Rhys Chatham’s Pythagorean Dream


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Rhys Chatham is responsible for one of my most read posts, the fabulous Secret Rose performance reviewed here and here.  An album released around the same time is reviewed here.  These reviews reflect the music most people think of when they hear Chatham’s name: alternate tunings, large groups of multiple guitars, sometimes groups of brass and woodwinds (Chatham plays trumpet and flutes as well) in a sort of wall of sound.

For this release Chatham has chosen to go solo, sort of.  In Pythagorean Dream he uses digital delay in a real time performance allowing him to achieve a similar sound world while maintaining control over the performance in the manner of a solo performer.

Regardless of the instrumentation Chatham has always been interesting and that has not changed in this release.  He uses Pythagorean tuning (hence the title) in this work which is split over three tracks for a total of about 55 minutes of impressionistic musings in the key of Pythagoras, so to speak.

The first track has some trumpet sounds softly at the beginning but focuses on the electric guitar building his choirs of instrumental sounds using his effects pedal.  This is the familiar Chatham multiple guitar sound.  The second track presents his musings with flute, alto flute and bass flute with a guitar cadenza.  Here he reminds this listener at times of the work of LaMonte Young with sustained tones and then plays some jazz like riffs over these before the final cadenza with the guitar.  The third track, according to the liner notes, is the whole of the brass intro to the piece and is presented as a “bonus track” and is entitled Whitechapel Brass Variations. This track, unlike the previous two, is a live (as opposed to studio) performance and is a good opportunity to hear Chatham’s skill with trumpet.  It is a fearless performance.  He manages to pursue his experiments without sounding experimental.

The overall effect of this piece, with drones, hints of free jazz and memories of minimalism is mesmerizing and appears to be the next logical step in his development as a composer and performer.  A few years ago Tony Conrad released an album inspired by the same tuning system and called that album, “Slapping Pythagoras”.  Chatham, by contrast, seems more concerned with soothing him.

The brief but informative liner notes are by the composer and the recording is lucid with Chatham doing the engineering and the mastering.  This album is a must for all Rhys Chatham fans and a nice intro to his current work for those who have not heard this important composer’s work..

Rhys Chatham: Harmonie du Soir


Rhys Chatham performing in Richmond, CA 2013

Rhys Chatham performing in Richmond, CA 2013

Chatham’s new CD “Harmonie du Soir” on Northern Spy records was thoughtfully made available for sale at the ‘Secret Rose’ performance this past November. Of course I had to buy it but after that concert I found I needed time to digest the performance before I dare move on to listening to another of his deceptively simple sounding compositions. The CD consists of three compositions, Harmonie du Soir (2012), The Dream of Rhonabwy (2012) and a bonus track Drastic Classicism Revisited (1986/2012).  All the pieces represent aspects of the artist’s output which will be familiar to fans of his work.

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The first track Harmonie du Soir (after the poem of the same name by Charles Baudelaire) was premiered and subsequently recorded in France in 2012.  In his liner notes Chatham points out that he uses tunings like those used previously in An Angel Moves Too Fast to See (1986) and Crimson Grail (2007).  It reminds this listener of Die Dönnergetter (1986).  It employs the same configuration of 6 electric guitars, electric bass and drum kit.  It is not, however, a reworking of the 1986 piece but rather a new piece which developed from similar methods.  Harmonie clocks in at 22’26”, similar in length.  The comparison ends there.  The difference between Dönnergetter and Harmonie is more like the difference between a Beethoven middle string quartet and a late string quartet.  Same ensemble, similar gestures but an overall very different impact. Like all of Chatham’s guitar pieces this is best heard at a substantial volume level if you want to appreciate the harmonics which result from the tuning system he uses.  This is post-punk after all and the wall of sound is frequently an essential part of the piece.  It begins with a minimalist type repeating of a 2 note pattern punctuated after a few repeats by the drum kit and on to some droning harmonies aching for a melody in an insistent rhythm.  This moves on to a faster section which takes on not the dance-like character like he does in Die Dönnergetter, rather it is a sort of deconstruction.  It is consists of guitar tremolos and rolls on the drum kit and moves into a new somewhat pointillistic  guitar figure accompanied by a throbbing bass line and a steady rhythm on the drum kit.  This  is followed by a return to the music which opened the piece.  Clearly this is a composer whose work continues to develop and show variety.

