Rhys Chatham, composer and performer, talks about the downtown music scene with guitarist Alan Licht.
A native New Yorker now living in Paris, composer Rhys Chatham helped define New York’s downtown aesthetic in the ’70s. Originally working in minimalist composition while booking concerts at The Kitchen, Chatham later picked up the electric guitar in No Wave bands and developed his own instrumental pieces for guitar ensembles, reflecting his experience playing with minimalist pioneers Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine. His road-to-Damascus epiphany happened at a Ramones concert at CBGB, prompting Chatham to expand his classical background to incorporate rock. He didn’t stop there, either; his travels as a musician have also led him to explore electronics, free jazz, drum and bass, and doom metal.
I’d been a fan of Rhys’s since discovering his ferocious piece “Drastic Classicism” on an obscure compilation album in the mid ’80s, so I was overjoyed when I was asked to play in a performance of his “Guitar Trio” at Issue Project Room a couple of years back. I met up with Rhys last summer at artist Robert Longo’s office, where he was staying, a few days after his scheduled outdoor performance of “A Crimson Grail” in New York for 200 guitars. The performance was rained out. It was a real disappointment, but Rhys seemed unfazed, both then and during our interview, where he smiled beatifically, just as he did the first time I encountered him almost 20 years ago, at a rehearsal in La Monte Young’s loft.
Alan Licht Producing concerts at a venue is something that we both have in common. You were the music director at The Kitchen two separate times, right?
Rhys Chatham Yup.
AL I was doing the same thing at Tonic from 2000 until 2007. A couple people you worked with, like Arthur Russell and John King, ended up being music directors there as well. So I wanted to compare our experiences in terms of what the musical climate was like at the time, and talk about where you draw the line in terms of your identity between concert producer and composer.
RC I know just what you mean. There were two very different periods when I was at The Kitchen. The first time I was there, between 1971 and 1973, The Kitchen had just been founded by Woody and Steina Vasulka. They were both video artists. I was working with a choreographer named Daniel Nagrin, and every Saturday he would have improvisatory sessions involving his dance company. I would play congas and flute and each week he’d invite different musicians. One weekend, Woody and Steina came down, and we got along very well; they were very interested in electronic music. Woody had a Putney synthesizer and he was interested in the Buchla synthesizer that I was working with in Morton Subotnick’s studio at NYU, so I took the two of them down to the studio, we made friends, and they left me with a video recorder with their electronic images on it. They said, “Hey Rhys, put some electronic music on the film.” I couldn’t believe they were leaving me with their video recorder; it was so trusting of them.
They started The Kitchen as a place for video artists to show their work. But they also wanted a music program there, so they asked me if I would do something. The scene back then was divided very much into uptown music and downtown music; uptown was coming out of a post-serialist vein—academic music, you could say, coming out of Elliot Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt… When Philip Glass and Steve Reich would try to play uptown, they weren’t received well because the uptown people didn’t like tonal music. I believe Steve played “Four Organs” in a contemporary music program organized by Pierre Boulez in the early ‘70s; the uptown audience didn’t applaud at the end of the performance. Steve made the musicians play the piece again in an attempt to make the stubborn uptown audience understand! So we needed a place to present music coming more out of the Cage side of things, the Fluxus side of things. I was just a kid going to NYU. I had no idea that there was such a need for such a place downtown. Initially, I just asked my friends to play: Laurie Spiegel, Serge Tcherepnin, Tony Conrad, even La Monte Young, who needed to pay his rent one month, so he wanted to sell some records. He did a concert at The Kitchen where he actually just played the record.
AL That’s it?
RC He just played the record; that was the concert. I didn’t have any problem balancing programming and my compositional activities because at that time nothing was at stake. We had no funding and gave the composers 100% of the door. I think it cost one dollar to get in. I became a very popular person.
