left to right foregound: Douglas J Noble and Ralph Turner in rehearsals for `An Angel Moves To Fast To See' in Glasgow, May 1996.
Rhys Chatham's `100 Guitars - An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' was performed at Glasgow's Mayfest in May 1996. This production was awarded the Glasgow Herald's `Spirit Of Mayfest' award and participants were presented with a commemorative tape from the Glasgow show on 7 May 1996.
DJN: Where did the idea for `100 Guitars' come from? RC: I started working with 3 electric guitarists in the late `70s and by the beginning of the `80s my regular electric band was 6 electric guitars, bass and drums. Around about then I thought what it would be like to work with a truly large number of electric guitarists. I'd had 5 years of experience in writing for guitar ensemble by that time. In `82 I was having this idea of just getting 100 guitarists together and playing really, really loud, locking the audience in the room and calling the piece `Torture Box'! My girlfriend at the time said, `Ah, Rhys, you don't know 100 electric guitarists, you'll never get that many together.' And I said, `Betcha I will'. So we got a beer and I actually sat down with a piece of paper and realised that I knew personally 80 guitarists who'd play the piece. And my girlfriend knew the 20 additional ones.
I realised at that moment that I wasn't really ready `cause I didn't want to write a piece that was a gimmick. You know, `100 electric guitars' - it's a catchy title, it looks great. There's no way you can go wrong with it! I mean, you get 100 guys on stage and play `Louie Louie' it would sound great. But I wanted to do something that would really exploit the sound and be true to me as a composer as well. It wasn't until the late `80s that I felt I was ready.
So in a way `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' is a culmination of the work I've done with electric guitars that started in `77 and ended with this piece 10 years later. I've done 2 other pieces in this genre, one of which has been performed but it turned out to be too hard. `Cause that's a big consideration in doing this piece. I wrote `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' in such a way that I need about 30 people in the group who are readers but the rest of the people, as long as they're rock musicians and have had some experience playing around, they can play the piece.
The second piece I wrote, I just said I'm going to do whatever I want, and I didn't realize it but it was so hard that my section leaders could bearly play it. So you can't really expect people that are just coming in who you don't know very well to play it. I've retired that one and I'm working on a new one.
DJN: `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' is very egalitarian - the fact that you use locally recruited guitarists who don't need to be virtuosos to play the piece. RC: Yeah, that was always part of the idea. It's been such a pleasure working with musicians from different genres. Of course we could travel around with the same 100 musicians in much the same way as the orchestra does but it wouldn't be as much fun. And this is so much of a sharing experience where we're all learning from each other. We also get to see all these great cities and meet 100 guitarists in every city that we play in. It's been different every single time that we've played and I much prefer to do it this way.
DJN: How many times have you performed `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See'? RC: This is the 14th city [Glasgow Mayfest, May 1996]. I didn't tell the 13th city that they were the 13 - I told them they were the 14th city in fact. So we've played in 14th cities two times!
DJN: Have you recorded `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See'? RC: Yes, but it's hard to record this piece. When you think for example of the Rolling Stones, it's one thing to hear them live and it's another thing to hear them on record. It's the same thing with this music. You have to find a way of recording this piece so you can have a representation of the 18,000 watts that we normally use for the sound system and that's hard to do. We recorded it on a 16 channel system and it just didn't work out `cause we didn't record it correctly.
I had this great recording engineer for the Palermo performance and so we have a good tape there. But we had a lot of technical problems with the sound system in Palermo and because of that two of the sections are not quite what they could be. We're recording this concert so who knows? I'm working on a record deal for `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' with a number of companies. One of them is really hot on it - it's a major record label looking at the tape that we did in Palermo.
DJN: Do the section leaders travel with you each time? RC: Yeah. I started out travelling with 6 section leaders and a couple of technicians and a road manager. Now, with harder economic times I've cut it down to 4 section leaders, the drummer and the bass player, all of whom I've been working with for a long time.
DJN: How many weeks of the year do you tour? RC: I don't do all that many performances of this because I don't want to wear my welcome out. It's a big undertaking for any producer to put it on - it's not just like an orchestra blowing in. It's a community event in a way and it means a lot to everyone who's doing it - to us, to the producer and to the people that are playing it. So, we do about two or three concerts of these a year.
DJN: Where does the title `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' come from? RC: The title comes from a poem that a dear, dear friend of mine wrote that I knew very well in New York named Leopold Zappler. He wrote a poem entitled `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' and it seemed to fit with the music that I was writing it so I pinched the title with his permission and that's why it's called that.