The second piece is another with precedents in the composer’s previous compositional efforts.  This is essentially a piece for a wind and brass orchestra with percussion.  No strings, no guitars or bass.  It marks a return for Chatham to writing for and playing trumpet.  The piece was written for a 70 piece brass band called Harmonie de Pontarlier, named for the town of their origin. It is 20’26” in length and Rhys plays trumpet along with the band.  One is reminded of pieces like his Waterloo No. 2 (1981) which appeared on his CD “Die Dönnergetter”.  The composer takes his approach to writing for band but here expands into symphonic proportions.  According to the liner notes this was written as a soundtrack to a film.   After multiple listenings I came to hear this as though it were an homage to grand romantic symphonists like Bruckner or Mahler.  This is a briefer symphony than those ancestors would have written but the spirit is there if dressed in more contemporary guise.  The music relies on sustained tones and intervals which, like Chatham’s guitar pieces, produce cascades of harmonics, a mesmerizing experience.

The last piece is listed as being a “bonus track”.  It is Drastic Classicism Revisited and is a sort of reworking of Chatham’s earlier work Drastic Classicism from 1981.  It was originally written for a dance choreographed by Karole Armitage and was performed by the musician live on stage with the dancers.  Post-punk for modern dance.  At 9’36” it is the shortest track but well worth its inclusion on this beautifully produced disc. I can’t wait to hear more from the Northern Spy  (http://northernspyrecords.com/artist/rhys-chatham/) catalog.  All in all a great listening experience by this wonderful expatriate American composer.  I highly recommend it.

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Belated Happy New Year and My Personal Best


Having taken a bit of a hiatus in blogging I am now preparing to get back to work on several projects languishing in the digital storage of WordPress and the recesses of my own mind.

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty”.  As I read further I’m sure I will find many more such milestones and, in the spirit of this blog, will explore connections to music and musicians.

Among the issues pressing for my attention in the beginning of this year are Black History Month, the upcoming Other Minds 19 and some overdue reviews of recent recordings.  I haven’t looked further into 2014 as yet.

I have actively avoided creating one of those “best of” lists that are ubiquitous at the end of every year.  I do read those lists but have no desire to compete at this point by creating yet another.  I have, however, taken a look back at the most viewed blog posts published in this blog.

Aside from my Home Page, About Page and Archives the top ten posts for the past year have been:

1. Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion (actually my all time most viewed post)

2. Other Minds 18, three nights on the leading edge

3. Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)

4. Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings

5. Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience

6. Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries

7. Annie Lewandowski, Luciano Chessa and Theresa Wong in Berkeley

8. A Fitting 100th Birthday Celebration for Conlon Nancarrow

9. Undercover Performance Practices in the Bay Area

10. The Feeling of the Idea of Robert Ashley: Kyle Gann‘s Appreciation of the Composer

You can certainly expect me to address some of the subject matter in these most read posts.  Revisiting the site of the crime is a time-honored tradition.  I responded with “shock and awe” at the amount of hits that the Chatham article evoked (418 hits in one day, my top score).  My follow-up gallery of some of those 100 guitars did become my 11th top viewed of the past year.

But as intoxicating as that boost of views was  I will not be able to resist focusing on that which finds its way into my attention for whatever reason.  I am grateful for the support and encouragement I have received from Adam Fong, Charles Amirkhanian, Steve Layton, David Toub, Tom Steenland, Tim Rayborn, Philip Gelb and all of my readers.  I apologize in advance if I have left someone out of this impromptu list but hope that my gratitude is understood among you as well.

 

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The Petals of the Secret Rose


Even before I saw the impressive response to my last post I had decided to do an addendum for the main purpose of showing some pictures that didn’t make the cut in the original article.  No, really, I did.

I arrived at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, CA at about 4:30PM.  The performance wasn’t til 7PM so that gave me some time to survey the scene.

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It was open so I went inside.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

OMChathfinal0018There was an opportunity to check backstage.

Lo and behold, the petals of the Secret Rose:

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As the sun set it was time to find my seat.

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Secret Rose Blooms: Rhys Chatham at the Craneway Pavilion


Craneway Pavilion

Craneway Pavilion

On Sunday November 17th I attended one of the most unusual concerts in my experience.  The performance of Rhys Chatham‘s ‘A Secret Rose’ at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond was produced by Other Minds and the eclectic bay area new music bloodhound Charles Amirkhanian.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Charles Amirkhanian speaking briefly to introduce the performance.