RC At the start of the ’70s, whenever someone wanted to do something that was coming out of the right aesthetic, I didn’t have to say no at The Kitchen. Because of that, I was very much loved in the downtown music scene as a programmer. The situation later—from 1977 through 1980—was quite different, primarily because the scene was different. The year 1975 was an interesting time on the downtown music scene. Prior to that, most of the music happening there was coming out of Fluxus and John Cage. But then you had this whole crew of people come to New York from the West Coast—Arthur Russell, Peter Gordon, Jill Kroesen—they were doing something really strange. They’d all studied with Robert Ashley, so they were doing music that was, quote-unquote, crazy. They were doing rock pieces—songs or rock-influenced instrumental pieces. I wasn’t sure what I thought of it at all. I was a hardcore minimalist who studied with La Monte Young and played in Tony Conrad’s group. But eventually I played flute in Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra, and it won me over to rock-influenced compositions. By the time I became music director of The Kitchen again, I had still never been to a rock concert. Peter said “Rhys, have you ever been to CBGB?" I said no and he said, “Well, there’s this good group playing tonight, you should really come and hear it.” So I went; it was the Ramones.
RC They had just put their first album out—Ramones. I think it was in May of 1976 and I was completely blown away. I had never seen anything like it. I thought their music was a lot more complex than what I was doing; they were playing three chords instead of one! I felt a relationship between what they were doing and what I was doing. The next day I asked my friend Scott Johnson if I could borrow his extra Telecaster. After a month of extremely sore fingers, I learned how to play bar chords. By 1977 the scene had changed completely. We had an explosion of punk rock in New York: Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, and the Talking Heads were all playing at CBGB at that time. I can’t begin to describe how exciting it was. So what I wanted to do at The Kitchen was continue programming music coming out of a classical tradition—Fluxus, Cage—but at the same time program composers who were trying to bend the parameters of rock, like Laurie Anderson and Peter Gordon. Back then there was this notion of music coming from a classical tradition being at the top of the hierarchical pyramid with jazz somewhere underneath, you know? Rock was barely considered music in the classical community, so there was very much a feeling of breaking down barriers, each of us being secret agents, infiltrating another scene. When Robert Fripp played The Kitchen, there was a sense of transgression.
To back up just a bit, Frederic Rzewski had come to New York in the early ’70s with a band called Musica Elettronica Viva—improvisatory music coming out of a classical tradition—only to discover people coming out of a jazz tradition and African art music. So Frederic started working with Anthony Braxton and with Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio. Garrett List, who preceded me, wanted to reflect that at The Kitchen, so he’d book Don Cherry, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wadada Leo Smith, composers like this. It caused quite a bit of tension in the downtown community, because downtown composers had nowhere else to play and felt the composers coming out of a jazz tradition did, as the jazz loft scene was in full swing at the time. But he wanted to make a point about where the influences were coming from. When I came back to The Kitchen I wanted to do the same thing, except with rock.
AL This sets the stage for how Tonic came into the picture about 10 years ago. Tonic really embodied the feeling of the late ’90s. I think part of it was the Internet boom; this sort of wide open feeling that anything was possible. So many people had become their own entrepreneurs—there was a real feeling of self-empowerment and that came across at Tonic. John Zorn convinced them to have a rotating curator; a different musician would book the club for the full month each month, which is what he does now at The Stone.
RC That’s what I like about John. He’s become very successful, yet he cares about the community and makes sure that people who are doing experimental work have a place to play. My perception of Tonic when I started hearing about it was that it was a place like The Kitchen, where interesting music was happening that couldn’t happen in other places—the music of now.
AL And Zorn got wind of this, and that’s when he booked an entire month there as an answer to the Knitting Factory’s What Is Jazz festival. He timed it so that they would happen simultaneously.
RC With the Knitting Factory in existence already why did New York need Tonic?
AL Well, the Knitting Factory had drifted off from being hospitable to more experimental music.
RC It really sounds like a parallel to what The Kitchen was trying to do in the ’70s, in relation to this dichotomy between uptown and downtown music.
AL I think there was more of a sense of competition, though. It was actually a little more free-market than what you’re describing, because the Cooler still existed and the Knitting Factory still existed. Roulette existed. And Phill Niblock’s series.
RC Don’t forget that the more places we have, the better.
