As a whole, the guitar has to be one of the top three most ubiquitous instruments in modern music. When you see a musician pick up a guitar onstage, nine times out of 10, you have a pretty good feeling as to what it’s going to wind up sounding like. Avant-garde composer Rhys Chatham has something completely different to say when it comes to that six-stringed constant.
Originally working as a piano/harpsichord tuner in Manhattan for minimalist composer LaMonte Young and others, Chatham also produced concerts for everyone from Steve Reich to Phillip Glass. But thanks to the Ramones, Chatham’s vision of classical music began blending with punk rock and the burgeoning no wave scene: “They had just put their first album outRamones. I think it was in May of 1976 and I was completely blown away,” he said in an interview with Alan Licht in Bomb Magazine. “I had never seen anything like it. I thought their music was a lot more complex than what I was doing; they were playing three chords instead of one!”
From that point on, Chatham added guitar to his repertoire and relied on it more and more. In 1978, he debuted Guitar Trio, the first of his multi-guitar projects. Originally performed with fellow guitar composer Glenn Branca and Nina Canal of avant-rockers Ut, Guitar Trio is performed in two halves. In the first, Chatham strums away at the low E string of his guitar, as the drummer clacks at a hi-hat. The other guitarists (originally two, but the 2007 tour celebrating the piece occasionally involved up to eight) and bassist would follow suit. Chatham would switch to an E chord on three strings, and then six, and the others would follow. The overtones produced by picking at the fretboard all clang and chime amongst each other like mixed church bells. The second movement is nearly identical, except the drummer is allowed to use the entire drum kit, rather than just the hi-hat. So, in a sense, the approximately forty minutes of music in each presentation is composed entirely of variations on a single chord. The 2008 release of Guitar Trio is My Life! documents some pretty amazing stops on the 2007 G3 tour, involving everyone from Tortoise members in Chicago to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Kim Gordon in Brooklyn.
But why stop at three? After more guitar madness on pieces like Drastic Classicism and Die DonnergÃ¶tter, Chatham moved on to An Angel Moves Too Fast To See, a piece for 100 electric guitars, bass, and drums. The piece again relies on massive, unified, concussive overtones and simultaneous chording, but here gets a little more variety. The Prelude hovers on a million insect wings, shuddering and flitting away, while the Intro section that follows punches with the force of an ’80s rock epic, while also handling all the fragility of a classical composition. The 100 guitarists are given five rehearsals to learn their parts, split into six groups (each with its own tuning and string gauge), and let loose. The force and impact of the music turned super-loud on your home stereo can only represent one one-hundredth of the reality of 100 guitars turned all the way to 11, as it were. The first American performance of the 100 guitar masterpiece was held in Pennsylvania in 2008, and featured guitar teachers and students from Williamsport, PA’s Uptown Music.
One year later, Chatham gave the American premiere of A Crimson Grail, another guitar orchestra, but this time maxed out for two hundred axe-wielders. The piece was performed at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival in New York, after the attempt to play it in 2008 had been rained out. But if two hundred guitarists outdoors seems insane, try four hundred guitarists indoors. As if that doesn’t sound ambitious enough, the piece was led by Chatham giving directions to four leaders through headphones, and moved in sections from the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, France’s largest church, into its 272-foot tall inner chamber over the course of 12 hours. Like almost all of Chatham’s guitar pieces, the mass of musicians is accompanied by bassist and hi-hat, but here, the sound must have been almost deafening. The Table of the Elements released album version contains only excerpts, and its maddening beauty couldn’t possibly reveal the true tactile experience of the original. Part one of the piece relies on washes of symphonic tonality, while the second contains splashes of rainfall and cinematic stabs. The third part is possibly the most impressive, relying on an insistent droning buzz, overtones dangling throughout the mix.
While guitars may be commonplace, Rhys Chatham strives to reinterpret their assumed role. His vast, concussive, experimental look at the instrument is one that has inspired classical composers and punks alike. Plus, the guy is only 59, so one can imagine an 800 guitar composition someday coming to a giant church near you.
Audio Archaeology is a presentation of Media Potluck and Consequence of Sound.