Photo: Alan Crumlish

Saint Paul might have been blinded by a vision on the road to Damascus but he ain't got nothin' on Rhys Chatham, the guitar player's favourite post-minimalist composer. The Ramones at New York's CBGB's in 1977? Now that's what we call a life-altering experience!

`The Ramones was my first rock `n' roll concert and I was absolutely taken aback and thrilled by the music, and by the visceralness of the experience,' coos Chatham. `I'd heard rock `n' roll for years but at that moment I fell in love with the electric guitar. My background was as a minimalist composer and I was playing flute at the time, but I decided to make a switch to guitar. I learnt how to play barre chords and it's been a love affair ever since.'

Rhys manages to bridge the gap between classical and rock without being, well, crap. Remember Yngwie Malmsteen anyone? And unlike the neo-classical school, you don't need to have spent your youth woodshedding to play Rhys' music. Striking a blow for egalitarianism, his most ambitious work to date, `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' recruits 100, yes 100, local guitarists, the main technical requirement being a reasonable sense of rhythm.

`An Angel...' is 70 minutes in length and based on a symphonic form with six different contrasting sections. `Basically, if you like rock `n' roll, you'll like this!' claims Chatham, not necessarily addressing Chuck Berry fanatics. Performed so far in 14 cities throughout the world - the last one being Glasgow during the city's recent Mayfest - Rhys hopes to release a recording of `An Angel...' in the near future. `But it's a difficult piece to capture - just like the Rolling Stones sound different on record than live,' Rhys reflects. `The sheer power of 100 electric guitars sometimes doesn't come over on tape. When I wrote it I didn't want it to be a gimmick, I wanted something that would exploit the sound of the guitar and remain true to me as a composer.'

Rhys' first composition for electric guitar was the less poetically entitled `Guitar Trio'. `Our first gig was at Max's Kansas City and it was for three electric guitars, bass and drums. People came back after the show and said, "Where's the singer? We're hearing singers in the music", which meant that I was succeeding in what I wanted to do. My music is based on harmonics and overtone content. Now I'm using melodies that are actually played on the fretboard, but back then I tuned up guitars in all "E" strings and the entire melodic content was overtones that were coming out of these strings. It's an intellectual approach to music, but when you play it in a rock club the effect is anything but intellectual - it's visceral...'

Yeah, a bit too visceral, mate - the price of being a post-minimalist art terrorist is the dreaded tinnitus. `Overtones are delicate and very soft, so in order to hear them we had to turn our amplifiers up to 10 to get these obscenely high levels of sound. It's so wonderful to play with loud music but one thing I have to say is everything they tell you about listening to loud music is true. I have tinnitus in both ears and I tell everybody to cool it!'

So how do you follow a symphony for 100 electric guitars? Simple, really.

`Well, the next step is a 1,000 electric guitars. What we want to do is bring all the guitarists who've played this piece and put them all together...'

This interview was originally published in `The Guitar Magazine' Vol 6 No 8, July 1996.

Douglas J Noble 1996