Rhys Chatham is a classically trained flautist and pianist who studied with LaMonte Young and Morton Subotnick in the late `60s. In the early `70s Rhys experimented with serial composition and minimalism and also studied harpsichord tuning with William Dowd. Then in 1977 Rhys saw the Ramones...
DJN: Could you explain how you came to be involved in rock music?
RC: My background was as a minimalist composer. I worked in the downtown New York music scene in the early `70s and founded a place called The Kitchen where a lot of people played like Phil[ip] Glass, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich. There was a wonderful area in New York called SoHo that was an artists' community - we'd all wake up and go to the same breakfast place and go to the same drinking places. Around about the middle `70s I was noticing that someone like, for example, Philip Glass was working with process art and it very much influenced his music. Steve Reich had gone to Ghana to study with African drummers and that had a big, big influence on his piece called `Drumming'. And I saw these guys, they're all my friends, and I thought, `I don't wanna do exactly what they do - what am I gonna do? What can a white middle class boy like me do?' I thought: `Rock `n' roll, obviously!'
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. 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.
I saw the Ramones at CBGB's [a New York City club, the initials standing for `Country, BlueGrass and Blues'] when there was an explosion going on in the rock scene. Rock had gotten so technical prior to that that a lot of people didn't feel that you could approach it unless you had been playing for 10 years. Then a whole new group of people started playing in the UK like the Sex Pistols, then later Public Image. In New York we had Talking Heads, the Ramones, Richard Hell... I figured if Richard Hell - who was a poet before that, same as Patti Smith - could do it, maybe I could too. And so a lot of us who were coming out of the art world started showing up at the rock clubs at that point and pretty soon we all changed our haircuts so that we could look more rock `n' roll. And then if half of the art world was going to the rock clubs, the other half was actually in the groups. For a long time there was an issue of what we called `posing' - `this person isn't really a rocker, he's an artist posing as a rocker'. That became an issue for me especially because everyone knew exactly who I was, coming out of contemporary music and minimalism. Because of that it was really important that I not play my pieces in art spaces. I wanted to play them in rock clubs `cause at CBGB's or Max's Kansas City if the audience thought it was shit you'd get beer cans thrown at you and spat on. It was really serious and heavy duty back then - you could not get away with playing something that wasn't the real thing. And so when we started playing I was really nervous - everyone in my group was coming out of rock except for me. I didn't want to work with classical people. Not `cause I didn't like them but because I felt it would give the music I was doing more authenticity if our method of working together came out of the rock world rather than out of the classical music world.
Our first gig was at Max's Kansas City and it was for three electric guitars, bass and drums. On guitar there was me, Glenn Branca and the guitarist from a band called `Ut'. 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, like low `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 our approach is anything but intellectual - it's visceral.
The problem with contemporary music from the `50s and the `60s was that you practically had to have a university degree in music to even apprehend the stuff. What I wanted to do was make music that you could apprehend without that university degree but if you did have that university degree it wouldn't melt in your hands.
DJN: Were you studying as a composer or an instrumentalist?
RC: I trained as a composer. I did my original training as a flautist and started with harpsichord and then did piano and then switched to saxophone because everyone else in the band was playing louder than me so I wanted an instrument that was loud. And I got involved in Indian classical singing and then went back to flute - flute and saxophone kinda go together - and then I ended up on guitar. And now I play trumpet.
DJN: Were all three guitars in `Guitar Trio' tuned to all `E's?
RC: `Guitar Trio' was in standard tuning for two of the guitars and one of the other guitar is tuned to 4 low `E' strings and two `D' strings tuned up to an `E'. I got interested in all of these different kinds of tunings because I used to be a harpsichord tuner back in the early `70s to make money when I was a student - that and bar tending! I like just intonation and I worked with just intonation for a long time. If you're in one key all the intervals that are played are based on that fundamental frequency or an integer - the third overtone, seventh overtone, ninth overtone all relate to the fundamental frequency - beautiful, beautiful music can be made that way. But I like equal temperament too - every single interval is out of tune except the octave in equal temperament. But, you know, what a way to go. It still sounds beautiful and it's still charming and I use it in `Guitar Trio'.
The whole reason for having equal temperament is precisely so you can play in all 12 keys. However, there's guys like Giles Farnaby [c 1560-1640] and John Bull [1563-1628], composers of the Elizabethan period, who were tuning in a thing called mean tone which allows you to play in the three closest keys on the fourth cycle like `C', `F' and `Bb' or `F', `Bb' and `Eb'. But they didn't care! Giles Farnaby wrote very chromatically knowing full well that it would sound out of tune! And he played with those intervals, as composers will, `cause he liked it.
