and they were tight. Chatham states, “What I heard at that Ramones concert changed my life. Those guys were playing three chords, which was two more chords than I was playing, but I felt a resonance with what they were doing; they struck a deep chord in my minimalist heart.” He acquired a Fender Stratocaster the next day.

It took a year to sufficiently master the guitar and completely articulate his ideas, but a year later Chatham, the minimalist turned punk rocker, hit the stage for his first show. His music was an amalgamation: intricate and visceral; rowdy and contemplative; aggressive yet also, with its emphasis on harmonics, strangely wondrous and inspiring. Even more bizarre, it was vaguely danceable. It made him an instant hit in the downtown scene.  While CBGB hosted the first tier of punk/new wave bands, such as the Ramones, Blondie, Television, and the Talking Heads, Rhys would lead another, more experimental gang of artists that included Lydia Lunch, Mars, Liquid Liquid, and DNA. They called this art/rock “No Wave,” and even Eno took note.

Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo was at one of the early gigs, and he writes,“There was something going on that I couldn’t put my finger on. Although the players seemed to be simply strumming, amazing things were happening in the sound field above our heads. Overtones danced all around the notes, getting more and more animated, turning into first gamelan orchestras, and then a choir of voices, ping-ponging over the minimalist low notes of the rocking chord.” The piece was Chatham’s one-chord masterpiece, “Guitar Trio.”

It ended, and the crowd went nuts. You can imagine Lee’s shock, surprise, and glee when Chatham began the next number — the first one was long enough to be a set on its own, back in the punk days — and the band launched into the exact same thing. Lee concludes, “I had never heard anything like it before, yet I’d heard it in my head forever; finally here it was in front of me.”

The double performance of “Guitar Trio” that Lee and his buddy David Linton saw that night was essentially unchanged from the original that premiered almost two years earlier. The first version had a drummer, but playing only hi-hat cymbals; the second featured full drums, plus a slowly — very slowly — lap-dissolving series of blue-tinted slide projections. These depicted a skyscraper; a woman in a bouffant with child, both shielding their eyes while looking at the sky; a man running into an alley; a Japanese Zero flying low along the beach; Pennsylvania Station; a figure walking alongside a horse, carrying a prone toddler. Their meaning is opaque, cryptic; they’re somewhat iconic, and convey a subtle melancholia. They were specifically created for the piece by one of Chatham’s friends, an unknown, struggling artist named Robert Longo.

Longo had also performed as a musician in one of Chatham’s many ensembles of the late 70s and early- to mid-80s. You can assess the vivid, compelling originality of Chatham’s work by the number of artists who met him, were taught his work, performed it, and then carried its influence into groups of their own. Both David Linton and Lee Ranaldo joined Rhys’s ensemble. Linton stayed for years, and remains a NYC fixture. Of course Lee co-founded Sonic Youth in 1981; band mate Thurston Moore was also a Chatham veteran. Robert Poss and Susan Stenger went on to form Band of Susans. Jonathan Kane, who enlisted with Rhys in 1981, as the groups were starting to expand into guitar armies, has gone on to serious critical acclaim with his own group, February. Later in the 80s, Page Hamilton passed through before forming the hugely popular band Helmet. Glenn Branca, who was in one of the earliest groups, went on to emulate the massed-guitar strategies and idiosyncratic tunings, with great solemnity.

As the 80s progressed, Chatham added more and more guitars, and his compositions became increasingly elaborate, best showcased in the ebullient, 1985 classic, “Die Donnergotter.” Finally, in the mid-80s both it and “Guitar Trio” would finally be released on LP. Die Donnergotter (1987 Homestead/ 2002 & 2006 Table of the Elements/Radium) also contained some of Chatham’s jaunty, martial pieces for brass and percussion, as well as the bombastic “Drastic Classicism.” For many, this was their first opportunity to hear Chatham; unfortunately the LP quickly went out of print.

In 1988, Chatham left New York for Paris, where he remains today. From there he wrote “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See” (2002 & 2006 Radium/Table of the Elements). It’s a breathtakingly rich, varied work for 100 guitars, plus bass and drums, with the latter handled by Ernie Brooks (from the original Modern Lovers) and Jonathan Kane, respectively. Together they’ve toured “Angel” around the globe, teaching it to local guitarists, then presenting it in cities and towns from Scandinavia to Montreal to the tiny island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean.

In the early 1990s, Chatham took a break from guitars altogether, and abruptly stopped touring “Angel.” Instead, he began a series of performances and recordings in which he laid down heavily processed trumpet improvisations on top of techno beats. The results are mixed, as evidenced on his 1990 collaboration with Martin Wheeler, Neon (1991 Ninja Tune), but noteworthy as yet another effort to fuse disparate genres.

