.Rhys Chatham: Many Guitarists, One Chord

In November, composer Rhys Chatham will perform "A Secret Rose" at Craneway Pavilion — and he needs one hundred local guitarists to pull it off.

At 25, the budding minimalist composer Rhys Chatham attended his first rock concert. It was 1977, and Chatham had been working at the New York City studio The Kitchen, recording some visiting Mills College graduate students. One evening, while they were walking through the East Village, one of the musicians turned to Chatham and said: “There’s this nice club called CBGBs and a good group is playing tonight.” That group was The Ramones.

“What I heard changed my life,” Chatham recalled. “I was doing music that was basically one chord, and they were doing three chords. I felt close to it. My friend lent me a Telecaster and taught me a basic blues scale. After six weeks, I was playing. That’s how my love affair with electric guitar started.”

That same year, Chatham wrote the minimal rock composition “Guitar Trio” — and it’s still considered groundbreaking today, as evidenced by the packed house at a recent performance of it by Chatham, along with eight local musicians, at The Lab in San Francisco. The event served as a preview of sorts to the Paris-based composer’s ambitious new composition, “A Secret Rose,” which will be performed on November 17 at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond.

“A Secret Rose” is written for a one-hundred-member electric-guitar orchestra, and is similar to “Guitar Trio” in that it’s structured for guitarists to play a single repeated chord at different times to create a dissonant melody. The November performance of “A Secret Rose” will mark its West Coast premiere and third-ever staging. The organizers — Bay Area contemporary music nonprofit Other Minds — will start accepting applications for guitarists at OtherMinds.org on Saturday, June 15. East Bay musicians are especially encouraged to apply.

The orchestra will be broken into three groups to accommodate guitarists at many levels of experience: serious amateurs (people who play electric guitar on a regular basis); semi-professionals (someone with a day job who performs regularly, but may not read music); and professionals (trained musicians who read music). Members of Chatham’s past guitar ensembles have included musicians from Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Hüsker Dü.

Chatham was born in 1952 in New York City and said his writer parents exposed him to Baroque-period music and Stravinsky. As a child, Chatham wanted to learn drums, but because they lived in a small Manhattan apartment, his parents chose the quieter, smaller flute as his first instrument. Chatham attended conservatory and became a fan of early electronic-based contemporary music by artists like Morton Subotnick and John Cage.

Living in New York gave the young Chatham access to some of the most important composers working in avant-garde music. In 1969, at age seventeen, Chatham paid $5 to see a show at a downtown venue called The Electric Circus and stumbled upon an artist named Terry Riley, a longtime Bay Area resident who is considered one of the founders of American minimalism. Chatham said he initially hated Riley’s “circus organ” sound so much that he asked for his money back, but when he was refused a refund, he decided to hear the rest of the concert. It changed his mind. “After that, I became a convert to minimalism,” Chatham said.

Chatham became the piano tuner for La Monte Young, another founder of the American minimalism movement, and studied composition with him as well as Tony Conrad. In his twenties, Chatham started writing and performing compositions of long duration, “concerts that started at 8 p.m. and ended at 6 a.m.” By the time he saw The Ramones at CBGB, Chatham knew he was ready for a change.

“I was trying to break away from my teachers,” Chatham said. “All the composers I respected incorporated another style of music into their music. Steve Reich had studied Ghanaian drummers, Philip Glass had process music, using instrumentation associated with jazz. And I didn’t want to go the Indian route, like Terry and La Monte.”

When Chatham first premiered “Guitar Trio” in New York, he said he was worried that the electric bass, drums, and three electric guitars would not be “rock” enough to please the crowd. The instrumental composition has unusual tones due to the fact that the guitarists pick the notes on the fret board, which creates an almost robotic sound. According to Chatham, after the set people from the crowd asked: “Where are you hiding the singers?”

After Chatham’s recent performance at The Lab, which featured local guitarists Ava Mendoza, Bill Orcutt, John Schott, George Chen and John Krausbauer, plus Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums, he explained to the audience the climate for experimental music at rock clubs in 1977: “This was a period where if they didn’t like you, they threw beer cans at you,” Chatham said, as an empty PBR can landed at his feet, causing the crowd to explode in laughter.

Mendoza admitted to throwing the can when she later talked about how it felt to perform “Guitar Trio”: “It was super indulgent and fun for me,” she said. Beer cans aside, the performance did have the raucous energy of a rock show, as Chatham hopped around like a wild frontman, his cheeks flushed and mouth agape as he played guitar and conducted. At times, the frenetic and fast guitar work swelled into guttural growls and wails. In quieter moments, the guitars seemed to hum and sing to one another, as each musician slightly tweaked his or her sound. “It was a lot more shaped than I knew it was going to be,” Mendoza said. “Rhys balanced it well.”

Although there are elements of improvisation in “Guitar Trio,” the form and rhythm are pre-determined and rehearsed. “A Secret Rose” is similarly structured, but every note is written out and Chatham formally conducts its five movements, playing guitar himself in only one.

Chatham said he had been thinking about forming a large orchestra using only electric guitars since the mid-Eighties. He composed his first work for one hundred electric guitars, “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See,” in 1989. His second composition, “Crimson Grail,” which was commissioned by the City of Paris in 2005, consisted of 200 electric guitarists performing around the perimeter of the audience. “I didn’t want it to be a gimmick,” Chatham said. “I didn’t want to do something for the sheer visual effect.”

“A Secret Rose” is seventy minutes long and played without pause. There will be two six-hour rehearsals, which will take place at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond. Guitarists are required to bring their own solid-bodied electric guitar, a Fender or imitation, Chatham specified, because a hollow body risks feedback. The orchestra’s three groups will each have sub-conductors leading both the rehearsals and performance.

“There are moments when you can play in a thunderous style,” Chatham said. “But there’s nothing like the sound of one hundred guitars playing quietly. It’s a specific sound.”

The Craneway will have earplugs on hand for those who need them.


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