AL Yeah, of course.
RC Because it means that musicians can play more. It was sometimes difficult being a programmer and a composer at the same time. I’d be having breakfast right by The Kitchen and people would come in and say, “Why didn’t you give me a gig this year at The Kitchen?” They’d ruin my breakfast. If I did an interview as a composer, even though I would be very careful not to mention the venue where I worked, the review or interview always would. We did one wonderful performance of “Guitar Trio” when Robert Longo was in the band; I perhaps had a bit too much to drink that night. In the New York Times review, John Rockwell wrote: “The music had much to offer, even if everyone might not have been at his or her best. Indeed, Rhys Chatham, Music Director of The Kitchen, could barely keep the vertical position.” It was really funny, I thought. The Executive Director of The Kitchen didn’t think it was funny, though. She was furious with me when it came out.
Having contact with people, being able to play with them, and seeing all that work was just marvelous. But I have to say, after I finished doing it, I was very happy to get back into my own work. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience.
AL To some extent I feel the same. The day I got the news that Tonic was closing up shop was the same day I got the galleys for my book Sound Art. So the book almost took the place of it. Instead of people asking, “How’s Tonic going?” they’d ask, “How’s your book doing?” It’s good to have different experiences where in all of them you’re taking a position as a member of the downtown music community.
You’re in a couple of recent books that have come out about the No Wave scene. What was it like at the time? What did you make of DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, the Contortions, and did you see the bands you were playing with as fitting in with those groups?
RC I saw the second gig that Teenage Jesus and the Jerks did, when James Chance from the Contortions was still in the band. And either the first or second gig that Arto Lindsay did with DNA when Robin Crutchfield was still in the band. What amazed me about the No Wave bands was that they were incorporating elements that we normally associated with a classical tradition; like in the Contortions, James Nares was playing tone clusters on keyboard. In Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch was playing this completely out of tune guitar, and Arto in DNA was incorporating all these elements of noise in a way that was visceral rather than intellectual. These No Wave groups—and the four bands on Brian Eno’s record No New York were DNA, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and the Contortions, but there were many other bands—and they weren’t making a big deal of it, but were putting all kinds of things in the sound palette of rock that we didn’t normally associate with rock—and yet it was still rock. What was also amazing to me during the No Wave period was the intersection of rock, jazz, and classical traditions. Although our backgrounds were radically different, we found ourselves playing in the same spaces and being able to talk to each other and it wasn’t a foreign language. Me? I was a hardcore minimalist, and yet there I was playing “Guitar Trio” in the same rock spaces as DNA and it felt completely right.
AL Did you have any relationship to rock music before that Ramones concert?
RC My father is a harpsichordist and so we had music in the house. I wanted to play drums but I grew up in New York City in a small apartment, so my parents said, “Rhys, drums are great, but you can play a lot of repertory on flute.”
RC And I was so stupid that I actually listened to them. Anyway, I became a flutist and a contemporary music specialist. I was out buying John Cage records when I was 15 and didn’t know anything about rock until I was 25.
You know how when you’re a musician you need to find your voice? I was deeply influenced by Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but needed to find my own voice. So I said to myself, Philip is using jazz instrumentation, working with saxophones and things like that. Steve is using African music; so maybe using rock instrumentation with minimalism would work for me. Coming out of a classical context, you can do whatever you want. La Monte Young’s piece fed a piano a bale of hay, let a butterfly out of a jar. If that can be called music, then of course I could go into The Kitchen and play a rock-influenced piece, but I really wanted to play my music at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and have it be accepted there, ’cause back then, even if the audience liked you they would throw beer bottles at you… with the beer still in the bottles.
RC That’s if they liked you. So the first time we performed “Guitar Trio" at Max’s, I was nervous. I wasn’t even calling myself a rock musician then; I had too much respect for the form. I said it was a representation, like Robert Longo was drawing representations of images. So we played it at Max’s and people came back to the soundboard asking, “Where are you hiding the singers?”
AL Oh, they were hearing the overtones.
RC Yeah. So it worked out at Max’s and then I knew I was okay.