Chatham soon returned to “Angel,” and in Europe he became well known in New Music/Post Classical circles. However, in the US, as a rocker, he was more written about then heard. That changed dramatically with the ballyhooed release of a lavish three-disc collection, also titled An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (2002 Table of the Elements). It contained all of the original Die Donnergotter LP, the first commercial releases of Angel and Two Gongs, and a lengthy 128-page book full of previously unreleased text and photographs. The set was critically acclaimed, and introduced Chatham to a new generation of listeners (several years later, the three discs were re-released individually; the box is now a collectors’ item).

In 2005 the city of Paris commissioned a piece for a public performance at the landmark basilica of Sacre Coeur. Chatham rose to the occasion and upped the ante — calling for 400 electric guitarists. Lasting an entire evening, the show was attended by a throng of thousands, and viewed on national television throughout France. The recording, released the subsequent year as A Crimson Grail (2006 Table of the Elements), is gorgeous. Much more glacial than An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, it is both elegiac and wondrous, and a highlight of Chatham’s catalog. A less momentous release from the same year is Three Aspects of the Name (2005 Table of the Elements), an engrossing series of chanting vocal drones, pressed on transparent, silk-screened vinyl.

With plenty of new releases, press, and reviews in hand, Chatham was then finally able to tour the US. In 2006 he returned, and played his old guitar-based material — including Die Donnergotter -- for the first time in two decades. The nine-piece band included Jonathan Kane and Ernie Brooks, and it toured through the Deep South, delivering Chatham to a thrilled audience at Austin’s South by Southwest festival (Jonathan Kane’s own, oversized band, February, was also on the tour, as was Tony Conrad).

He returned to the US a year later, this time to Atlanta, for another festival and tour — and to rehearse his new heavy metal band. That’s right, inspired by the likes of Sunn O))), Earth and other drone-core acts, he again followed his muse off the beaten path. In keeping with his character, Chatham’s take on metal is not dark, really; in fact it sort of has a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Studio recordings are purported to exist, but there has been no release.

Chatham’s most recent release brings everything full circle. In 2007 he undertook his third US tour in as many years, making his way through New England, Canada, and the Midwest, and recording all of the shows. The set list began and ended with a single piece, performed twice nightly: “Guitar Trio.” The tour was called “Guitar Trio Is My Life!” as an homage to a shout-out from a drunken fan. The band was trumpeted as “The Guitar Trio All-Stars,” but only Chatham and David Daniell were permanent members; the other nine musicians were recruited locally. Rhys taught them the piece during sound check, then away they went.

The musicians were labeled “All-Stars,” and many of them did hail from prominent bands. Chatham was joined by members of Tortoise, God Speed You Black Emperor, Husker Du, Brokeback, Lichens, Town and Country, Die Kreutzen, Bird Show and more. Listening to the recordings, released as a three-CD set, also titled “Guitar Trio Is My Life!” (2008 Radium/Table of the Elements), it is remarkable to hear the variety in the performances. A composition comprised of a single chord? On paper it sounds like abject formalism, probably boring, and possibly an exercise in mild sadomasochism. In live performance, it is a wildly undulating ride, the guitars chafing at the bit, a galloping team ready to bolt, barely under rein. It is controlled chaos, and frankly has as much in common with free-improvisation as it does with minimalism. The inverted structure — the guitars are the rhythm section; the bass and drums run amok; above it all, the whorl of harmonics — guarantees an infinite variety of interpretations.  Yet it always seems to work.

The version recorded in Brooklyn may be the best, as Chatham is joined by plenty of old friends, including Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon, Robert Longo, and of course, Jonathan Kane on drums. Jonathan counts off, the ritual invocation of rock, then Chatham sounds that chord. It’s slightly sinister at first, alone, like a burglar sneaking into the room. Slowly, the others join in, one at a time, subtly, stealthily. The guitars and bass keep the rhythm. The volume increases, the tension turns slowly to joy. Harmonic overtones blossom in the air, every spare bit of oxygen rings like church bells. Metallic staccato beats zip around the room like bullets on Omaha Beach. Louder, louder, louder. Euphoria. By Version 2, Kane is a dervish, and guitarists are following his lead, having completely abandoned the original rhythm in order to play as fast as humanly possible. The crescendo complete, the musicians are no longer playing, but the air remains thick with sound. Cheers immediately follow.

One chord, 30 years. “Guitar Trio” lives.

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