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Rhys Chatham (1952 - )
Rhys Chatham (b. 1952) is an American avant garde composer, guitarist, and trumpet player. He currently lives in France.
In the early 1970s Chatham was the first music director of The Kitchen in New York. His early compositions owed a significant debt to La Monte Young and other minimalists.
By 1977, Chatham's music was heavily influenced by punk rock, particularly no wave. That year, he began performing Guitar Trio around downtown Manhattan with an ensemble that included Glenn Branca. During this period, he wrote several works for large guitar ensembles, including Drastic Classicism, a collaboration with dancer Karole Armitage.
Chatham began taking trumpet lessons in the 1980s, and his more recent works explore improvisatory trumpet solos (performed by the composer) over synthesized dance rhythms. In 2002, he enjoyed a small resurgence following the release of the box set An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, whose title comes from Chatham's composition for 100 guitars. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhys_Chatham [Feb 2005]
No WaveRhys Chatham is the second guitar hero to have graced NYC's no-wave scene along with Glenn Branca. Although his achievments based on lazzi of saturated guitars remained somewhat lesser known than that of Branca. [...]
A Synopsis of 20th Century Art Music
Toward the end of the last century, equal-temperament and chromaticism presented composers with a new musical challenge, which Arnold Schoenberg liked to call the "emancipation of dissonance." The equal-tempered system, with its placement of semi-tones at equidistant intervals exploded previous notions of harmony, conceptions of chordal progression, and the tyranny of the triad. Pitch no longer had to relate to a tonal center implied by a key, but could exist as a thing-in-itself. The beginning of this century saw the invention of a new key: the key consisting of 12 semi-tones.
Although composers such as Busoni, Debussy, Ives, Mahler, and Scriabin intuited the implications of this new key, it was Arnold Schoenberg who first formulated a comprehensive theory for the manipulation and ordering of the twelve tones. Twelve-tone theory was extrapolated upon by Anton Webern and continued to be evolved by composers through the fifties, when it developed into the form known as serialism, or the International Style. By this time not only pitch was subjected to systematic organization, but other parameters of music as well: rhythm, amplitude, timbre, and dynamic.
The post-war period in Europe and America was indeed a momentous time for music in the sense that truly new sounds were being discovered through electronic production and extended-instrumental technique: new forms and methods of composing were being forged. Once composers began to break away from traditional modes of thinking about tonality and form, they found they needed to go to the very roots of music's definition in order to seriously question what it was supposed to be. For example, if it was possible to have a single 12-note key, was it not also possible to introduce noise into the sound palette, as suggested by Filippo Marinetti in the Futurist Manifesto? Would it be possible to have a composition whose form was about not having a form, as John Cage suggested? Could letting out a butterfly out of a jar be considered a piece of music, wondered La Monte Young?
Composers also began to experiment with radical new forms of notation, examining the possibility that traditional notation might in fact be forcing the listener into fixed ways of hearing music. What would happen if things were loosened up a bit by writing the pitch exactly but leaving the rhythm somewhat open to the performer, as Luciano Berio did in his Sequenza for solo flute? In early compositions by Christian Wolff, the general principle resembled a game: for example, the action of one musician, whenever he initiated it, would set off the action of another musician. In Play, by Morton Subotnick, the rules are as definite as a board game; in certain places, depending on what happens, certain things are done; you move ahead or you go back, and so on.
The end of the fifties saw a hybrid musical landscape, with composers on one side of the fence advocating complete control of all the parameters of music, attempting to reduce music to a science, and on the other side the composers who continued to push the definitions of music through the use of indeterminacy, chance operations, stochastic principles, rule-oriented pieces, and more. The composition of music and the sound of the resulting performances had reached the outer limits of the performers technical capacities, doing its intrepid best to be as arcane as possible. At times it seemed comprehension was limited only to a select core of hardened new music fans. By the early sixties, a critic of the New York Times had gone so far as to write a shocking article on the composer Milton Babbitt, a composer who was a leader of this school, entitled: "Who cares if you understand?"