Once we started having equal temperament around the time of Bach, that was the key to composers writing in the tone of 12 keys which led to serialism, to Webern, to Schoenberg and composers like that. For a composer like me, I'm coming out if that kind of music - serial music, which is what I studied in school. When I was 19 I was an ardent serialist and anything that was remotely tonal was considered not hip. For us it was a big shock when composers like Terry Riley and LaMonte Young started playing things that were tonal. I thought it was the unhippest thing I'd ever heard in my life! And then after listening to it for an hour or so I sort of changed my mind and it changed my life. And it was one step from there to rock `n' roll for me.
DJN: Can you describe the background to another of your major works, `Drastic Classicism'?
RC: That was a piece I did in 1982 for 4 electric guitars. Each of the tunings were dissonant in relation to themselves and each other. For example, one of the guitars was in `D', `G', `G#', `A', `C', `D', so it's dissonant because of those minor seconds in the middle. The next guitar would be a half step above that with the same ratios; the third guitar would be the same ratios a half step above that and the fourth one and so on. So it was really dissonant but somehow there was a consonance. The music basically sounded like a Chinese gong but really, really, really loud. Some people heard it as a wall of sound invoking the time honoured tradition in rock of assaulting an audience with sound - which indeed we were. But another audience would hear all the beautiful shimmering overtones within that wall of sound. The excuse I gave was 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 `cause I listened to so much of it when I was in my 20s that I regret it now and I tell everybody to cool it!
DJN: `Factor X' - could you say something about that?
RC: `Factor X' was a brass piece that I wrote for a choreographer called Carol Armitage who I worked with in the early `80s. It's a piece for brass octet and drums. It was based on a piece in the late `70s called `The Out Of Tune Guitar' where we put the guitar initially randomly out of tune until we found one that we liked - I don't remember what it was. And there was one particularly brilliant performance that we did at this place called Tier 3 which is an underground club in New York and I transcribed the music for brass octet and `Factor X' was the result.
DJN: Do you find that using elements of rock music in your compositions introduces you to an audience that wouldn't normally listen to contemporary classical music?
RC: Most definitely and most assuredly. In the `70s and `80s I was careful to say that I wasn't a rock composer because in a way I had too much respect for the form. While I didn't feel that I was appropriating rock music in any way, shape or form I felt myself as a composer coming out of an avant garde contemporary music context. I was working with rock instrumentation but being extremely respectful of the form, researching it carefully and in effect doing field work and acting almost as a secret agent within the field going to all the late night parties, drinking and taking all the drugs and really getting into the life until, lo and behold, I was a rock composer! 5 years ago, I wouldn't have any problem giving you a definition of what sort of composer I am. But at this point I couldn't call myself a contemporary music classical composer.
DJN: There's a lot of new music that gets written every year and there's a lot of music from the past that gets more or less ignored because there's so much music around. Some people have proposed a slightly bizarre theory that enough music has been written already. What do you think of that?
RC: I should have a smart comment! There's certainly a lot of music out there - always has been. In the Renaissance period there's a tonne of stuff that nobody's played for years and years. Composers are constantly getting rediscovered and I don't think it will be any different in our era. There's a lot of music out there and a lot of it's crap but some of it's really good and hasn't been discovered. Right now, we have more retrieval systems than ever before. But think of all the folk music out there that wasn't written down that was played in the 1600s that we don't know about. Even with the music that is written, we don't know how those guys played it! For example, if you look at the chord changes to `Giant Steps' or any of those songs that Charlie Parker was playing, I mean what's written down there and what he played are two very different things. It was the same thing with Bach - we don't know what he was doing. He was a great improviser, reading from figured bass. Most of the time all they had was the bass line and the figured bass which is like a guitar symbol for what guitar chord to play. How you play it is up to you - it depends on your level of musicianship. Now, fortunately we have the tape recorder so we can preserve all these fabulous performances from the 1940s onwards.
I think there's not enough music and I don't think there's enough live music. The jukebox put a lot of us out of business. But just because we had the jukebox didn't mean that music is dead. When electronic music came out they said we're not going to have violins anymore. We still have violins and it was just a marvellous addition to the sound palette that we already had.
