100 Guitars in Ecstasy: Rhys Chatham Merges Rock, Minimalism, and Sheer Beauty

A lot of musicians who love the Ramones have similar reactions to the seminal New York punk band: They form a scrappy punk outfit of their own. Rhys Chatham, however, found a different inspiration: He synthesized the leather-clad quartet's serrated guitar riffs with avant-garde minimalism, producing a new strain of modern classical music.

So while his forebears in the art music world looked to eclectic sounds and world music for inspiration — Steve Reich to percussionists in Ghana, Tony Conrad to German band Faust, and Terry Riley to jazz and early electronic music, Chatham found it in 1977 at the legendary Bowery dive CBGB's. This week, he'll present a composition for 100 guitars entitled A Secret Rose at Richmond's Craneway Pavilion — a piece that represents the culmination of his long career trajectory since that revelatory Ramones show.

The spry 61-year-old speaks giddily over Skype from his Paris living room. A New York native and expatriate since 1987, Chatham spikes conversation with French phrases and professes to the transformative power of Kabbalah, the esoteric spiritual practice he adopted 10 years ago. Chatham describes Kabbalah's meditative tenets quite similarly to the transcendent power of 100-guitar orchestras, as if drone music were his gateway to spirituality. Maybe it was.

Rhys Chatham is making contemporary art music that's accessible.
Charles Amirkhanian
Rhys Chatham is making contemporary art music that's accessible.

"Drastic Classicism," a piece compiled on the 1982 collection New Music from Antarctica, characterizes Chatham's early approach. An uptempo rock beat propels dense swathes of guitar notes that swell to hypnotic dissonance and fall back to the beauty of a single sustained note. It bares the skittish hallmarks of No Wave, the propulsion of punk, and the complex sonic presence of layered drones, combining rock and minimalism such that "the tiniest critical scissors [can't] tear the two apart," as was Chatham's goal.

In his late teens, Chatham absorbed New York's avant-garde milieu as a harpsichord tuner and member of La Monte Young's drone ensemble Theatre of Eternal Music. He wrote his own works at the time, but in hindsight admits that his early ideas were too derivative of the composers he admired. Still, his fervor for the city's innovators led to a position programming music at downtown art space The Kitchen. In the late '70s, Chatham fell in with Lower Manhattan's No Wave scene, in which punk urgency merged with conceptual art. After the fabled Ramones concert, he bought a guitar and resolved that adopting elements of rock music would distinguish his original compositions.

In 1978 Chatham premiered Guitar Trio, a piece named for its instrumentation, which he built around the overtones, or harmonics, generated by a single guitar string. "It was a merge of minimalist tendencies and what was happening at CBGB's," he says. Audiences received it warmly. "The rock crowd would hear it as a new variation on a wall of sound, whereas my friends coming out of the Kitchen would see it as an exciting new strain of minimalism."

Guitar Trio was the prototype for Chatham's guitar orchestras today. "My initial idea was to get all of these guitars in a dark room, bring the people in, lock the doors, and call it 'Torture Box,'" he recalls with a laugh. Instead, he developed Guitar Trio with more members and alternate tunings, rechristening the piece "G3." In 1989, Chatham premiered An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, his first composition for 100 guitars. "I wanted to make a piece that explored the sonority of not only 100 guitars blasting away but 100 guitars playing softly," he says. Shortly after, Chatham debuted A Crimson Grail with 200 guitars surrounding the audience inside a cathedral in Paris.

This summer, Chatham performed Guitar Trio at San Francisco venue the Lab, with local musicians like Ava Mendoza, a graduate of Mills College in Oakland. At the mention of his long working history with musicians from Mills and the Bay Area, Chatham swoons like he's remembering a cherished childhood stuffed animal. His first mentor, Morton Subotnik, co-founded the San Francisco Tape Center in the '60s, and Chatham has numerous other Bay Area connections. "Most of my friends received degrees from Mills before coming to New York," he says, and Chatham performed Guitar Trio at Mills during his very first tour.

That lineage carries into this week's West Coast premiere of A Secret Rose. Both Mills College players and local amateurs will join Chatham on the Craneway Pavilion's proscenium stage. A local rhythm section of Jordan Glenn on drums and Lisa Mezzacappa will support the performance's 100 guitarists. "[Glenn] is a monster," Chatham says. "He hits the drums extremely hard, but somehow there is a poetry to it."

Accessibility is at the heart of Chatham's lifelong endeavor to merge rock and minimalism. He seeks to meld the forms into a single new experience — and believes he's succeeded. "The problem with contemporary music in the '50s was that you practically had to have a master's degree to comprehend it," he says. In contrast, "We've done over 30 versions of this around the world, and the audience is uniformly ecstatic — because the music is ecstatic."

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