There was a consensus among composers of the time that it was considered a compromise to write music with even a veneer of accessibility, for accessibility was not a part of the theoretical platform. It seemed one needed to be a specialist in modern music, or perhaps in love with someone who was, in order to fully appreciate the music which was being written around that time. In other words, for an ambitious young composer at the end of the fifties or the beginning of the sixties, tonality was out and dissonance was in. Or at least some kind of noise! He could take comfort in knowing that there was a well-defined agenda for music outlined in periodicals such as the German publication Die Reihe, and in America, Perspectives in New Music and Source Magazine, to name only three of the many publications devoted to this music.
Once composers began to understand that liberation was possible from 19th century precepts of tonality and form, many of them began to wonder if they could also be liberated from the notes themselves by introducing noise into the sound palette. John Cage, with prophetic accuracy, wrote in 1937, "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments." As early as the 1920s, Edgard Varèse envisioned a machine that would produce electronic music. However, the first compositions involving pure electronic noise didn't come until the 1950s when the vision of electronic music and the tape recorder was realized with compositions such as John Cage's William's Mix (1952) and Fontana Mix (1958), Edgard Varèse's Poème Electronique (1958), and Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56). Additionally, in France there was a pioneering "musique concrète" school consisting entirely of natural sounds electronically altered and recorded on tape, led by Pierre Schaefer in Paris and Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening in New York. These pieces were important in further defining possible sound palettes for music, since most audiences of this time were not recognizing noise-compositions as music.
Other composers favored the belief that electronic sound composition should not be used to imitate or extend traditional music, but should be developed as a distinct medium. These included Richard Maxfield, David Tudor, and James Tenney in New York; the Sonic Arts Union consisting of Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma; and the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now at Mills College) with Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender. In addition, research was being done in sound laboratories, most of them in universities, led by the Colombia-Princeton group who pioneered the RCA-Victor Synthesizer, by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, by the experimental music studio at the University of Illinois, and by many others who were exploring every conceivable aspect of electronic music production.
It was against this background that a new yearning developed among composers who had come of age on the frozen wastelands of serialism. In this decade of the sixties, with its emphasis on social issues and human rights, it was whispered among certain circles of composers that their music had perhaps become too elitist, existing rarefied in the ivy-covered towers of the university or government supported radio. They began to crave for a new simplicity, and, if I may: a new tonality. This was in 1960.
Terry Riley and La Monte Young had recently arrived in New York from Berkeley, California. New York had an underground loft scene in lower Manhattan at the time, underground because loft living had not yet been legalized. There dwelled a spicy mixture of composers, visual artists, choreographers, and poets. Riley and Young found themselves in the company of artists such as Robert Morris, Yoko Ono, Walter de Maria and Marian Zazeela, poets Jackson Mac Low and Diane Wakowski, and the underground film makers Jack Smith and Tony Conrad (who was also a composer and violinist).
There was also a minimalist movement in sculpture going on at the time, which without doubt served as an inspiration for Young and Riley. Whatever the case may have been, Young was soon playing his sopranino saxophone in the context of a group he had put together consisting of the composers John Cale on viola, Tony Conrad on violin, and Angus Maclise on hand percussion. Young, who along with Riley is commonly acknowledged as having founded the minimalist school in the field of music, was improvising seemingly endless and very beautiful modal lines using a circular breathing technique, while the others provided an accompany drone in just intonation. Terry Riley at this time was playing concerts of A Rainbow in Curved Air, his seminal piece for electric organ, which was treated by the special tape delay techniques pioneered by Riley. These concerts would typically last from 8 p.m. to sunrise.