Rhys Chatham is an American musician and composer who has spent much of his career in living in France.  He was a part of the New York post-punk downtown music scene in the 70s working with musicians like Glenn Branca, La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine.OMChathfinal0131

English: Rhys Chatham at Islington Mill, Salford

Sunday’s concert was the west coast première of this piece which is scored for 100 electric guitars, bass guitar and drum kit.  It is sufficiently complex as to require at least 3 conductors in addition to the principal conductor (Chatham).  In this respect it brings to mind the work of Charles Ives and Henry Brant.  But this music resembles neither of these composers, at least not precisely so.  Beginning with his work with drones and harmonics Chatham has developed compositional techniques and honed them to a point of mastery.  The multi-movement work was microtonal, polymetric, aleatory/improvisatory, dissonant, melodic and enthralling.  Did I mention that it was loud?  No?  Well loudness may be the most obvious aspect of this music but that loudness is organic to the music.  The volume paired with the very live acoustics of the cavernous performance space elicited a wide range of harmonics which, through Chatham’s skillful techniques evoked a variety of timbres.  (Complementary ear plugs were provided.  I took a pair but did not use them.)  I heard guitars, certainly and drums and bass.  But at times it sounded like there were brass instruments and even vocals.  (I swear I heard words being sung.)

Craneway Pavilion is a 45,000 square foot former Ford assembly plant that was remodeled for use as a performance space and conference center.  Its size and waterfront location remind me of Chicago’s ‘Navy Pier’ on  the lakefront.  Craneway is on San Franciso Bay and faces south with a view of the bay bridge eastern span as well as views of San Francisco.  The appearance is that of a large loft space with metal beams and a general industrial appearance.  Its floor, walls and ceiling are surfaces that are highly reflective of sound and therefore ideal for this performance.  As promised in the promotional materials the full moon rose in the east over the bay before the performance began.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Full Moon rising over the bay just before the performance.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Looking toward the seating and the stage in the performance space at Craneway Pavilion.

Chatham’s music was not about complexity for the sake of complexity.  His compositional strategies required the complex goings on we heard on Sunday.  The room itself became a sounding chamber itself amplifying, canceling and propagating the swirling harmonics that resulted from specialized tunings in addition to the other techniques mentioned.OMChathfinal0101

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The multiple movements ranged from drone-like structures to more rhythmically complex sections and even melody.  Yes, melody. Chatham writes catchy melodies and motives that sound like they’ve been taken from one rock album or another.  Sonic gestures evoked impressions of Ozzie Osbourne, Eric Clapton, and many others depending on your personal listening experiences.  This music was ritual as much as expository.  His techniques were not limited to rock music but extended to free jazz and classical techniques as well.  Taken as a whole the piece was a multi-movement symphony, each movement sustaining its own argument in service of the whole.  For the finale Chatham set aside his conductor’s baton and picked up his guitar, not for a solo as one might expect in an ordinary concert, but to participate in the ecstasy of performance.

Chatham conducting.

Chatham conducting.

It is tempting, if a bit cliché, to suggest that this ritual music stirred the ghosts of the past.  While standing in the ticket line one gentleman said to me, “I walked out of a Jimi Hendrix concert in 1967 because it was too loud”.  Almost immediately someone else said, “I was at that concert…”.  Perhaps the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Pretty Things were stirred from their slumbers.  They were certainly evoked.  I don’t know if the aforementioned gentleman ultimately stayed for the performance but I suspect he probably did, maybe in honor of Jimi.

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of 'A Secret Rose'

Chatham playing guitar in the finale of ‘A Secret Rose’

The crowd was several hundred strong ranging in age from about 5 to 85.  Most appeared to be enjoying this loud and driving rhythmic composition.  Some rocked or nodded to the beat.  Some sat entranced and/or perplexed but attentive.  At the end there was a standing ovation and, from Mr. Chatham, a welcome encore featuring seriously de-tuned guitars.

The encore piece was also captivating and inventive though certainly not as long.   Chatham’s music is not easy to categorize or describe.  Even having heard a fair amount of his music on recordings over the years I could not have anticipated what I heard at this concert.  I now understand how some music cannot be adequately represented even by our best recording technology.

I’m not sure of the significance of the title but it does bring to mind William Butler Yeats’ book, ‘The Secret Rose’.  Its stories steeped in Irish mythology are introduced by an opening poem which reads in part:

 

Far of, most secret, and inviolate

Rose,

Enfold me in my hour of hours; where

those

Who sought thee at the Holy Sepulchre,

Or in the wine-vat, dwell beyond the stir

And tumult of defeated dreams; and deep

Among pale eyelids heavy with the sleep

Men have named beauty.

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Guitar Gods Go Classical? Give them a ‘Secret Rose’


Cover of "Crimson Grail"

Cover of Crimson Grail

The implicitly condescending appellation “Guitar God” has been perhaps somewhat jealously applied to virtuosic guitarists in various popular rock bands. Whether your taste runs to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen you cannot discount the technical skill of these and so many other rock/pop guitar players.

