This article appears in AdHoc Issue 15, a collaboration with The Talkhouse. You can pick up a copy at AdHoc shows around NYC. If you'd like to order a copy, you can do so here for a physical edition; you can download the PDF here.
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Rhys Chatham had already made a mark on New York’s avant-garde music scene by the age of 20. The precocious composer and instrumentalist had studied with Morton Subotnick, played alongside La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, tuned harpsichords for Glenn Gould, and become the first music director of iconic experimental performance space The Kitchen. But in 1977, at the age of 25, Chatham was inspired by New York’s burgeoning punk scene to compose Guitar Trio, a minimal piece scored for electric guitars and drums. Guitar Trio represented an important bridge between downtown New York’s fertile avant-garde and punk rock environments; per Chatham himself, it was the moment that he found his voice as a composer.
Chatham has spent the ensuing decades expanding the boundaries of rock and art music, culminating most recently in two very different-sounding LPs: the meditative Pythagorean Dream and a collaboration with free-rock band Oneida called What’s Your Sign?. For this issue of AdHoc, Simon Hanes—the leader of Boston-based experimental lounge outfit Tredici Bacci—grilled Chatham on the role of composition and improvisation in his work, and the sometimes very gossamer line between them. Tredici Bacci opens for Chatham, who will be collaborating with Oneida on November 12 at the Park Church Co-op in Brooklyn.
Simon Hanes: I read an interview of yours where you talk about the relationship between composition and improvisation—about how you see them as existing on a kind of continuum.
Rhys Chatham: I don’t make any difference between them; they’re just two different approaches to composition. That said, there’s some music that you absolutely have to notate, and there’s some music that would be crazy to notate. “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane could be notated—and it has been transcribed—but it’s much more fun playing over Coltrane changes, and it’s much more interesting for people to do so. Using my own work as an example, Guitar Trio, which is played by up to 10 musicians—it would lose something if I notated it. It was a piece that was meant to be played by rock musicians in a rock context. And the whole approach was that I play a rhythm, and people are asked to make a counterpoint to that rhythm that works with the backbeat the drummer is doing.
One time we did a piece for 100 guitars—back in maybe 2005. We did it in Paris at the Sacré-Cœur. (It was for ostensibly 400 guitars, but we didn’t have that many.) The idea was to just be able to surround the audience with electric guitars. I did it the way I normally did: the guitarists all knew the piece, and I said, “Here, I’m playing this, and you make up your thing.” What happened is, the first time we did it, the sound was really confused. It didn’t sound that good. Later on, I played a concert in Montreal with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. We had a total of 12 guitars on stage, and I noticed that, after 10 guitars, the sound got a little confused.
So I realized that in terms of improvising, my limit is no more than 10 guitars. I made a new piece called A Secret Rose recently, which is for 100 electric guitars, plus bass and drums. One of the movements is a version of Guitar Trio, but I notated a series of riffs. There were three section leaders, and I had each of them improvise in the sense that each of the section leaders would point to a riff, and then their section of 33 guitars would play it. It was a case where it had to be notated, or else the sound would’ve been confused. A lot of my compositions use elements of improvisation. It’s rare that I play free, although I like free a lot.