DJN: You play trumpet on the `Neon' album  that you wrote and recorded with Martin Wheeler.
RC: Yes, I'd played guitar for 5 years and I missed playing a wind instrument - I just felt a real craving and so I took up trumpet but no one told me how difficult it was! When I realised how difficult it was and it would take 10 years to learn I was just playing it in the closet. I started in `82 and around about `92 I got good. And so after I got good I decided that I needed to have a sound. Every trumpet player needs a sound so I thought of who I liked - I like Jimi Hendrix on guitar and early Don Cherry on trumpet. And so what I wanted to do was play trumpet like an electric guitar and I finally got this sound that was like a mix between my two idols but there's something in it that's me. I use every cheap rock `n' roll effect for guitar in the book on the trumpet! Also, I use a Yamaha FX500 which is great, a Jimi Hendrix Wah-wah pedal made by Jim Dunlop and a bunch of other stuff. On the new record a lot of people think I'm playing guitar which pleases me no end because I haven't lost my affinity or love for the electric guitar. But in terms of playing I felt I had more facility as a wind player so I think I've got a good compromise now.
DJN: Having worked within many different musical genres, who do you regard as your peers?
RC: I spent most of my life in New York City so the composers that I regard as my peers are people that I hung out with, that I would go out drinking with, that I would share ideas with. Of a slightly older group, the people that were influences for me were Philip Glass, Steve Reich, LaMonte Young and Terry Riley. I actually studied with Terry Riley and LaMonte Young and Philip was always like an uncle or big brother figure. For my peers and the people I hung out with there was John Zorn, Elliot Sharp, Glen Branca... In fact, Glen works with a very similar instrumentation to me and we've played in each other's bands and shared ideas. Our music's very, very different but I must say he has very good taste in his choice of instrumentation since it's exactly like mine! Also, there was Peter Gordon [a New York composer who founded the Love of Life Orchestra in 1977] and Laurie Anderson who was definitely one of the gang. Then later on, you know, the people in Sonic Youth came around and they're all very much part of the gang, and the people in Swans. That's how I met Jonathan Kane who plays drums in `100 Guitars' - he was in Swans at that point.
In terms of rock groups that were playing around when I was getting started, there was Arto Lindsey when he was playing in DNA and also James White and the Contortions, later known as James White and the Blacks. And definitely, definitely Lydia Lunch with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. That was just such an incredible band. I saw them live for the first time at Max's Kansas City and Lydia was playing this horrible out of tune guitar and the drummer, who looked like Mo in The Three Stooges, was playing just a snare drum and the rhythm was `baba ba baba, baba ba bada, bada ba...' Really, really dumb! But very intense with Lydia's performing.
It was a wonderful, wonderful time for rock `n' roll because bands were beginning to use noise in the sound palette, especially those three groups I just mentioned. In addition to my own things like `Drastic Classicism', Glen Branca was working with noise. Before, you couldn't really use it because it wasn't considered music in any format but that's when the rock bands in Europe started using it. It was an exciting period.
DJN: Who do you listen to now for pleasure?
RC: [laughs] To tell you the truth I listen all day long to the techno station in France. I live in Paris now and we have this station called Radio FG. And I don't even know the names of the groups. They just play non-stop and the melody is like `BOOM BOOM BOOM'. You know how every 5 years an energy goes to a different place in music? It doesn't mean that rock `n' roll isn't happening or it's not continually going on but there's a different focus. Sometimes it's in avant garde music, sometimes it's in jazz, sometimes it's in rock. Right now it's in all of these incredible varieties of techno music and all the sub-sections like jungle and new electronica.
There's this element of techno that's called `destroy', I think. It's like the cheapest possible 707 Roland drum machines, or 505 drum machines, and it's really, really noisy, uses sampling and it's very, very aggressive stuff. I really think it's funny - I really like it a lot. But again I don't know the names of the groups. I like the Aphex Twin for example but then again everyone says that. I think he's really talented. Jungle's my favourite right now although you kinda have to hear it in clubs to get the sub-sonic frequencies.
I hear this stuff that I think is being done primarily by people between 16 and 23 and I am so impressed by the variety of what I am hearing. I mean, yes, we have this dumb bass thing that's going on - which I happen to like! - but there's all this stuff that goes with it that humanises it. I find that fascinating and so I listen to it all the time. And my trumpet stuff that sounds like an electric guitar is very much influenced by this genre of music. I don't always play with a techno beat or hip-hop beat but I certainly do the majority of the time.