AL Well, that’s actually an interesting difference between what you and Glenn Branca were doing at that time and what the Bang On A Can people are doing. They haven’t really tried to put their music into a rock milieu per se.
RC Yeah, I went directly into the rock scene. I was thinking of myself as kind of a secret agent working in a rock context. I can’t claim to be a secret agent anymore, though. At this point in my life I’ve played more in rock clubs than I have in a classical context.
AL Well, there were other rock bands who actually had an avant-garde classical influence. Were you aware of the Velvet Underground?
RC John Cale played with La Monte in The Theatre of Eternal Music, of which I was subsequently a member. As a teenager I’d heard and liked the Velvet Underground, but it wasn’t until later that I understood John Cale’s involvement with this whole tradition; Cale was wailing away on low E-strings for hours and hours 10 years before I was.
AL And did you know about Tony Conrad playing with Faust?
RC I was really jealous of that, and a little bit pissed off. And you can quote me on that.
RC Because we had developed the music as a trio—Tony, Laurie Spiegel, and myself. And then Tony went on tour and that record with Faust came out, and I was so sad. But I got over it really quickly. I liked what they were doing so much and I still listen to the album with great pleasure.
AL I want to talk about composition and improvisation. You’ve said that from ’71 to ’81 you did non-notated music. You did notate afterwards, and I know you’ve worked in improvisational situations.
RC Completely improvisatory, yeah.
AL Even within some of your compositions there’s room for improv.
RC Well, “Guitar Trio,” for example.
AL I played in the “77 Boadrum” show that the Boredoms organized a year ago in Brooklyn and it immediately reminded me of playing in “Guitar Trio.” Even though everyone’s sort of playing the same thing, you can really put your personal stamp on it. Everyone’s working together but at the same time, doing their own take on it. You’ve studied with La Monte, who has quite a lot of improvisation within composed pieces. To me that shows a real break from a Cage or Morton Feldman point of view. Feldman was really opposed to improvisation and Cage drew the line at free improvisation. He still needed a composer’s control. Can you talk about how you view composition and improvisation at this point in your work?
RC My deep background is this: I trained initially as a classical flutist and keyboard player and studied composition, first with Morton Subotnick, who made me do a lot of counterpoint. Then I started playing saxophone; at age 20 I got sick of flute ’cause it wasn’t loud enough. I mean, the reason I really picked flute was so I could sit with the girls in the orchestra section. But by the time you’re 19 you want something a little louder, and the fingering between flute and the saxophone is very similar, so I started studying with Keshavan Maslak, a horn player in the jazz tradition. Of course free jazz was at its height back then so I started going to concerts and was deeply influenced. Then Patti Smith and the Ramones came on the scene so I got rid of my saxophone, took up guitar, and jazz went out the window until 1983 when I wrote a piece called “For Brass.” I thought, Trumpet seems cool, I’m losing my hearing playing electric guitar—maybe I can work in the closet and start playing trumpet. So that’s what I did. My training as a trumpet player is completely out of a jazz tradition. I learned everything that a jazz musician is supposed to know how to play. All to say that I am coming out of both a classical as well as a jazz tradition.
To answer your question directly and succinctly, there’s some music that you can only get through improvisation. And there’s another kind of music where the only way you can get there is through notation. If I had written specific things for everyone to play with a piece like “Guitar Trio,” it would sound stiff.
AL Were Philip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley your models in terms of thinking of yourself as a composer/performer?
RC My first model was Charlemagne Palestine because I’ve known him since I was 16. He was a friend of my father’s. Philip lived in the same building as I did on East 6th Street, so he became like an uncle figure. I just wanted to be just like those guys: Steve, Philip, La Monte, and Terry. Terry was a big inspiration, because he’s such a good musician. He’s how I got away from post-serialism. There was this place called The Electric Circus in New York in the late ’60s and I had read a book called Anthology of Chance Operations edited by La Monte and Jackson Mac Low and I saw this score that looked a little bit like “Variations V” that Terry Riley had written. I thought, Wow, noise, this is gonna be great. So I went to the concert, and he was this weird, long-haired, red-headed guy playing circus organ, and the music was tonal, which was not hip back then if you were a young composer. I asked for my money back.