By the mid-sixties, Philip Glass and Steve Reich had arrived on the New York scene and embarked upon further explorations into the new tonality, Glass with his unique incorporation of Asiatic process art; Reich with his invention of "phase music", with which he liberally mixed the rhythmic models he had learned while studying with master drummers in Ghana. In the United States alone there were many composers working within the framework or at the edges of this new tonality, such as Maryanne Amacher, David Behrman, Tony Conrad, Philip Corner, Daniel Goode, Julius Eastman, Jon Gibson, Tom Johnson, Petr Kotik, Carmen Moore, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, Laurie Spiegel and James Tenney, as well as the work of composers living on the West Coast such as Robert Ashley, Harold Budd, Lou Harrison, Terry Jennings, Pauline Oliveros and "Blue" Gene Tyranny, to name only a few. An initial gesture of this group of composers and their many colleagues of the period was to break art music out of the language and characteristic atonality of the serial school, without regressing to neoclassicism or romanticism, without reverting to a dead music.
Simultaneous with these new trends in art music in the United States, exciting developments were occurring in Europe by the late sixties with the work of groups such as Musica Electronica Viva and Cornelius Cardew's group AMM. MEV consisted of a number of expatriate Americans living in Europe - Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, and others. Both MEV and AMM were groups consisting of composers coming out of a classical music tradition who wanted to break their music away from the fully notated score. After Cage's use of indeterminacy and Stockhausen's early attempts at introducing random elements into his scores, it seemed like the next logical step. This resulted in the musicians of AMM and MEV working within very loose structures, or no structure at all, to produce a free music, an immediate music made on the spot as the spirit moved them. Rzewski later moved back to the United States where he started a New York version of MEV.
After working with improvisational techniques for a while, Rzewski and company realized that there was already a great tradition of improvisation to draw upon in America, namely, African-American art music. People like Rzewski, Anthony Braxton, Garrett List, Muhal Richard Abram and Karl Berger were working hard back then to break down the traditional hierarchical barriers between music coming out of a Western European classical tradition and African-American art music. It was wonderful to see composers from both traditions finally getting together to share ideas.
All this is not to belittle the importance of the continued exploration and development of so-called "established" avant-garde new music tendencies. For example, the research into computer music by John Chowning which brought about the perfection of FM synthesis; the continuing research of composers such as Max Mathews; the very exciting musical possibilities created by the micro-computer, which lead to the invention of interactive software and a good deal of interesting music by composers who are also software programmers such as David Behrman, Laurie Spiegel, George Lewis, Nicolas Collins and Ron Kuivila.
During the seventies there were several issues which became important to all art music composers, whether they were continuing to explore new vistas along established roads of musical thought or were giving birth to completely new styles of music. One dominating force that moved composers towards tonality and away from serialism was the very pervasive feeling during the early seventies that they wanted to reach a wider audience, not so much to increase their record sales (an eighties notion) as for the reason that, frankly, they were beginning to feel somewhat isolated. They felt that art music had become too insular, that they were making music which only other composers could appreciate. In reading interviews with various composers during the period spanning the early seventies up to the middle eighties, one comes across the word "accessibility" over and over again, statements reading something like, "I want to make music that is formally rigorous, yet accessible to a wider audience." It can't be emphasized what an important issue this was to composers during this period.
Opening their ears to a new tonality and opening their minds to the possibility of music having greater accessibility also had the helpful effect of legitimizing, for art music composers, the music of other cultures and popular music. It is important to remember that, as late as the sixties, improvisation was a dirty word in the hallowed halls of the music establishment. Asiatic Indian classical music and advanced tendencies in jazz were considered to be feverish, opium-inspired gibberish dreamed up by the hopelessly confused. There was a very real perception of an hierarchical pyramid with classical music on the top, "jazz" somewhere lower down in the middle; of course, in the early sixties, rock was barely considered music. During the seventies, these notions began to crumble in the minds of art music composers, classical music musicians and the general public as they began to realize the rhythmic and harmonic complexities involved in the performance of a raga or a melodic line articulated by an improviser such as Charlie Parker. As a direct result of this, another major item on the agenda among many art music composers by the mid-seventies was the desire to do everything possible to tear down the barriers put up by our society and by academia between the predominately Western art music, African-American art music, and world music.