Rock and pop artists have distanced themselves from the classical music circles who initially disdained and even condemned their work. But that did not and does not mean that they eschew classical music. Many were initially schooled in classical performance technique and/or were provided a favorable view of some classical masterpieces.

Ian Anderson’s group ‘Jethro Tull’ utilized a movement from a Bach Lute Suite (taking a few rhythmic liberties) in their piece, ‘Bouree’. Roger McGuinn of ‘The Byrds’ acknowledged channeling Bach when he created the now instantly recognizable intro to their version of Bob Dylan’sMr. Tambourine Man‘. Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the band ‘Yes’ as well as a solo artist peppers his work with snippets of classical melodies no doubt learned in his piano lessons that served him so well. Keith Emerson of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer‘ went as far as to write a piano concerto.

From the classical side of the aisle there have been composers who wanted to utilize some of the techniques and ideas of rock and pop within the context of their classical training. Stanley Silverman wrote an opera titled, ‘Elephant Steps’ which was championed by the ever eclectic Michael Tilson Thomas. (This piece deserves at least a second hearing and I hope that Columbia will some day release it as a CD.)

Leonard Bernstein, no stranger to popular musical theater, embraced rock and blues including such ensembles alongside the orchestra in major works such as his ‘Mass’. Similar, though less successful collaborations occurred when symphony orchestras were added to the production of albums by the likes of ‘Deep Purple and, more notably, ‘The Moody Blues’.

Many such collaborations have been and occasionally continue to be attempted but the end result most often appears to keep the division between classical and ‘pop’ rather separate. That is not necessarily a bad thing either. Philip Glass‘ work appears to have been pretty heavily informed by rock music. He played piano in a couple of tracks on one of the New York punk rock band, ‘Polyrock’. The driving rhythms of rock are endemic to much of Glass’ music. Steve Reich’s work as a jazz drummer seems to be evidenced in his intricate use of rhythm patterns in his music.

So while ‘pop’ musicians incorporated some of their classical training and influences and ‘classical’ musicians acknowledged and collaborated with their pop counterparts the classical aspects remained for better or worse more decorative than organic. Jazz became an organic part of many classical works starting in the 1920s. And, as mentioned before, rock influences have certainly found an organic role in the music of Philip Glass and, more recently in the music of Michael Daugherty.

Along came Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Jeffery Lohn and their various collaborators. These musicians with strong roots in rock music began to explore what has become, in this writer’s opinion, the epitome of the organic implementation of classical music into the ‘pop’ medium. Using primarily guitars (in ever-increasing numbers) as well as drum kits and the usual accoutrements of rock bands these musicians began writing music that is definitely not pop or rock (neither does it actually resemble classical at times).

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of ...

English: A self-portrait photograph by and of Rhys Chatham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Branca who had worked with Jeffrey Lohn began writing his Symphonies in the 1970s. They now number 12 or 13. Working with multiples of guitars, modified keyboard instruments, alternate tunings and basking in the glory of loud he has created an arguably classical set of works grown out of clearly rock/pop beginnings.

Rhys Chatham, a trumpet player initially, worked with Branca and Lohn for a while and began to develop his own classical path within the rock ethic. Beginning with Guitar Trio (1977).   And continuing into increasingly massive multiple guitar works he has created another distinct set of works that are clearly not rock or pop. He does not use the classical form titles like ‘symphony’ favored by Branca but these pieces like, ‘An Angel Moves Too Fast to See’ and ‘Crimson Grail‘ feature large numbers of guitarists which by necessity must be locally sourced. Even without classical form or titles these are clearly not pop or rock pieces. And perhaps they can’t be called classical either but they are certainly of symphonic proportion.

Both Branca’s and Chatham’s works have been recorded and I highly recommend the recordings. But these musics cannot be fully captured by current recording technology. The acoustics of the space in which they’re performed and the volume levels which elicit their own effects are best experienced live because of the volume levels and also because of the overtones which are elicited by the instruments in the performing space and more audible because of the overall volume and the characteristics of the listening space.

Such a rare opportunity awaits Bay Area audiences this November when Rhys Chatham comes to town under auspices of ‘Other Minds’ and the delightfully insightful and eclectic producer Charles Amirkhanian. They have engaged the architecturally and sonically fascinating space of the Crane Pavilion in Richmond (a few miles north of Berkeley and Oakland) with sweeping views if San Francisco Bay and enlisted many locally sourced musicians to produce the west coast premiere of Chatham’s “A Secret Rose” (2011) for 100 guitarists.

Official Other Minds logo

Official Other Minds logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tickets can be purchased through the Other Minds website (www.otherminds.org).

This is a rare opportunity to hear a uniquely different music in a visually stunning and acoustically interesting space.  Hope to see you there.