RC They wouldn’t give it to me so I went back and listened. By the time I got out, it changed my life. That’s when I became a minimalist.
AL Terry is an example of somebody who was a little more palatable to a counter-culture audience; maybe because the music was tonal, it made for an easier transition. I recently watched a film of a Cage performance from the mid-’60s; David Tudor was performing in it, David Berman, and three other people. They’re all kind of puttering around in their shirts and ties with short, cropped hair, but of course the music is noise like you would hear now at the No Fun Festival, which is more geared to kids coming out of listening to rock. It occurred to me that if this piece had been performed at the time by guys with long hair and paisley shirts or something like that, there might have been even more of a crossover between the rock audience and the avant-garde classical world back then.
RC People perhaps weren’t ready for noise back then. Though Musica Elettronica Viva did quite well in Europe, and their look was… I’ll just come out and say it: they looked like hippies.
AL (laughter) Right.
RC I never thought of that as a factor; you might be right.
AL Another thing I wanted to bring up is Cage’s attack on Glenn Branca’s music after he saw him at New Music America in 1982. Cage was talking about how Laurie Anderson’s music is not playable by anyone besides Laurie Anderson—
RC Neither was the music Philip Glass was making back then. That was the whole point about Philip’s or Robert Ashley’s music; only the composer could perform it. But what did Cage say?
AL He was critiquing the idea of there being a personality behind composition. Of course, Cage’s stuff is so open-ended that anyone could do it if they had the materials. How much of a factor is personality? Should composers be making music that’s playable by anyone?
RC I think a composer, or anyone, should be able to do whatever they want. That’s my initial response. But in the early ’70s there was this whole idea about being a composer/performer: that celebrated the idea of a composer performing his or her music. Robert Ashley even did a video series called Perfect Lives and didn’t include Steve Reich in it because Steve was writing music expressly for other people to play. The personality of the composer is a very important factor. When we think of a composer like John Coltrane: for example, I can play “Giant Steps” chords, but obviously it’s different if it’s John Coltrane himself that’s playing. The same thing is true in music coming out of a classical tradition. This is all to say that I don’t agree with Cage on that.
AL Has anyone ever performed one of your pieces without you being there?
RC There have been many performances and recordings of “Guitar Trio” without me. I’m constantly surprised by the different approaches when I’m not there. (laughter) I’m not sure I’m pleased with all of them. When Band of Susans did their version of “Guitar Trio,” I didn’t like it. Now, 10 years later, I think it’s fantastic. I didn’t like it initially because I wasn’t used to hearing it that way and there’s a term for that; it’s called “interpretation.”
AL Even the Guitar Trio Is My Life! triple-CD that came out with all the different versions from the tour—I was really surprised about how much variety there is.
RC It’s in the subtlety in how guitarists are dealing with their tremolo technique.
AL And even the tempo. In some towns I think people were a little more agitated. (laughter)
RC All of my pieces since “Guitar Trio” were composed specifically for the ensembles I’m working with. The ones that turn out to be able to be played by others without me are a piece called “Two Gongs,” and “Die Donnergötter,” or “The Thunder Gods,” has been played without me to good effect. I never thought it could be.
AL I want to talk a little bit about “A Crimson Grail,” specifically about the planned outdoor performance in New York, which unfortunately didn’t end up happening because of thunderstorms. Explain the spatialization of the piece.
RC In 2005, the city of Paris asked me to write a piece for a large cathedral in Paris, Sacré-Coeur. It was in the context of a big festival called La Nuit Blanche, where you have hundreds of performances going on simultaneuosly all over Paris. Originally, they wanted me to write a 12-hour piece and so I gave them the bill for doing that and they said, “Well, maybe we’ll just take two half-hour pieces.” That worked out. Then I was in negotiation with the bishop at the church for months; he was afraid that the music would be too loud. I said, “Don’t worry! I’m gonna make music to pray to.” Which I kind of had to do, because there’s a reverberation in that space of 15 seconds. I essentially had to write a site-specific work, and it was scary, because of the way most of us composers write these days using sequencers so we can hear our music beforehand, which cuts down on rehearsal time. But there wasn’t a sequencer that I could use to get the effect of this special, sonic environment. So I had to do the entire piece in my head.
