Man of 1,000 axes

February 4, 2007


Rhys Chatham is the maximalist of minimalism. Like his friend and mentor Philip Glass, Chatham builds his compositions from simple, repetitive melody lines that combine to form waves of layered harmonic overtones and great, sweeping crescendos. The difference: Chatham's ideal ensemble -- at least for his 1989 piece "An Angel Moves Too Fast to See" -- consists of 100 guitars, bass and drums.

"The question, after you write a piece for 100 electric guitars, is 'What do you do next?' " Chatham says, laughing. "Well, I'd like to do a piece for 1,000 electric guitars, and I was commissioned by the city of Paris to do a large work last year at the Nuit Blanche Festival, in a big cathedral in the 18th District. Initially, we wanted to do ['A Crimson Grail'] for a thousand guitars, but it got whittled down to 400."

Alas, Chatham will be even further from his ideal when he makes a rare appearance in Chicago on Thursday: He'll have a mere eight guitars, including his own. But as he tours the United States with Chicago-based guitarist David Daniel, he's performing with a different group of local musicians in every city he visits, and the Chicago band will include some of the most respected names in the city's rock underground: Doug McCombs, Ben and Adam Vida, Jeff Parker, Todd Rittmann and Rob Lowe on guitars, with Josh Abrams and John McEntire on bass and drums.

"David Daniel, who is my collaborator on this project, lives in Chicago, and he invited the various musicians," Chatham says. "So we invited Doug McCombs, who played with us last year at the South by Southwest Music Festival, and colleagues of Doug's. We've got most of Tortoise in the band, and I'm really looking forward to it."

"Playing with Rhys is really, really a blast," McCombs says. "I was interested in doing it last year just for the experience -- there wasn't any money involved or anything -- but I liked his music and I wanted to see what it would be like to play it. Just being onstage with that sound is such a completely different thing than listening to it on record, and not many people in America have had the experience of standing in a room with that sound. I can't recommend enough."

A classically trained prodigy born and raised in Manhattan, Chatham, 54, was a protege of pianist Glenn Gould and a student of pioneering electronic composers Morton Subotnick and La Monte Young. In 1971, at age 19, he founded the music program at the Kitchen, a bastion of New York's avant-garde music scene. But Chatham had an epiphany when he first saw the Ramones in 1975, and with his own music, he set out to combine elements of classical minimalism with the driving energy of punk. His current tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of his signature composition, "Guitar Trio," which helped spur the "No Wave" movement, influencing better-known avant-guitar rockers like Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth, to name only two of many.

"When 'Guitar Trio' was made in 1977, the idea wasn't to appropriate rock music, but to really work with it -- to work with the rock instrumentation and rock musicians in a rock context -- without denying where I was coming from as a minimalist composer. So it was made the way a rock piece is normally made: All of the musicians are playing their own lines in accordance with what I'm doing on the 'E' string of the guitar. I ask them to listen to what I'm playing, play something in counterpoint with it, and then listen very carefully to the overall composite waveforms and sonority of all the musicians, because through subtle picking techniques, an individual guitarist can change the waveform of the whole piece."

Because of this element of improvisation, "Guitar Trio" is a different piece every time it's performed. The same isn't true of another of Chatham's landmark compositions, the amazing "Die Donnergotter" ("The Thundergod"), in which each part is written out. For the 100 guitars of "An Angel Moves Too Fast to See," he combined both approaches, assuming that a third of his volunteer guitarists would be able to read music fluently; a third would have some ability to read, and a third wouldn't be able to read at all.

Although the independent label Table of the Elements has reissued all of his key recordings, Chatham remains much less well known in his home country than many of the musicians whose careers he launched, in large part because he's lived in France since 1989. The closest his 100-guitar symphony got to the United States was Montreal. "Why were we able to do it in Europe rather than America? Because funding is better there," he says "They have culture houses, and they're well-funded and able to do what they want with their budgets."

There's also the fact that Chatham turned away from rock instrumentation for a long period coinciding with a new highpoint for rock guitar during the alternative era. "When I started writing for guitars, I never thought it would be something that I'd do for the rest of my life, because there are so many other kinds of music that I'm interested in. Throughout the '90s, I was playing trumpet over electronica beats; I actually sold my guitar in 1996, and part of the reason was that I developed tinnitus, so I sort of freaked out and thought I'd focus on this 'softer' instrument."

Has the chronic ringing in his ears dissipated? "No, not at all, but I've sort of relaxed into it," Chatham says. "If you consider that I'm a minimalist, I hear this frequency constantly, and I realized that it's very, very beautiful: I have this music going on in constantly in my head, so I don't need an iPod! The doctor said that if I'm careful, it won't get worse, and what happened was that in 2002, I got sick of electronica. I'd been working with it for 10 years, and when you had groups like Atari Teenage Riot, Aphex Twin and Coldcut, it was really fresh, and I did my best to be part of that. But eventually I just felt the urge to get back to playing live with musicians, and guitar seemed the best way to do that."

Chatham caught the bug to tour the United States again after performing at SXSW last year. "The last time I did a real rock tour-- crashing out at people's places, playing in small clubs and traveling in a van -- was 25 years ago. When I was first approached with the idea, I was kind of like, 'I can't do this again!' But it is so much fun, and I'm having such a good time on this tour, meeting and working with different musicians in every community. They're all just so great, and after 10 minutes, it's the perfect sound, and we're all in heaven."

Indeed, the only thing that would be better than hearing Chatham leading and conducting eight guitars would be having 92 more. "There's so much talk about doing it in the States, and I hope that at some point in the near future we'll be able to organize it," he says with a sly chuckle. Fans can only hope.


Concert preview

Rhys Chatham, White/light, Good Stuff House

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Where: The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western

Tickets: $10

Call: (773) 276-3600