Composers responded to this new challenge in different ways. As mentioned earlier, various composers such as Young, Riley, Glass and Reich infused energy into their work by embracing the music of other cultures to combine world music with a definitively Western vision of the world, to forge a new tonality. The path Musica Electronica Viva took was to escape the tyranny of written music by embracing improvisatory techniques of various kinds and exploding previous notions of musical hierarchy. There was also as important movement of visual artists, composers, choreographers and poets called "Fluxus", the musical portion let by composers and musicians such as Charlotte Moorman, Philip Corner, Yoko Ono and Daniel Goode, who went even further in rejecting notions of musical hierarchy: In considering all sound to be beautiful, they went so far on their agenda as to organize a remarkable series of concerts where even sensitive non-musicians could take part as performers.
It was against this background that the next generation of composers was taking careful note of the trails being blazed away from serialism into the exciting unknown of the new tonality. The musical climate of the time had facilitated the smashing of hierarchical barriers separating art music and what was then generally called "jazz". It hadn't occurred to many composers of art music that this decimation of barriers could happen with rock music as well. But then, starting around 1975 or '76, there was an explosion and regeneration on the rock scene. This explosion happened globally, with particular focus in the U.K., the USA, Canada, and what was then known as West Germany.-- Rhys Chatham on http://perso.wanadoo.fr/rhys.chatham/Essay_1970-90.html
Rhys Chatham and Rock Music
Rhys Chatham is a classically trained flautist and pianist who studied with LaMonte Young and Morton Subotnick in the late `60s. In the early `70s Rhys experimented with serial composition and minimalism and also studied harpsichord tuning with William Dowd. Then in 1977 Rhys saw the Ramones...
DJN: Could you explain how you came to be involved in rock music?
RC: My background was as a minimalist composer. I worked in the downtown New York music scene in the early `70s and founded a place called The Kitchen where a lot of people played like Phil[ip] Glass, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich. There was a wonderful area in New York called SoHo that was an artists' community - we'd all wake up and go to the same breakfast place and go to the same drinking places. Around about the middle `70s I was noticing that someone like, for example, Philip Glass was working with process art and it very much influenced his music. Steve Reich had gone to Ghana to study with African drummers and that had a big, big influence on his piece called `Drumming'. And I saw these guys, they're all my friends, and I thought, `I don't wanna do exactly what they do - what am I gonna do? What can a white middle class boy like me do?' I thought: `Rock `n' roll, obviously!'
The Ramones was my first rock `n' roll concert and I was absolutely taken aback and thrilled by the music, and by the visceralness of the experience. I'd heard rock `n' roll for years but at that moment I fell in love with the electric guitar. My background was as a minimalist composer and I was playing flute at the time, but I decided to make a switch to guitar. I learnt how to play barre chords and it's been a love affair ever since.
I saw the Ramones at CBGB's [a New York City club, the initials standing for `Country, BlueGrass and Blues'] when there was an explosion going on in the rock scene. Rock had gotten so technical prior to that that a lot of people didn't feel that you could approach it unless you had been playing for 10 years. Then a whole new group of people started playing in the UK like the Sex Pistols, then later Public Image. In New York we had Talking Heads, the Ramones, Richard Hell... I figured if Richard Hell - who was a poet before that, same as Patti Smith - could do it, maybe I could too. And so a lot of us who were coming out of the art world started showing up at the rock clubs at that point and pretty soon we all changed our haircuts so that we could look more rock `n' roll. And then if half of the art world was going to the rock clubs, the other half was actually in the groups. For a long time there was an issue of what we called `posing' - `this person isn't really a rocker, he's an artist posing as a rocker'. That became an issue for me especially because everyone knew exactly who I was, coming out of contemporary music and minimalism. Because of that it was really important that I not play my pieces in art spaces. I wanted to play them in rock clubs `cause at CBGB's or Max's Kansas City if the audience thought it was shit you'd get beer cans thrown at you and spat on. It was really serious and heavy duty back then - you could not get away with playing something that wasn't the real thing. And so when we started playing I was really nervous - everyone in my group was coming out of rock except for me. I didn't want to work with classical people. Not `cause I didn't like them but because I felt it would give the music I was doing more authenticity if our method of working together came out of the rock world rather than out of the classical music world.