Sacré-Coeur is a very large space—a U-shape. I wanted to fill it with guitarists, which was the reason for 400 guitars. What made sense was to write an antiphonal composition where the sound got passed back and forth to various parts of the space. Later, I was asked to play it outdoors at Lincoln Center. The sound environment of an outdoor space is very different from that of an indoor space and so I wasn’t sure if it would work. So I spent a few months completely re-writing the piece, hoping it would work in an outdoor space that wasn’t as reverberant as an indoor piece. When I write a piece I don’t write it only for the visual effect of having a large number of guitars massed together. So for the Lincoln Center performance I wanted to use the least number of guitars that I could, and I figured that 200 was enough.
AL (laughter) In the Renaissance, composers composed for specific cathedrals, having a couple of different choirs set up in different places; sometimes there would even be two organs. Spatialization was a real factor in terms of composing. Listening to the released recording of Grail, in the first section it seems like there’s a great deal of sustain. Is that the function of the high ceiling in the cathedral where it was recorded?
RC Unfortunately, you really don’t get the spatial effect on the recording; the performance in the church was really emotional. I had grown men throwing themselves into my arms saying how beautiful it was. And the reason is that even when you’re just playing that fifth, the overtones build up and up and up. The recording is a representation of what we hear. In Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park this past summer, it sounded great when we did the sound check, although, as you said, we weren’t able to perform it. There’s this tremolo section where everything gets very loud and never in all my life have I heard a sound so beautiful; it really worked outdoors.
AL While we’re on the topic of recordings… until the spate of releases on Table of the Elements, you hadn’t really released that many records. There was Die Donnergötter and Factor X. What was your attitude toward commercial recordings of your work?
RC In the ’80s I was primarily interested in live performance. Then I realized that this wasn’t a very good attitude because if you don’t put out recordings, you don’t tour as much, so I got more interested in recordings later.
AL Did you feel that a recording wouldn’t do justice to what you were doing? That’s what’s always stood in the way of La Monte releasing his music; he felt that the recording wouldn’t really capture everything that was going on in the performance, and I think that’s something that Branca has dealt with also.
RC Glenn and I have discussed this, how it’s practically impossible to record the sound of 100 electric guitars. He complains all the time with his 100 electric guitar piece that it doesn’t sound like what it is in performance, and he said, “By the way, neither does yours.” He’s right!
AL You’ve gone through so many phases in terms of composition: very soft electronic music from the early ’70s, loud guitar stuff, some pieces for horns, the martial drumming, and then back to guitar.
RC And the trumpet stuff.
AL Yeah, and then the electronic stuff in the ’90s. What do you see as the through line between all these different phases of writing?
RC (pause) That’s a very good question, Alan. I’ve always considered it really important not to get stuck in one particular kind of music. If there’s a line that goes through it, I’d say it’s an aesthetic, which comes out of early minimalism. Studying with Pandit Pran Nath has deeply influenced my voice on trumpet and also my voice as a composer. You can always hear that modal thing going on.
My other big influence is Don Cherry. The trumpet music is completely Don Cherry meets Pandit Pran Nath, and in fact Don Cherry did meet Pandit Pran Nath; Don was part of that La Monte Young scene.
As part of this special Web Exclusive, Rhys Chatham will answer questions from BOMBsite readers for a short period of time starting October 21. Questions can be submitted to QuestionsforRhys@bombsite.com.
Guitarist Alan Licht has recently collaborated with video artist Charles Atlas and film performer Andrew Lampert. His book Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Media was published by Rizzoli in 2007. He has also curated an exhibition of works that require headphones to be experienced, called The Headphone Show, on view at Abrons Arts Center in New York City from November 13 to January 9.