DJN: Could you explain the tuning of the sections in `An Angel Moves To Fast To See'? RC: The Sopranos are tuned to all `E' strings - we have 2 `D' strings that are tuned up to an `E' and 4 regular high `E' strings. The altos are tuned to 2 regular `A' strings and 4 `G' stings tuned up to `A', a major second above the `G'. The tenor guitars are tuned to 2 low `E' strings and 4 `D' strings tuned up to `E's. The reason for this tuning is actually threefold. One is to increase the overtone content `cause I like to work a lot with the overtones and drones and modal music. Secondly, it puts all the guitars on an equal playing field because most people don't use tunings like this and so everyone is learning a new fingering. It's not a complex fingering but it's something new to learn all the same and it sort of makes it more egalitarian. Thirdly, because of the nature of my music I use these tunings because it's very modal, modal in the sense of coming out of North Indian Classical music and modal in the sense of modal rock.
DJN: The majority of `An Angel Moves Too Fast To See' is written with an `A' major key signature and yet there's only a few bits that have a recognisable tonality... RC: Some of the pieces are based on an A7 chord. The Allegro section is an `A' suspended chord with a lot of `A', `D' and `E' harmonies with a minor 7 , `G'. But it's mixolydian mode for the most part, focused around an `A' tonality. I use my 2 favourite keys - every guitarist's favourite keys! - `E' and `A'.
DJN: What sort of mood or feel or atmosphere are you intending to convey in the music? RC: When I wrote the piece I realized I was dealing with a 70 minute time frame. It's very easy to bore people in 70 minutes. Now, this is funny for someone like me to say this because I'm very much coming from a listen to one note for an hour place, which is kinda like what the music was like in the early `70s in New York. Well, it wouldn't be really one note - we'd be listening to the overtone content of a drone played over a long period of time. Since then, my compositions have gotten shorter and shorter until I hit 1977 `Guitar Trio' which was only 6 minutes. And then when I lengthened them out again, I'm very concerned that not to be too egomaniacal and think that just because I'm interested in one note everyone else is going to be. So I did the piece in 6 different sections all of them very different with different feels. In that sense the piece is in a symphonic form, and only in that sense. The Adagio section obviously isn't an Adagio but the way those melodies form together is kind of slow. The original model was, `Oh, I'll do something, an Adagio', you know, `cause that's generally the way it would take place in an 19th century form. And it ended up in fact being an Allegro but because of the slowness of the melodies that interact I think we can get away with calling it an Adagio.
Each of the 6 different sections has a very different feel. The Prelude is ominous and swamp-like. The Introduction is like this huge giant, perhaps the jolly green giant, stomping in the valley - that's the image I used when I was composing it with these chords that are like a giant pounding on the earth. I wanted the Allegro section to be happy, joyful. It's in mixolydian mode. It's A7 chord throughout the whole thing with a suspension going on through a lot of it. There are moments were, that I wanted to be massive cascades of sound watering down the waterfall. But I also wanted there to be moments that were delicate and fragile which we have in that `No Leaves Left, Every Blade Of Grass Is Screaming'. In the Adagio, the image there is church bells ringing in the distance and perhaps seeing a full moon over the trees in a Northern country. The final section, Guitar Centet, is coming out of the first piece I ever did called `Guitar Trio'. It's in exactly the same form. I couldn't resist doing a guitar trio with 100 electric guitars! And it's the only time I play guitar in the piece - I felt that after conducting for all that time I deserved to play guitar for 7 minutes.
DJN: What kind of guitar do you play? RC: I play a G&L - Leo Fender's last company. It's basically a Telecaster. I like Strats and I like Gibsons and I especially like the round sound of a Gibson Melody Maker, but for this particular music a Telecaster or Stratocaster is the best because of its overtone content. The single coil pickup right near the bridge is best for this music. The main reason we don't use Strats is because with this tuning it's hell to jam that whammy bar in such a way that it won't go out of tune. Otherwise I'd be using Strats too.
DJN: You were playing through a Roland Jazz Chorus in rehearsals... RC: Yeah, I like the Roland Jazz. I also like the warmth of the Fender Super Reverb for this music - the Twin is too brittle for me but in terms of size and warmth and the accuracy of the sound, the Roland JC-120 is the one that I use. Although I have to say that I used to play this piece on Marshalls for reasons of nostalgia. But when I was using Marshalls I put the preamp on real, real low and I put the master all the way up which sort of defeats the purpose of using a Marshall - but it just looks so great that sometimes I can't resist.
DJN: Are you a full-time composer? RC: Yeah, although as with most musicians we make our money from many different sources. Sometimes I make money as a musician, sometimes as a composer - it depends. I don't have to do bar tending anymore!