Our first gig was at Max's Kansas City and it was for three electric guitars, bass and drums. On guitar there was me, Glenn Branca and the guitarist from a band called `Ut'. People came back after the show and said, `Where's the singer? We're hearing singers in the music,' which meant that I was succeeding in what I wanted to do. My music is based on harmonics and overtone content. Now I'm using melodies that are actually played on the fretboard, but back then I tuned up guitars in all `E' strings, like low `E' strings, and the entire melodic content was overtones that were coming out of these strings. It's an intellectual approach to music, but when you play it in a rock club our approach is anything but intellectual - it's visceral.
The problem with contemporary music from the `50s and the `60s was that you practically had to have a university degree in music to even apprehend the stuff. What I wanted to do was make music that you could apprehend without that university degree but if you did have that university degree it wouldn't melt in your hands.
DJN: Were you studying as a composer or an instrumentalist?
RC: I trained as a composer. I did my original training as a flautist and started with harpsichord and then did piano and then switched to saxophone because everyone else in the band was playing louder than me so I wanted an instrument that was loud. And I got involved in Indian classical singing and then went back to flute - flute and saxophone kinda go together - and then I ended up on guitar. And now I play trumpet.
DJN: Were all three guitars in `Guitar Trio' tuned to all `E's?
RC: `Guitar Trio' was in standard tuning for two of the guitars and one of the other guitar is tuned to 4 low `E' strings and two `D' strings tuned up to an `E'. I got interested in all of these different kinds of tunings because I used to be a harpsichord tuner back in the early `70s to make money when I was a student - that and bar tending! I like just intonation and I worked with just intonation for a long time. If you're in one key all the intervals that are played are based on that fundamental frequency or an integer - the third overtone, seventh overtone, ninth overtone all relate to the fundamental frequency - beautiful, beautiful music can be made that way. But I like equal temperament too - every single interval is out of tune except the octave in equal temperament. But, you know, what a way to go. It still sounds beautiful and it's still charming and I use it in `Guitar Trio'.
The whole reason for having equal temperament is precisely so you can play in all 12 keys. However, there's guys like Giles Farnaby [c 1560-1640] and John Bull [1563-1628], composers of the Elizabethan period, who were tuning in a thing called mean tone which allows you to play in the three closest keys on the fourth cycle like `C', `F' and `Bb' or `F', `Bb' and `Eb'. But they didn't care! Giles Farnaby wrote very chromatically knowing full well that it would sound out of tune! And he played with those intervals, as composers will, `cause he liked it.
Once we started having equal temperament around the time of Bach, that was the key to composers writing in the tone of 12 keys which led to serialism, to Webern, to Schoenberg and composers like that. For a composer like me, I'm coming out if that kind of music - serial music, which is what I studied in school. When I was 19 I was an ardent serialist and anything that was remotely tonal was considered not hip. For us it was a big shock when composers like Terry Riley and LaMonte Young started playing things that were tonal. I thought it was the unhippest thing I'd ever heard in my life! And then after listening to it for an hour or so I sort of changed my mind and it changed my life. And it was one step from there to rock `n' roll for me.
DJN: Can you describe the background to another of your major works, `Drastic Classicism'?
RC: That was a piece I did in 1982 for 4 electric guitars. Each of the tunings were dissonant in relation to themselves and each other. For example, one of the guitars was in `D', `G', `G#', `A', `C', `D', so it's dissonant because of those minor seconds in the middle. The next guitar would be a half step above that with the same ratios; the third guitar would be the same ratios a half step above that and the fourth one and so on. So it was really dissonant but somehow there was a consonance. The music basically sounded like a Chinese gong but really, really, really loud. Some people heard it as a wall of sound invoking the time honoured tradition in rock of assaulting an audience with sound - which indeed we were. But another audience would hear all the beautiful shimmering overtones within that wall of sound. The excuse I gave was overtones are delicate and very soft, so in order to hear them we had to turn our amplifiers up to 10 to get these obscenely high levels of sound. It's so wonderful to play with loud music but one thing I have to say is everything they tell you about listening to loud music is true. I have tinnitus in both ears `cause I listened to so much of it when I was in my 20s that I regret it now and I tell everybody to cool it!
DJN: `Factor X' - could you say something about that?
RC: `Factor X' was a brass piece that I wrote for a choreographer called Carol Armitage who I worked with in the early `80s. It's a piece for brass octet and drums. It was based on a piece in the late `70s called `The Out Of Tune Guitar' where we put the guitar initially randomly out of tune until we found one that we liked - I don't remember what it was. And there was one particularly brilliant performance that we did at this place called Tier 3 which is an underground club in New York and I transcribed the music for brass octet and `Factor X' was the result.
DJN: Do you find that using elements of rock music in your compositions introduces you to an audience that wouldn't normally listen to contemporary classical music?
RC: Most definitely and most assuredly. In the `70s and `80s I was careful to say that I wasn't a rock composer because in a way I had too much respect for the form. While I didn't feel that I was appropriating rock music in any way, shape or form I felt myself as a composer coming out of an avant-garde contemporary music context. I was working with rock instrumentation but being extremely respectful of the form, researching it carefully and in effect doing field work and acting almost as a secret agent within the field going to all the late night parties, drinking and taking all the drugs and really getting into the life until, lo and behold, I was a rock composer! 5 years ago, I wouldn't have any problem giving you a definition of what sort of composer I am. But at this point I couldn't call myself a contemporary music classical composer.
DJN: There's a lot of new music that gets written every year and there's a lot of music from the past that gets more or less ignored because there's so much music around. Some people have proposed a slightly bizarre theory that enough music has been written already. What do you think of that?
RC: I should have a smart comment! There's certainly a lot of music out there - always has been. In the Renaissance period there's a tonne of stuff that nobody's played for years and years. Composers are constantly getting rediscovered and I don't think it will be any different in our era. There's a lot of music out there and a lot of it's crap but some of it's really good and hasn't been discovered. Right now, we have more retrieval systems than ever before. But think of all the folk music out there that wasn't written down that was played in the 1600s that we don't know about. Even with the music that is written, we don't know how those guys played it! For example, if you look at the chord changes to `Giant Steps' or any of those songs that Charlie Parker was playing, I mean what's written down there and what he played are two very different things. It was the same thing with Bach - we don't know what he was doing. He was a great improviser, reading from figured bass. Most of the time all they had was the bass line and the figured bass which is like a guitar symbol for what guitar chord to play. How you play it is up to you - it depends on your level of musicianship. Now, fortunately we have the tape recorder so we can preserve all these fabulous performances from the 1940s onwards.
I think there's not enough music and I don't think there's enough live music. The jukebox put a lot of us out of business. But just because we had the jukebox didn't mean that music is dead. When electronic music came out they said we're not going to have violins anymore. We still have violins and it was just a marvellous addition to the sound palette that we already had.
DJN: You play trumpet on the `Neon' album  that you wrote and recorded with Martin Wheeler.
RC: Yes, I'd played guitar for 5 years and I missed playing a wind instrument - I just felt a real craving and so I took up trumpet but no one told me how difficult it was! When I realised how difficult it was and it would take 10 years to learn I was just playing it in the closet. I started in `82 and around about `92 I got good. And so after I got good I decided that I needed to have a sound. Every trumpet player needs a sound so I thought of who I liked - I like Jimi Hendrix on guitar and early Don Cherry on trumpet. And so what I wanted to do was play trumpet like an electric guitar and I finally got this sound that was like a mix between my two idols but there's something in it that's me. I use every cheap rock `n' roll effect for guitar in the book on the trumpet! Also, I use a Yamaha FX500 which is great, a Jimi Hendrix Wah-wah pedal made by Jim Dunlop and a bunch of other stuff. On the new record a lot of people think I'm playing guitar which pleases me no end because I haven't lost my affinity or love for the electric guitar. But in terms of playing I felt I had more facility as a wind player so I think I've got a good compromise now.
DJN: Having worked within many different musical genres, who do you regard as your peers?
RC: I spent most of my life in New York City so the composers that I regard as my peers are people that I hung out with, that I would go out drinking with, that I would share ideas with. Of a slightly older group, the people that were influences for me were Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. I actually studied with Terry Riley and LaMonte Young and Philip was always like an uncle or big brother figure. For my peers and the people I hung out with there was John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, Glen Branca... In fact, Glen works with a very similar instrumentation to me and we've played in each other's bands and shared ideas. Our music's very, very different but I must say he has very good taste in his choice of instrumentation since it's exactly like mine! Also, there was Peter Gordon [a New York composer who founded the Love of Life Orchestra in 1977] and Laurie Anderson who was definitely one of the gang. Then later on, you know, the people in Sonic Youth came around and they're all very much part of the gang, and the people in Swans. That's how I met Jonathan Kane who plays drums in `100 Guitars' - he was in Swans at that point.
In terms of rock groups that were playing around when I was getting started, there was Arto Lindsey when he was playing in DNA and also James White and the Contortions, later known as James White and the Blacks. And definitely, definitely Lydia Lunch with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. That was just such an incredible band. I saw them live for the first time at Max's Kansas City and Lydia was playing this horrible out of tune guitar and the drummer, who looked like Mo in The Three Stooges, was playing just a snare drum and the rhythm was `baba ba baba, baba ba bada, bada ba...' Really, really dumb! But very intense with Lydia's performing.
It was a wonderful, wonderful time for rock `n' roll because bands were beginning to use noise in the sound palette, especially those three groups I just mentioned. In addition to my own things like `Drastic Classicism', Glen Branca was working with noise. Before, you couldn't really use it because it wasn't considered music in any format but that's when the rock bands in Europe started using it. It was an exciting period.
DJN: Who do you listen to now for pleasure?
RC: [laughs] To tell you the truth I listen all day long to the techno station in France. I live in Paris now and we have this station called Radio FG. And I don't even know the names of the groups. They just play non-stop and the melody is like `BOOM BOOM BOOM'. You know how every 5 years an energy goes to a different place in music? It doesn't mean that rock `n' roll isn't happening or it's not continually going on but there's a different focus. Sometimes it's in avant-garde music, sometimes it's in jazz, sometimes it's in rock. Right now it's in all of these incredible varieties of techno music and all the sub-sections like jungle and new electronica.
There's this element of techno that's called `destroy', I think. It's like the cheapest possible 707 Roland drum machines, or 505 drum machines, and it's really, really noisy, uses sampling and it's very, very aggressive stuff. I really think it's funny - I really like it a lot. But again I don't know the names of the groups. I like the Aphex Twin for example but then again everyone says that. I think he's really talented. Jungle's my favourite right now although you kinda have to hear it in clubs to get the sub-sonic frequencies.
I hear this stuff that I think is being done primarily by people between 16 and 23 and I am so impressed by the variety of what I am hearing. I mean, yes, we have this dumb bass thing that's going on - which I happen to like! - but there's all this stuff that goes with it that humanises it. I find that fascinating and so I listen to it all the time. And my trumpet stuff that sounds like an electric guitar is very much influenced by this genre of music. I don't always play with a techno beat or hip-hop beat but I certainly do the majority of the time.
Rhys Chatham - Compendium [1CD, Amazon US]
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